Rob Walker

Do good stories make objects more valuable?

Author of Buying In

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Rob Walker | Author of Buying In
Lavin Exclusive Speaker

A witty, uncompromising voice on consumer behavior, marketing, design, and pop culture, Rob Walker has been called “the most trenchant psychoanalyst of our consumer selves” by Michael Pollan. In new talks based on his eBay art experiment, Significant Objects, he suggests that the things we own aren’t valuable—but the stories we tell about them are.

Rob Walker’s column “The Workologist” appears in The New York Times Sunday Business section, and he contributes regularly to Design Observer. Previously he wrote the Consumed column for The New York Times Magazine, and was a columnist for Yahoo News and Yahoo Tech. He is also co-founder of many creative projects. With Joshua Glenn, Walker—a provocative, refreshing voice on technology—is the co-founder of Significant Objects, a widely praised online experiment that seeks to pinpoint what, exactly, makes our material objects valuable to us. Other recent projects include The Hypothetical Development Organization, a public-art project that imagines engaging uses for neglected buildings, which he co-founded.

 

A go-to voice on branding, material culture and related fields, Walker has written for a wide array of publications, from Adbusters to Slate to The Wall Street Journal. His books include Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, a Salon Best Nonfiction Book of 2008, and Letters From New Orleans. Walker’s opinions are routinely quoted in everything from magazine articles to thesis papers, and, in 2011, he won praise for his appearance in Objectified, a documentary about our relationship to everyday design. A book version of Significant Objects, by the same name, was released in 2012.

Testimonials

“Rob Walker was great. We enjoyed his presentation and his message was really well received. There was a lot of buzz about his concepts. He got a lot of laughs. I would hire him again. He was so flexible and easy to work with—which is always a treat. Thanks for your help!”

Minnesota Medical Foundation

Speech Topics

Marketing
Significant Objects Do Good Stories Make Objects More Valuable?
What makes things valuable to us isn't really the thing itself—it’s the thing’s story. To explore just how far that point can be taken, Walker co-founded a project, Significant Objects, in which he and his partner bought 100 thrift-store doodads (worthless junk that cost a total of $125) and got a bunch of great writers, like Nicholson Baker and Jonathan Lethem, to make up fictions about each one. They then sold each object, with its “story,” on eBay. Result: the flotsam sold for a whopping 2,700% more than they paid for it—a stunning “significance premium.” Along the way, Walker and co. attracted a great deal of attention from the marketing and branding world, which is no surprise, given that they’re in the business of telling stories about objects too. But what makes a good story, a valuable story, a story that really adds to a thing’s meaning, rather than sets up a false promise that undermines it? In this talk, Walker draws lessons from his project to deliver a powerful keynote on the true nature of value. 
Marketing
Stories That Sell What Stories Matter Most to Consumers?
Objects tell stories. And we all tell stories about our objects. But are the stories that brands are telling the stories that consumers want to hear? With many real-world examples, Rob Walker makes some crucial points. First, the story that matters most is the consumer’s story—and how a product or brand fits into it. When the hurricane is coming and you’re gathering valuables, you’ll take the stuff that means most to your life, not the stuff that had the glitziest ad campaign. For a growing batch of consumers today, the stories they want about products are exactly the ones marketers won’t tell—stories about ingredients and environmental impacts. Brands that can tell these stories honestly have a real opportunity. Finally, and drawing all the above together, the stories that matter are the ones we tell ourselves about ourselves, and brands and products have to fit into that. Too often it works the other way around: We are the best so you should buy our objects. That’s not a winning story, because consumers don’t care about your brand; they care about themselves. What a brand’s story can do, Walker says, is help the consumer tell the self-story he or she wants to tell.