Passenger in 4C

At 35,000 feet above Arkansas, I found my inspiration — a Continental Airlines flight attendant.

I’d noticed her glancing at my shoes. I knew where things were going. It was the look that said my being in first class was a mistake, a violation of some unspoken caste system, a disturbance in the universe.

But far from being deprecating, she was curious. And the subject of her curiosity was none other than my sneakers.

Between sips of my Bloody Mary, I gave her the skinny. They were replicas of vintage adidas ZX trainers from the 1980s with a twist: the shoes were made from recycled plastic bottles and were proudly emblazoned with a recycling logo.

It was an encounter that seemed altogether innocuous. Two relative strangers united by curiosity and good taste. But that conversation proved to be more rich than innocent — it was an exchange of meaning and identity, one in which we came to find that we were both environmentalists and we both liked discovering (and talking about) cool stuff.

It also raised a provocative question: What compels people to talk about products and experiences?

It’s a question that I think at heart troubles marketers. For beyond all the talk of how word of mouth is transmitted, there’s been little substantive discussion of what compels people to do the transmitting.

Building talk in

Today marketers are missing many opportunities to build talk into their brands. They’re missing them because they continue to sustain a paradigm that defines “satisfaction” as the endgame. Yet I don’t know one consumer who willingly talks about shoes because they successfully cover his or her feet.

The current marketing paradigm still goes something like this: Managers sit together in a room to develop product X. They often ask consumers what they want and then go about creating products that conceivably meet their needs — they engineer with satisfaction in mind. Then, once the product is developed, they visit their marketing department, which subsequently turns to an agency and asks it to make it fly. The agency goes off and more often than not comes up with a platform that talks at the consumer.

In deconstructing the word-of-mouth success stories of leading brands ranging from Red Bull and Pinkberry to Virgin Atlantic, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ikea and method, we found it’s not advertising that defines their success. Instead, it’s their ability to deliver on two key traits: meaning and salience.

                    
Of course many of these brands engage in inventive and elaborate stunts, not to mention great communications. But built into the substance of the experience are the antecedents to word of mouth. Take method. With a biodegradable formula, a bottle designed by Karim Rashid, an array of signature scents and a new philosophy of cleaning products that unites users as “People against dirty,” method and its products are fundamentally predisposed towards generating word of mouth. Conceiving a stunt in which, say, people might scrub Times Square with toothbrushes would probably raise eyebrows, blog posts and Tweets, but what makes the brand sustainably worthy is something fundamentally more intrinsic.
                                                                                                                                                                           
Like other products and experiences that succeed at sparking word of mouth, method continually evokes and demonstrates the artifacts of our identity, giving the consumer a valuable currency for sharing his/her story. This understanding illustrates that it is with product design and not advertising that communication begins; that, in fact, product design is a communication activity. That’s an idea that’s nothing short of revolutionary for agencies and their clients because it means that storytellers have to get involved in the process of developing products and experiences.