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Symbols and Experience

For the past few years, I've been asked by my college fraternity to come back and speak to the new class of members. It's something I enjoy doing and am happy to do my part as an alumni member. My fraternity experience in college was something I value as it introduced me to many close friends and allowed me to learn more about myself through various leadership opportunities.

Last night I spoke to the members about the idea that (especially in a fraternity setting) symbols divorced from experience are meaningless. Thus, I could reveal what the Greek letters mean, or the significance of a bell, rose, star or lamp, but without a common experience of associate and initiated membership, the meaning behind those symbols carries very little impact.

Very few people join a fraternity or sorority just so they can learn what the symbols mean. I'm sure that's all available on the Internet anyway. People join these organizations for a certain experience they expect to have while members. By that same measure, many things we buy and many things we do must have an experience behind them to carry any significance.

  • Mouse ears mean more when you've actually been to Disney World.
  • A wedding license means more than just a legal commitment.
  • An iPod means more when you fill it with music and listen to it.
  • A Jaguar means more when you get out on the open road and can feel the difference between a high performance car and other vehicles.
  • A donation means more when you know where your money is going because you're a regular volunteer.

As much as people today may be obsessed with a certain status that some brands and items carry, people want the stories that come with an experience. I may look cool carrying something or owning something, but I'm more likely to talk about a product or nonprofit that comes with a meaningful experience.

While on my way to Birmingham yesterday, I listened to the first two chapters of Chasing Cool. Lots of companies want to be seen as cool and to be the iPod of their industry. However, the authors of this book contend that cool is not something that is codified and can be chased after and found. They posit that cool seems to happen when the right blend of relevance and meaning come together to a certain audience.

What are you doing to make sure that there is a meaning behind your product or service? If people receive something more than metal or plastic from your product, they'll talk about the experience of buying and using what you're putting out there.

An experience, more than just a symbol, is what makes people become your advocates, repeat customers and alumni speech-givers.

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