Many classic tales of adventure begin with an empowering gift: something that opens doors, reveals possibilities, or helps to overcome obstacles. D’Artagnan’s father presents him with fifteen crowns, a horse and a letter of introduction; James Bond goes to see Q to pick up his car and gadgets; the Master of Jordan College gives Lyra the all-knowing, all-telling alethiometer.
Brands can play this role, helping people access the skills and tools they need to expand their horizons. Indeed, they’d be wise to do so. The desire for adventure — in the sense of journeys of personal development, as well as geographical exploration — is on the rise. A report published in 2013 by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), the US centre for long-term strategic analysis, identified individual empowerment as the most important of four ‘megatrends’ that will shape the world in 2030. The report cites a few contributing factors: an expanding global middle class; the growth of digital communications, in particular the expansion of smartphones; health improvements, including extended quality of life; and wider access to formal education among men and women, with particular reference to the Middle East and North Africa.
As individuals are offered more choice and flexibility in forging their future, they will look for services that can help them get started and find the right path. The authors of the NIC report identify knowledge and skills as the key tools they will need and point to education as ‘both the motor and beneficiary’ of this trend. In many parts of the world, education is a mixed sector, provided by a combination of government, private and non-profit bodies. Among them are some powerful brands, and little wonder: For individuals to trade their skills and knowledge, they often need a recognised stamp to prove they can deliver. Universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and the Sorbonne are among the world’s oldest educational brands. Now at the top of the global league table for higher education is the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech. Established with a gift of over $100,000 from a businessman in 1891, it’s home to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory: not bad as a launch pad for adventure! Which is pretty much how Caltech describes itself: “a world-renowned science and engineering research and education institution, where extraordinary faculty and students seek answers to complex questions, discover new knowledge, lead innovation and transform our future.”
Another trend, linked to the growth of digital communications, is the rise in people logging their adventures and tracking their personal development. The two-page CV you update every year or so starts to seem rather passé. People are charting the minutiae of their everyday lives — the miles they walk, the food they eat, the moods they swing through — and comparing their own experience to their peers. As they become more aware of their own trajectory, they’re identifying new goals and setting off on new adventures.
One brand poised at the beginning of these odysseys with an empowering gift is Nike. It is well-established as one of the world’s largest and most highly recognised suppliers of sports shoes, clothing and equipment – the tools an athlete needs to get started on the road to physical power and prowess. But since 2006 it has been looking for ways to get much more involved in the adventure. In that year it collaborated with Apple to create an iPod device that used piezoelectric sensors (which generate electricity in response to applied mechanical stress) to measure the distance an athlete travelled, calculate their pace, log the time they spent doing sport, and count the calories they burned along the way. This was the beginning of Nike+.
This sub-brand is more than just a ‘quantified self’ device. It recognises that any good adventure has an audience of well-wishers. The desire to develop your character, skills and potential is shaped by thousands of years of storytelling. Adventure stories have such power because, in listening to the tales of others, we too go on a journey. Nike+ recognises this, offering not just an app but a community of people pursuing goals and helping each other to find the best way forward. The website prompts people to sign up to “Stay motivated, challenged and connected.” With Nike+, the brand moves from a little ‘Swoosh’ on their shoe to a companion for the journey. It’s a much stronger proposition.
While Nike is aiming for rapid growth and a global audience, other brands offer more exclusive adventures. One is the 21st-century travellers’ club ASMALLWORLD (ASW), which connects jetsetters looking for exclusive experiences around the world. It was founded in 2004 as an invitation-only social network by Count Erik Wachtmeister — a digital enthusiast with an MBA from the leading European business school, INSEAD. He garnered the support of American film producer Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of Miramax Films, at a time when social networks were still fairly niche.
Now, ASW comprises about 250,000 hand-picked, high-paying members — “a private international community of culturally influential people, connected by three degrees.” Each one brings a personal perspective on locations across the world and support to experience them in ways far beyond the well-trodden paths of tourists. They venture into a realm where “members do adorable things for each other,” the sort of thing a friend would do, such as filling the bride’s side of a church for a wedding her relatives couldn’t make, or finding the best doctor on demand and squeezing an appointment in ahead of any waiting list, or lending a “nowhere-to-be-found, next-season smoking hot evening dress.”
What does ASW add as a brand? For one, there is the feeling of trust inspired by a highly personalised service and a very selective approach. But it also offers these chosen ones the chance to create their own universe: They can set the rules, establish their own culture and challenge what it means to travel. In short, it’s the start of their own adventure story, in a world they can both explore and define.
This blog includes edited extracts from Chapter 2 of The Brand Strategist’s Guide to Desire by Anna Simpson, which will be published on 10 March by Palgrave Macmillan. Anna is the Editor of Forum for the Future's magazine, Green Futures.