How to Win in the Experience Economy

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

These mythic lines from Shakespeare’s As You Like It serve to illustrate a key pillar of The Anthropology of Experience: that identity is created as it is performed. Everyday actions and practices – like taking public transit, attending business meetings, eating meals, or posting a status update on Facebook – are actually public performances that allow us to create our identities by telling stories about ourselves, to ourselves. The Anthropology of Experience is interested in how the little rituals that make up our daily lives help define who we are and how we relate to the cultures and groups we belong to.

So what?

Performance, identity, and the experience economy:

Anthropologists aren’t the only ones interested in the relationship between experiences, identity, and culture. In their seminal 1998 piece in the Harvard Business Review, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore introduced the term “experience economy” to explain what they believed to be a new phase of economic value creation. They argued that, since goods and services have become highly commoditized, experience has become an important economic offering that represents a progression of economic value. The idea is that competitive differentiation can no longer be found by making goods or delivering services; staging experiences has become the best way to differentiate a brand from its competitors.

But not all experiences are created equal. The Anthropology of Experience tells us that we create our identities through performances where we tell stories about ourselves to each other. If brands want to stage powerful experiences that resonate, these experiences must allow for the creation of meaning on a personal level. Experiences cannot be mass-produced; they must allow for the expression and projection of personal identity. Not unlike the difference between watching a baseball game and playing one, brand experiences that allow us to project our beliefs, values, desires, abilities, and motivations to ourselves and each other will have the most power and resonance.

Signals of performance + brand:

Twitch: Twitch is a live video streaming platform that turns video games into spectator sports. Recently purchased by Amazon for $1.1 billion, it boasts 100 million visitors a month, including 1.7 million gamers who broadcast themselves playing. By broadcasting their live games, gamers are given the opportunity to perform and enact their identities online.

ifOnly: ifOnly is a San Francisco-based startup that uses a technology platform to create a marketplace for one-of-a-kind experiences. Its rapid growth is a testament to the growing market for experiences over things. ifOnly is betting that there are enough people who would rather pay for fabulous experiences than fabulous things.

Nike x Monocle Running Guide: This magazine insert, created in partnership by Nike and Monocle, presents a curated set of experiences for runners, customized by city. Each city guide includes maps and places of interest, and serves as a stage for Nike to deliver an immersive experience. By participating in these experiences, runners are creating stories about themselves, enacting their identities as cosmopolitan athletes, and are using the stage that Nike built to mount their productions.

What if…

As experience becomes the standard currency for brands and businesses, how will they continue to differentiate their offerings? How well prepared is your business or brand in the experience game?

  1. What new kinds of categories are born when identity performance is positioned as a business goal or value proposition?
  2. How might open production (such as 3D printing) be leveraged in the creation of experience as value?
  3. What role could supply chain innovation play in the staging of more mobile, malleable, or modular experiences?
  4. What does your brand’s partnership ecosystem look like, and how might these relationships be used to cultivate identity-building experiences for your customers?

the author

Dr. Emma Aiken-Klar

Emma Aiken-Klar, PhD is VP, human insights at Idea Couture. See her full bio here.