How storytelling can increase any product’s value by ~7000%. Bonus: how Bryan Cranston taught me this.

Bryan Cranston and I at Amazon’s HQ in Seattle

Bryan Cranston was the lead actor in my favorite TV Show of all time: Breaking Bad. This story is not about him. It’s about Rob.

Prologue

While on my journey to build a $1B company (spoiler: I failed), I was lucky enough to travel the world demoing our video recognition technology.

In January 2017 I landed in Seattle. It was a cold snowy day. I was visiting one of the most exciting headquarters of the technology world: Amazon. More specifically I was meeting IMDb’s Head of Business Development and Product team for a possible integration of our technology in their mobile App.

For context, Amazon holds in its HQ several subsidiaries including IMDb (acquired in 1998) and Amazon Studios.

I arrived at the building 10 minutes earlier and was invited to go up to the 10th floor. After registered my entrance at the lobby, I sat on the first couch I saw. I wanted to double-check the demo to make sure everything was working as expected. I was heads down on my computer and phone when I realized someone just sat in front of me.

After glancing at the couch in front of me I immediately went back to my computer. Not for long; I just realized I knew the person sitting on the other side of the lobby…

It was Bryan Cranston.

The Conversation

“Bryan!” Was the word that came out of my mouth against my will. I almost yelled his name at him… What a poor start of any conversation. I was shocked to have one of my favorite actors in the whole world sitting in front of me. He looked at me surprised: “Yes man, what’s up?”. I quickly stumble on my next words saying that I loved his work and apologized for screaming his name awkwardly.

After this initial weird interaction, he was kind and curious enough to ask me what I was doing with my phone… I answered I was scanning movies to test the demo I was doing to IMDb.

And one of the most interesting conversations started to take place in Amazon’s HQ lobby. I started demoing the technology to Bryan; he even tried it himself. It was surreal.

Interesting topics we talked about:

  • We were both there to “sell” our thing. Bryan was discussing “Sneaky Pete” extension and was humble enough to compare himself to me (in the sense that we were both there to make business with Amazon)
  • Potential technology benefits for Hollywood
  • That his job is to tell stories…

At the time, I didn’t understand how his job is to tell stories, he is an actor and producer. I wanted to learn more. It went something like:

Me: What do you mean by that?

Bryan: If you analyze the world, you will find that you have been told stories since you were born. You need stories to make sense of the world.

Me: Hm, never thought it in that way.

Bryan: And the most important thing: people pay billions of dollars to hear a story.

I was absolutely shocked by the simplicity and accuracy of this statement. I knew this empirically but never thought about it for business or marketing.

People pay billions of dollars to hear a story.

Enter Rob

In 2009 a journalist named Rob Walker (alongside with writer Joshua Glenn) wanted to find out if storytelling was powerful enough to make people spend more money on ordinary / low-value objects. He named this project: Significant Objects.

His strategy was brilliant: have creative writers invent stories about the objects and then post them on eBay and understand if the invented stories increase the value of the object measured by the eBay auction.

He bought 200 objects with an average of $1 each. The objects couldn’t be clothing or anything that could be considered artwork. The results were mind-blowing.

The Results

Some of my favorite results:

  • Indian Maden: bought at $0.99 | sold at $157.50 |15,800% valuation ✅
  • Plastic Banana: bought at $0.25 | sold at $76 |30,300% valuation ✅
  • Tile #4: bought at $1 | sold at $88 |8,700% valuation ✅
  • Russian Figure: bought at $3 | sold at $193.50 |6,350% valuation ✅
  • Mug: bought at $0.39 | sold at $31 |7,848% valuation ✅
  • Button: bought at $0.50 | sold at $36.88 |7,276% valuation ✅

One of the most impressive facts about the Mug object — a massed produced mug — that proofs the whole concept, was that people could buy the exact same mug on eBay for a fraction of the price but decided to licit the one with the story.

Take the time to read some of the stories (e.g. the banana is in comics format). They are brilliant!

This whole project’s conclusion is exactly what Bryan was referring to…People pay billions of dollars to hear a story.

Lessons Learned

Everyone knows storytelling is powerful but few people think of it as a revenue propeller for their businesses.

Storytelling is the best marketing you can ever have. Rob’s project shows us that if you tell a story about literally anything (e.g. irrelevant day to day objects) you can increase its value orders of magnitude.

That’s how our mind works. It needs a story.

PS — if you came thus far you are the living proof storytelling is a magnet. Go use it for your products/projects! Follow me on Twitter as I continue to share my learnings and document my journey as a founder.

Hope you enjoyed this story about storytelling :) Let me know if you have any questions.

Failing at startups and trying it again. Product designer and developer building https://makers.so and http://zecoda.com.