While driving my eight-year-old son to football practice, he asked me if we were rich. Like most parents, I believe my son is fairly intelligent for his age, so I did my best to explain.
I told him that being rich was a matter of perspective. He said he didn’t know what perspective was, so in my most humble voice I said, “Well, we’re richer than some guy living under Grafton Bridge but way poorer than John Key, who in turn is way poorer than Bill Gates.” We drove a bit further in silence until he asked, “So what’s the point of money?” Now that’s an amazingly difficult question to answer correctly, even when trying to explain it to an adult, never mind an eight-year-old. I honestly did my best. I explained to him that money allowed you to do stuff and enjoy yourself, and sometimes having more is great and sometimes having less is great too. Thankfully we got to his football practice and I was done with trying to weasel my way out the moral web he’d spun for me.
What I should have said to him was that money isn't real. It's a method of exchange, a unit we exchange for something we want or value. It has worth because we agree it has worth, because we agree what it can be exchanged for. But there's something far more powerful going on here. We don't actually agree, because each person's valuation of money is based on the stories we tell ourselves about it.
Our bank balance is merely a number, bits represented on a screen, but it's also a signal and a symptom. We tell ourselves a story about how we got that money, what it says about us, what we're going to do with it and how other people judge us because of it. We tell ourselves a story about how our money might grow, and more vividly, how that money might disappear or shrink or be taken away.
And those stories, those very powerful unstated stories, impact the narrative of just about everything else we do. So yes, there's money. But before there's money, there's the story we tell ourselves about money. It turns out that once you change the story, the money changes too.
If one of your colleagues told you they donated $100 to charity, how would you respond? Most likely with a pat on the shoulder or something equally blasé. The reason isn’t because you’re a heartless soul but rather it’s because of the story behind the $100. You know that just about anyone can (if they want) give away $100 today and (if they’re able) maybe $200 tomorrow, so what’s all the fuss?
What would happen if that same colleague had instead said they’d donated 100 hours to charity work? That’s completely different. Why? Because the story we tell ourselves about time is different to the story we tell ourselves about money. Once you give away your time it’s gone forever. Time isn’t money and anyone who still cries that tired old cliché needs to leave the building.
In our mad rush to close deals and sell products to customers, time has become an extremely valuable treasure, more so than ever before. Consider that on YouTube you have the option to “Skip Ad” after just five seconds. That’s all it takes for marketing efforts to be consigned to the dustbin of “I don’t give a damn”. Five seconds! It takes me longer to put toothpaste on my toothbrush.
It’s strange that half a century ago this was quite the opposite. Clever marketers were actually getting people to give up their time in exchange for products. The perfect example can be found in the cigarette industry. Cigarettes are the ultimate, deadly parity product. All of them look the same, they basically smell the same and they all do the same thing. No one buys cigarettes because the box is red or white or green, or because one brand tastes like peaches and cream and another brand tastes like vanilla honey. People give away their time to smoke cigarettes because of the story behind them, the stories that advertisers and marketers created for them.
The thing is there are a multitude of stories out there, and it’s becoming harder and harder for marketers to break through and create resonance with consumers. If you want your story to make an impact you have to forget what your own personal story is and create a story for your customers. A story compelling and interesting enough that they’ll actually be prepared to give up some of their time to listen to it, and if you’re very lucky or very good, to even engage with it. But run of the mill, out-dated thinking just can’t do that in this day and age.