“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.

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 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.

Brands Participating the Experience Economy

We can see a few examples of these types of brand experiences in the market today:

  • Lululemon:As part of its in-store concierge service, Lululemon has cultivated a rich community of health and wellness experiences, accessible via an interactive “digital mirror.” Located in its Manhattan flagship, Vancouver and San Jose locations, this interactive community board connects shoppers with local yoga classes, fitness boutiques, running routes, film screenings, community favorites and more in the local area.
  • Mustache on Adobe: Creative agency Mustache (part of Cognizant Interactive) produces high-impact videos in near real-time. We showcased this capability when people starred in their own cinematic, social-friendly epic short movies at the 2019 Adobe Summit in Las Vegas. There, attendees could step into a miniature movie studio and create a fully personalized movie trailer from the genre of their choice: action, artsy, sci-fi or mystery. The trailers were created in real-time, using Adobe creative tools and stock video footage, and shown on screens at the conference. Participants were given a link to the trailer to share on social media. The collaboration shows how brands can create memorable experiences across touchpoints for consumers.
  • 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 create stories about themselves, enacting their identities as cosmopolitan athletes, using the stage that Nike built to mount their productions.

What if: The Future of the Experience Economy

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?

Businesses can get started by asking these questions:

  • How might the Internet of Things and smart technologies enable brands and customers to co-create experiences together?
  • What role could supply chain innovation play in the staging of more mobile, malleable or modular experiences?
  • What does your brand’s partnership ecosystem look like, and how might these relationships be used to cultivate identity-building experiences for your customers?
  • As AI becomes more sophisticated in anticipating needs and desires and delivering customized experiences, what are the limits to what customers feel comfortable with?

A version of this blog first appeared in MISC Magazine, a publication by Idea Couture, a Cognizant company.

Emma Aiken-Klar, Ph.D.

Emma Aiken-Klar, Ph.D.

Emma Aiken-Klar, Ph.D., is Vice-President, Human Insights, at Idea Couture, a Cognizant company. She leads a global team of social scientists in... Read more