My colleague, David Robinson, works tirelessly to get me to tell stories. It’s not that I don’t want to. I spent forty years being a terminal analytic, just the facts, kind of presenter. I forget to step back and compose my thoughts in a story, rather than a series of Powerpoint bullets. Even after helping edit David’s book about seeing stories, The SeerI still forget.

Storyscaping book coverEver present Amazon knows that I need to learn more about story telling as they sent me a “New Book Release” email that pointed to Storyscaping: Stop Creating Ads, Start Creating Worlds. I loved the title so of course I had to buy it and download it. Little did I know I was going to lose the next two days of my life as I inhaled the wonderful extension of story telling to building storyscape worlds. I was really hooked when the authors acknowledged Rick Robinson and John Cain (former colleagues at the Institute of Design) for teaching them the power of ethnography.

Since I had no idea what a storyscape was, I was delighted that the authors started with some definitions of the spectrum of marketing differentiation with a clear example of the differences.

“The Fast , Cheap, and Good Rule. We are not sure who came up with this old notion, but we think the first time we heard it was from a building contractor during our office remodel. “Pick two,” he requested. “You can have your office done fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Or, we can do it fast and cheap, but it won’t be good.” He reinforced his delivery on any combination of those two elements with a caveat: We should expect to sacrifice on the third element. We think the opposite exists in any market-facing business. Here we use the same idea of juggling three relatable components in a formula, only this time we plug in value, story, and experience. Unlike the previous “rule” where two elements were reductive to the third, this logic amplifies the third. For example, if you provide great value and create a great experience, you will improve your story. If you have a great story and you provide a great experience, you amplify your value. We will explore the relationship between experience and product further in this book because we believe they are interchangeable ideas— or at least highly related. The same goes for value and price. If you provide a great experience (product) and have a great story (brand), you should be able to merit higher value (price). It’s time to recognize that any fool can offer a discount to sell more product or service, printing a bunch of coupons or promoting buy-one-get-one-free offers or even renting a chicken suit— these options do not take much imagination and are rather shortsighted. On the flip side, savvy marketers can differentiate their product or service by crafting a memorable brand story that emotionally connects a company to its customers through shared values. This option requires real imagination and some emotional intelligence. Trumping all of these options is the genius who puts it all together by connecting a great story with an immersive and differentiated experience at the right price. With that said, another great way to differentiate and grow is to re-imagine how a product or service is delivered by creating new business models, a truly differentiated experience, or innovation. It takes a visionary to pull that off. How do you differentiate and grow your business?

The following is a taste of what we are concocting throughout this book— a snapshot of four main approaches to marketing. First we offer a hypothetical example about a pizza store, designed as a useful, quick look at how your any-size, any-type business compares within a simplified framework. Next, using that same framework, we provide highly recognizable real-world examples to further drive home our points.

Price-Based Differentiation. Sue Generic owns a pizza delivery company. There are two similar pizza joints in her small town. In order to grow her business, Sue chooses to advertise her pizza with a buy-one-get-one-free offer. In our view, Sue is not telling a good story. In fact, you could argue that the story could be interpreted as, “This is cheap pizza.” Now , of course, she has the best intentions; after all, doesn’t everyone want a good deal? The short answer is, discounting alone is almost always a bad idea in the long run. Price-based differentiation can often be a one-way ticket to commoditization, not to mention abysmal margins.

Story-Based Differentiation. Sue Generic owns a pizza delivery company. There are two pizza joints in her small town, but hers is different. In order to differentiate her business, Sue shares her story with her customers and the public in clever and relevant ways. Sue tells how she learned to make their secret sauce when she was only 12. Sue uses the recipe that has been in her family for 100 years, and she imports all the key ingredients weekly, including the “secret” herbs for the sauce. New customers line up to try her family recipe every day. She never takes reservations, never rushes an order, and closes early when she runs out of pie dough for the day.

Experience-Based Differentiation. Sue Generic owns a pizza delivery company. There are two other similar pizza joints in her small town, but she intends to change the game. In order to grow her business, Sue chooses to offer guaranteed delivery in 30 minutes or less. She has even invested in a mobile app that allows her very busy customers to order their favorite custom pie on the fly so they can get those kids fed and in bed tonight. Hers is the only pizza joint to offer this differentiated experience, and her customer base keeps growing.

Storyscaping Differentiation. Sue Generic owns a pizza delivery company. There are two other pizza joints in her small town, but they cannot compete with hers. Sue understands that to build a successful business she must do all of the above while carefully balancing elements of value, story, and experience with a sharp focus on becoming part of her customers’ world. She reimagined the whole business, she has a story that truly connects with people, and she created an experience that delivers a product that can’t easily be replicated, for which her customers happily pay a premium. Sue is a genius!

Now that you have a generic glimpse of the four main approaches and how they work within their respective frameworks, the following real-world examples from the toy industry aim to add more practical fuel for comprehension.

Price-Based Differentiation. We don’t want to give this idea too much airtime, nor does it really merit any further explanation. You can find plenty of this crap all around you. The world does not need yet another factory in China making nameless blue teddy bears. We will use blue teddy bears as our example of price-based differentiation. They are $ 7.99, and that’s about all they have going for them. They could be handy if you find yourself in a situation where you need to buy a gift for a kid you don’t know well or like much . . . and they are blue . . . don’t you want one?

Story-Based Differentiation. Of course you remember the famous Cabbage Patch Kids of the early 1980s, right? Materially speaking, Cabbage Patch Kids were not too different from other dolls on the shelf next to it. They did not have computer chips incabbage patch them, they did not move, they didn’t talk, they didn’t create sounds or flash any lights—on no account were they better than any other doll. What stood out was their unique element of story; each Cabbage Patch Kid had to be “adopted,” which made the whole story as much (or more) about the buyer as it did the product. This is why people paid toy retailers and other outlets premium prices and paid doll scalpers and collectors four times those premium prices for a Cabbage Patch Kid as they would have paid for a similar doll. Today an original Cabbage Patch Kid will still fetch a handsome price on eBay. The key here is that their story put you, the “adoptive parent,” in the middle. This is exactly the kind of story we will introduce and encourage throughout the pages of this book. It’s not easy to craft the right story, but when you do, the effects are vast, powerful, and long lasting.

Experience-Based Differentiation. Do you have a Build-a-Bear franchise store in your local mall? That store takes appointments. An appointment for a store that sells teddy bears? Why? These guys have taken teddy bear sales to another level, and their success lies in the creation of immersive experiences. Envision a magical place where you can take your favorite adolescent— be it your daughter, your nephew, or even yourself. When you arrive in this magical place, you embark on the journey of picking out just the right piece of soft fur, having it stuffed to your preferred ‘squishiness’ and giving it life with its very own heart (that you can kiss for good wishes before it’s popped inside your new friend). After your bear is built to your liking, next you select the perfect outfit to take it home in. You can even add a sound and finally, the cherry on top of this customized magical experience, you get to give your new best friend a name. Who could possibly deny their kid an experience like this, even at the hearty premium price it demands? A differentiated experience like this one can grow your business fast, usually faster than a great brand story , but the trade-off is easy replication by your competitor. Therefore, the challenge with this approach is, and has always been, sustainability.

Storyscaping Differentiation. Let’s explore the phenomenon of the American Girl franchise success. In the 1980s, a publisher of educational materials came up with an idea to teach American History with the release of three 18-inch dolls, each from a different time period. These dolls all came with historically accurate storybooks American girl dolldetailing their life. While the educational aspect of these dolls was their kick start, there was also much built-in entertainment from aftermarket sales of doll accessories and clothing. Around the time Mattel bought the company in 1995, there were more than 50 dolls, all with stories from all over the world in practically every ethnicity. Every little girl could finally identify on a physical level with a doll that mirrored her, that told her tale. Today, those young doll enthusiasts have a veritable American Girl universe of exquisite retail spaces to roam and collect dolls. They can dine in American Girl restaurants or get makeovers for themselves and their dolls at American Girl salons. Their Manhattan location is on 5th Avenue, a hotbed of frenzied birthday party waiting lists. You can browse the entire catalog on your iPad and download American Girl diary apps to your iPod. Doll owners heavily travel the social media space to share couture doll ensembles or to show off impressive collections of dolls that are on and off the market like antiques and artwork. There are real-life fashion shows of dolls and their owners. In 2012 American Girl reported millions of visitors annually, with sales at $100.5 million. Their website gets more than 70 million hits per year. American Girl has a story with no periods, just commas. This is the kind of Storyscape we will delve into throughout this book— and after examining the differences between these four approaches, we think you’ll agree: Storyscaping is a methodology well worth delving into, and there is fun to be had along the way.”

The authors had me hooked and I looked forward to learning “how” to put a storyscape together. The examples above helped me understand what a storyscape is, yet I needed more of a digital storyscape to get it. The Vail EpicMix project really helped me understand what is possible when combining the physical world and the digital world:

epic mix


“We further define Storyscaping as a landscape of emotional and transactional experiences, where each connection inspires engagement with another, so the brand becomes part of the consumer’s story. When you use the Storyscaping model, it will enable you to evolve your craft in a way that makes it easier to connect to the physical, virtual, and emotional Experience Space that surrounds the customer. We will help you move beyond making ads and into creating worlds where your story can become their story through shared experiences.

Vail Resorts: EpicMix Photo CASE STUDY

Every Mountain Has a Story. Since the 1960s, vacationers have skied at the iconic mountains that are part of the Vail Resorts collection. The desire to explore and share experiences is never ending on these majestic slopes. Traditionally, their personal journeys of triumph over nature were just that, personal and usually either just a memory or one backlit snapshot.

Understanding that technology was fast becoming a part of everybody’s everyday journey, Vail Resorts released an interactive experience in 2010 called EpicMix. 10 If you were a guest at one of their then five different mountains, your lift pass came embedded with a RFID chip that automatically captures the guests on mountain experiences, allowing them to track vertical feet, earn pins, view trail maps, and access snow reports. It also provided the ability to share their stories socially on Facebook and Twitter both online and on the free Android and iPhone applications.

Nature and Technology Join Forces. Vail Resorts guests were now mobile and socially connected. They were socially connected, shooting, checking in, and sharing their comments right from the snow. So we helped Vail Resorts leverage a ripe opportunity for creating a world that started on the slopes, was disseminated by smartphones, and kept alive long after the vacation was over.

We knew that EpicMix could evolve with even greater appeal to its most valuable customers. We understood that the opportunity existed to transform what was traditionally an experience of random pieces on social channels into a world of engagement. To build this world, we helped Vail Resorts organize itself around an Organizing Idea— Unleash the Mountain— and build a system for the guests’ vacation story and their interaction with mountain adventures.

Unleash the Mountain. The immersive world of EpicMix Photo offers many connection points and ways to engage with the guest. If for every mountain there’s a story, then for every story there are many, many images. Pro photographers are strategically stationed all over the resorts to capture everything from family portraits to deep powder and big air. Those images are automatically uploaded to guest accounts via the embedded chip in their lift passes. Guests can share these high-quality images for free, and doing so has been wildly popular. They can also order high-resolution prints as an added option. EpicMix digital pins encourage exploration of the mountain with people sharing that exploration online. The Collage feature is like an extreme scrapbook. Skiers and riders can share their entire experience with achievement pins and personal stats. Skiers can calculate total vertical feet skied on the trip and tally their best day from the data automatically tracked for them in their account. There is now a racing component (EpicMix Racing) that allows guests to race against friends, family, and even Lindsey Vonn, Four Time Overall World Cup Champion and Olympic Gold Medalist. 11 Guests can view their race times, earn medals, share their accomplishments, and get racing tips to up their game from the legend herself. It all plays out on a dynamic, Mondrian-style grid that encourages skiers and riders to stay in their mountain worlds long after they’ve left the mountain. And it stays there forever. A family can preserve a lifetime of ski vacation memories for generations.

A Mountain of Experiences. All of this was wrapped up in a beautiful design, a tightly integrated mobile-Web-social system, and a new user interface that even worked with gloves on! Most hospitality and entertainment businesses would be grateful for an e-mail address from a parting guest. Vail Resorts can proudly boast over 500,000 members of a community created from Storyscaping. This sort of engagement far supersedes expectations of traditional vacation brands. Perhaps the most staggering number, though, is the 180 million social post impressions generated by the Story System that is EpicMix.”

“Thank you Miss EpicMix Photographer. You are awesome. You have no idea how your expertise affected our family. Today was a dream three years and eight months in the making. You took the Christmas card photo today. THANK YOU!” —Vail EpicMix Guest

“. . . EpicMix is expanding into photography in a big way, and it’s a significant step not just for the company, but for skiers’ and snowboarders’ experiences with their sport . . . Photo is the big change, and here, Vail is out front of Disney and almost every other vacation destination that does pro photography.” —Wired Magazine

Most of my time is spent teaching and mentoring. I am always looking for better ways to share important concepts to accelerate learning. Storyscaping provides a conceptual framework for interesting capabilities that are showing up in tools like Touchcast which looks like TV, but feels like the interactive web. Seeing what Google is doing with Stories and Autoawesome to unlock the treasure trove of personal rich visual media, I think it is time to re-imagine how 21st century learning might occur.


With the advent of the industrial age, schooling was separated from the world of work. Prior to the industrial age learning and doing were integrated within the guild.  Now that we are deeply in the Second Machine Age with very powerful mobile smart phones and brilliant multi-media tablets, doing and learning can be re-integrated. Further, we have the ability to provide learning and doing at the right time, in the right form, in the right location, and in the right context.

Russ Ackoff observed that the person who learns the most in the classroom is the teacher. He advocated turning every student into a teacher. Luis von Ahn with his insights that led to the development of Recaptcha and Duolingo asked the question how do we take mundane activities of billions of users and turn them into something useful? Luis observed that when teaching languages that students were deeply engaged when they were working on tasks that were real (translating Wikipedia articles) versus toy learning exercises. Our own experiences with peer learning (think-pair-share) and the creation of peer advisory boards for executives along with the success of social media demonstrates the importance of peer generated content.

A possible solution integrates these insights through an always available “My Storyteller Knows Me.” As Gregory Bateson described in Mind and Nature:

“There is a story which I have used before and shall use again: A man wanted to know about mind, not in nature, but in his private large computer. He asked it (no doubt in his best Fortran), “Do you compute that you will ever think like a human being?” The machine then set to work to analyze its own computational habits. Finally, the machine printed its answer on a piece of paper, as such machines do. The man ran to get the answer and found, neatly typed, the words:


“A story is a little knot or complex of that species of connectedness which we call relevance. In the 1960s, students were fighting for “relevance,” and I would assume that any A is relevant to any B if both A and B are parts or components of the same “story”. Again we face connectedness at more than one level: First, connection between A and B by virtue of their being components in the same story. And then, connectedness between people in that all think in terms of stories. (For surely the computer was right. This is indeed how people think.)”

This hypothetical platform is a combination of a rich media mobile device (phone or tablet) for voice, video and text access from the user tied to cloud services for storage, meaning making, and social sharing. Like the many lifelogging apps, Q&A apps (Qazzow) and search engine profiles, the system is highly context aware of the learner/doer. The learner/doer is either in a capture mode (sharing their story or doing activity in multiple media) or learning mode (need help or desire insights or dive deeper). By crowd sourcing the content (capture), we remove a major bottleneck of MOOCs and other online learning systems. Through a Wikipedia-like editing team and automated curating analytical engines, the best and most appropriate content in context is available for the learning mode (help, insights, deep dive).

learning and doing

This platform could make money through a combination of subscription services for the doing/learning tool and transactive content.  Transactive content is the combination of rich content, interactive technologies, and transaction systems. provides a robust example of automatically moving an eCommerce website into user generated content streams (Facebook and Twitter) and merchant generated ad streams to produce transactive content.

transactive content updated


What if our learning systems and our doing systems could be the same?

What if every story we told could be embedded in a storyscape?

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Curation, Design, Human Centered Design, Innovation, Learning, organizing, Software Development, Transactive Content, User Experience. Bookmark the permalink.

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