An Incognito Subway Busker,

A Fake Celebrity, and the Narrative Void.

An Incognito Subway Busker, A Fake Celebrity, and the Narrative Void.

Read Time: 6 minutes

Author: Taylor Rubart

How Your Reality Is Shaped 

Whether or not your brand is telling a story, people are telling themselves a story about your brand. Us humans are storytelling machines — it’s how we understand everything from relationships, to money, to national borders. These are all stories we tell. 

In regards to your brand, not understanding this reality sets your business up for misunderstanding at best, and major customer confusion at worst. The stories we tell ourselves and the stories told to us shape our reality in profound ways. Often, we don’t realize the power of a story is acting upon us. 

Two scenarios for you to consider: 

  1. If I told you the world’s greatest living violinist played Bach on his 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin (worth around $4 million) in the subway for 45 minutes, what do you suppose would happen? How big would the crowd be that would inevitably form around him? How much money would people throw in his case?
  2. If a random person pretended to be famous what would happen? Would anyone care? Since he literally isn’t famous, people surely wouldn’t “recognize him” would they? 

If you’ve been surfing the web (yes, typing that makes me feel old) for a while, you’ve likely seen both videos. Joshua Bell, who is roundly recognized as the world’s greatest violinist lived out scenario #1. Brett Cohen, who is not famous — is just a regular person, lived out scenario #2.

Both scenarios teach us a lot about story and marketing.

Joshua Bell 

Joshua Bell has performed for presidents, for supreme court justices, and for audiences around the world. He’s been nominated for six GRAMMY awards, and won one. In 2007, he was named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum. In 2000, he was named an “Indiana Living Legend.”

Not too shabby. 

The experiment was conceived of by Gene Weingarten, a columnist at the Washington Post. The idea was to have Bell play in a subway station as a busker, and see what  happened. 

As the Post puts it: 

“His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

Of the 1,097 people that passed him in the 45 minutes, seven stopped to listen. Less than 1% of people stopped to listen to the greatest living violinist play. He made $32.17 in his time busking (minus $20 from the one person who did recognize him).

This is the same Joshua Bell that commands $100 per seat for people to see him perform.  

There are countless articles on this stunt and seek to explain people’s behavior. Do people still appreciate art? Are we, as a society moving too quickly through our day? As the Post describes above “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

I don’t believe the question of whether or not “beauty would transcend” is the right question to ask. I also don’t believe it offers a satisfying explanation of what’s going on here. Why would people pay $100 per ticket in order to see Joshua Bell perform in some contexts, yet wouldn’t take a few minutes out of their day to see the same performer, the same classical pieces, on the same instrument in a different context? 

I don’t think it’s a question of beauty — it’s a question of story and of marketing. More on this in a bit. 

Let’s look at our second example.

Brett Cohen

In 2012, 21 year old Brett Cohen decided to see what would happen if he appeared famous. Just hours before, he’d walked around New York like a regular guy — because he is just a regular guy. But on that particular evening, he looked famous. In the video of this experiment, he’s followed by an entourage — two bodyguards, videographers, photographers (all hired for this stunt). He’s wearing sunglasses and an unbuttoned dress shirt. His mom helped him put on a little bit of makeup. 

Check out the video here.

People talk about how much they liked him in the Spiderman movie (he wasn’t in it). One gentleman gushes about how he loves his first single (which doesn’t exist) when he heard it on the radio. Women (and men, for that matter) clamoring to get a picture with him. A crowd that surges from 50 people to what appears to be well over 300. 

While the video is only 4 minutes long, this attention continues for three hours — people taking pictures, screaming how much they “love Brett”. 

Dig deeper into this story online, and you’ll see lots of explanations like this one: 

“This social experiment, of sorts, makes a profound statement about how modern culture is so attracted to pop culture, without any real credibility needed.”

Once again, I found myself unsatisfied with the provided explanation. 

The Power of Marketing & Story 

How could someone so famous (Joshua Bell), performing his craft, not get recognized? Even if he wasn’t recognized, he’s the best at what he does. Why wouldn’t more people stop to listen to him play? Why do people say they “recognize” Brett in Spiderman, or “love his latest single” even though he’s obviously done none of these things? 

The truth that explains both these scenarios is simple.

Story Is How We Interpret The World. 

When we are watching a movie or reading a book, the director or author goes to great lengths to help us contextualize the story. They offer us background on the characters, they offer us clues as to the world they’ve created. 

When you see Joshua Bell perform Bach at the orchestra in Munich, there are certain contextual clues to help you understand what story you’re in, the part you play in it, and the part others play in it. These clues could be what you wear, how much the ticket cost, the elegance of the venue, your fellow orchestra goers, the dinner you had beforehand, the way the doorman greets you, how you are shown to your seat, the opening remarks, etc. You get the point. 

The same is true when we see some random person appearing to be famous. The only reason people jumped to the conclusion that Brett Cohen was famous is because of the clues (sunglasses, unbuttoned shirt, security guards, cameras, crowds) he was giving. In other words, the context was so powerful, people’s minds filled in the rest.

Your Brand & Story 

As humans, we’re constantly telling ourselves stories and being told stories. It’s how we view and interpret the world and our lives. It’s why some people who experience even the most horrific of circumstances can find meaning in their suffering, while others don’t. (See Viktor Fankl’s book, Man’s Search For Meaning). Through telling stories, we get to decide what meaning to give events. 

When we interact with a brand, it’s no different. We’re telling stories about that business, how they treat people, what their products are like, etc. 

If a brand doesn’t tell their story, we leave people in what I’ll call a narrative void. A narrative void means there is no narrative coming from your brand. When this happens, it’s simply too uncomfortable to not have a narrative (again, it’s how we interpret the world), and people are forced to make up their own. 

Much like Joshua Bell, you might have the best product in the world, but the narrative void dictates that the quality of the product doesn’t matter. There’s no story being told so people make up their own. In Joshua Bell’s case, he was playing into a familiar narrative of a subway busker. Since no other clues were provided, people concluded he wasn’t worth paying attention to. 

In Brett Cohen’s case, he provided people with a robust narrative and certain conclusions were drawn about the “product”. He didn’t even need to tell people he was famous — the clues were so powerful, they did the heavy lifting for him. 

Whether or not your brand is telling a story, people are telling themselves a story about your brand. 

People cannot tolerate a narrative void. It’s too uncomfortable. Marketing is how you tell the story of your brand. Of course, you need a good product. That’s a given. However, if your brand doesn’t tell a story (or doesn’t tell a very compelling one), people will draw their own conclusions. And when people draw their own conclusions, you leave your brand in the hands of fate.

And fate isn’t a very good storyteller.

Taylor Rubart

Taylor Rubart

Lead Strategist @ Flannel Media

Not only does he like to write about himself in the third person, Taylor Rubart has been running Flannel Media for six years. He works with clients to determine marketing objectives, and acheive those through video marketing.