Every (Repurposed) Product Has a Story

Goods made from reused or upcycled materials are more appealing when customers are primed to spin a narrative about a product’s history.

August 10, 2022
Management Review

Turning trash into treasure through repurposing and recycling can be a very sustainable materials sourcing strategy. But marketing the products that result can be a challenge, particularly for upcycled items with visible traces of their past, like bags made from old bicycle inner tubes, tables made from decommissioned boats, and laptop sleeves made from used mosquito nets.

Visible traces of a product’s past might show that the repurposing process has minimized energy use, making a product particularly sustainable. However, repurposing products and materials comes with unique production challenges, so they are typically not low cost. Rather than paying a premium for products made from trash, many consumers would rather spend their money on brand-new items.

How can we convince consumers to pick repurposed products that might show signs of wear and tear compared with new products? While some people seek out the greenest goods and are willing to pay more for them, our initial research made clear that most consumers aren’t so motivated. In fact, some research finds that highlighting the sustainable aspects of a product might effectively reduce demand.1

We investigated ways to make repurposed products desirable to the broader market by overcoming the potential stigma associated with used, discarded materials. We focused on how to potentially make people feel special when they opt for a repurposed product despite its having been made from waste. Our key insight was that there can be a benefit to tapping the human affinity for a narrative. We found that by priming consumers to think about an item’s transformation into a new product rather than its origins on the trash heap, the item gains value by being perceived as unique and special, with its own life history.

Turn Consumers Into Storytellers

Humans have a deep-rooted affinity for stories: Narratives engage us and are how we make sense of experience.2 Stories are a great way to imbue information with meaning, which people seek wherever they can find it.3 Marketers have long been aware of and leveraged this affinity. However, the prevailing practice is to craft stories that put the brand on center stage and evoke certain feelings toward it, which to us seems ill suited to the problem at hand.

The story we need to tell is not about peripheral characters, such as a spokesperson or mascot, or even the brand. If we are to get people to understand that a repurposed product is special, the product itself has to be the main actor so that it can be imbued with all the specialness of the story. Following the principle of “You are what you have,” obtaining a special, storied product should allow people to feel special themselves.

However, telling a lengthy story about all of the stages that a repurposed product went through might be cost-efficient for rare and high-ticket items but is impractical and not feasible at scale. We decided to capitalize on a little-recognized characteristic of humans’ storied minds: We have the ability to infer and self-complete stories, even if all we can draw on are individual bits of information. (Just think about how little it takes for people to speculate on juicy gossip or form assumptions from fragments of information.)

That human ability gives rise to a very practical mechanism: minimal storytelling. Minimal storytelling is based on the chronological nature of stories. The key premise is that people are able to infer a story as long as they are aware of at least two sequential episodes in it: a before and an after. This storytelling mechanism is not well known and is rarely used when companies decide on their storytelling strategies. However, we found that it’s very appropriate in the context of repurposed products with a life story.

Testing Minimal Storytelling

In line with the principle of minimal storytelling, when we set up our experiment, we created very simple cues for our repurposed products’ transformation stories that simply showed or mentioned what a product used to be and what it had become. We mentioned only these two pieces of the products’ history, and left it to consumers to string them together into a story.

We ran several studies to test whether this minimal storytelling technique would be able to raise the appeal of repurposed goods. For example, we tested two different promotional messages in an actual pop-up store. In one message, we stressed the benefit (“I am a trendy wallet,” for instance) that people presumably wanted from the product. In the other message, we cued the product’s life story and highlighted its past identity (“I was a bike tire,” for example). This story cue was a game-changer. When people saw the cue about the product’s past identity, the number of purchases tripled, and revenues quadrupled.4 We found similar effects when running real-world social media campaigns, in which we tested two approaches: simply showing the repurposed product and stating what it was now, or telling what the product had been.

To the rational mind, this might sound bizarre. After all, the ad describing the product’s past life had nothing to do with the purpose of the product customers were after. Moreover, we essentially reminded customers that they were buying a product made from trash. In fact, the positive effect of highlighting information about the past tends to be even stronger for products that do not wear their past as waste on their sleeves, such as bags made from parachutes, or recycled products that have literally shredded all visible traces of their past.

Several follow-up studies, including an analysis of thought protocols, replicated the success of minimal storytelling and confirmed why mentioning the product’s past was so successful: People used it as a cue to the product’s story, and this made them owners of a unique product, which in turn made them feel special. One study participant’s story was, “It is recycled from a deployed airbag — something that saved someone’s life. That’s pretty cool.” What’s more, self-told stories are customized and memorable stories. Consumers use their own experiences to complete the missing bits and create a story that’s to their liking. The story likely sticks because people are doing the telling themselves. While we looked at the effect only at the time of purchase, this particular aspect of the mechanism suggests that it might even have long-term benefits. If customers are able to remember why the repurposed product is special, they might have an easier time telling others about it, and they could be more forgiving of potential flaws. What might otherwise be an imperfection or disadvantage — traces of trash — turns into an actual product advantage.

There are limits to the power of this technique when the product’s past evokes disgust, however. We tested this with laptop sleeves made from visibly old and dirty mosquito nets. When we compared the effects of embracing an unfavorable past to being entirely silent about it, we found that highlighting the history did not hurt demand, but the push we usually observed wasn’t there either.

All it takes for minimal storytelling to work is some input that will activate customers’ story-prone minds. In our case, this was simply mentioning the product’s past identity. This might work best when stories use concrete cues about the product’s past that are easy to visualize, and if you give the product a voice. Also remember that stories are sequential: Present the product’s past before highlighting its present.

Minimal storytelling reminds us that people do not simply want to passively consume stories. The case of repurposed products highlights the potential of awakening consumers’ innate ability to tell stories to themselves. While this is good news for companies selling repurposed products, we think this technique can be more widely applied. Minimal storytelling saves marketers time and money and can be used across a wide range of media where story content is limited.

Our research shows that it is possible to use the power of storytelling to turn a disadvantage into an advantage with one low-cost marketing tweak.

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