The Power of Experiences over Tchotchkes in the Interactive Age

Marius Overhand’s first run-in with the law—and Billy Clifford’s last—occurred in the R&S Auto store located right across the street from the Middletown, NJ police department back in the summer of ’71.

As a prank, Marius stuck a tennis ball in the front pocket of his jeans. He was pretending to shoplift to scare Billy, who was such an altar boy that he’d hang his head after stealing second base in Little League. The joke backfired when Marius couldn’t get the ball out of his pocket before store clerk caught him.

Within seconds—literally—Middletown’s finest were screeching into the R&S parking lot with their lights blazing and their sirens screaming, which is a bit much since they were stationed right … across … the street.

(Now, there is some debate as to why an auto parts store was selling tennis balls. The most logical response I got from my twilight bark was that they were probably sold as potential trailer-hitch covers, which is good enough for me.)

Anyway, the reason I brought up the now-legendary "one too many balls in the jeans" caper is to demonstrate that, prior to the Internet, “stuff” was a lot more important to kids. Today, young people value experiences far more than the material possessions needed to have those experiences.

Case in point: on our walk yesterday, my dog Lucy and I found a baseball … and a complete set of catcher’s gear that had been left behind the night before. Think about that. In 1970s suburban America, some of us would risk arrest to pilfer a tennis ball.  Yet today, a kid will “forget” to bring home his catcher’s gear.

There are a couple of reasons for that. First, cool stuff was a lot harder to come by when we were kids. Back then, an $8 Timex watch was your “special Christmas gift,” an electric typewriter (with eight-character memory erase!) was your high school graduation present, and a new color-TV console in the neighborhood led to an impromptu block party.

Today, every kid in America is walking around with an HD TV in their back pocket. Not to mention a computer, a “hi-fi” stereo system, a video production studio, and a better two-way wrist TV than Dick Tracy ever had.

Second, young people don’t actually need to own as much stuff because they can rent practically anything in today’s sharing economy. I loved my ’69 Chevy Impala, my lime green Schwinn 10-speed, and my beat-up record collection. But my daughters wouldn’t dream of owning any of that when they can simply Uber, Bikeshare, or Spotify.

The new way of thinking about “stuff” is neither better nor worse. But it is something you’re going to have to take into account if you want to communicate more effectively with your audiences.

One simple step: lighten up on the tchotchkes. There ain’t no room in a micro-apartment for a shelf full of baubles, especially stuff that promotes the organization more than its cause.

Which leads to a more nuanced but no less important point—when promoting your organization and its cause, keep in mind that your audiences see your organization as the vehicle and your cause as the experience. And there are plenty of other vehicles out there.

So lead with the experience; lead with your quest. Connect with your shared vision. And take the time to develop a relationship based on your mutual goals—perhaps over a nice cup of coffee—before you offer them the mug.