Is Adversity the Business Model of the Future?

Traditionally, American culture has aspired towards the finer things in life, leisure time and luxury goods among them. But increasingly, basking in luxury is no longer top priority for a growing class of consumers.

These happiness hunters are looking away from consumer goods and towards a less quantifiable asset: a sense of accomplishment from overcoming adversity. For this group, buying a fancy car or spending a vacation in a first-class resort are too easily attained. They are searching, instead, for an internal sense of satisfaction that can’t be purchased, no matter how well-stocked their bank accounts.
Enter a new field of experiential-focused activities that promise to deliver this elusive sense of accomplishment. Think brands like the Tough Mudder endurance race, where participants race through a grueling 10 miles of mud and obstacles for the simple satisfaction of having finished the competition. Or witness the growing popularity of marathons and triathlons—the triathlon world championships saw the most participants in its history compete in 2015, for example.

And this desire for adversity isn’t confined to sports, either. The tech start-up boom is deeply linked with the concepts of “hustle” and “determination,” encouraging would-be entrepreneurs to commit both time and resources to building a business from scratch and reaping the rewards.

But these are the extremes which only truly committed seekers will pursue. For the rest of us, there are simpler ways to overcome adversity without starting a business or running a marathon.

Take, for example, the increasingly popular “Escape the Room” experiential team challenge here in New York, where groups bond by trying to escape a puzzle-filled room. It’s fun, it facilitates social bonding, and it’s challenging enough for participants to feel a sense of pride after they “escape” (if they are able to.)

Even education has become a form of validation, as digital education is becoming more and more available, open, and self-directed. Online learning platforms like Codeacademy and Udacity’s Nanodegree allow students to choose their own coursework, tackle their assignments on their own time, and push through to eventually earn industry-recognized certifications. Unlike formal schooling, which often feels compulsory, these classes are entirely optional, chosen to help a student’s career or simply to master a new skill—which means the pride of actually finishing them is even greater.

What does this mean for brands? Well, for one, sometimes delivering everything your customer needs without any effort misses the opportunity to create a rewarding experience and a sense of meaningful exchange. Instead of going the traditional route, think about ways to engage your customers or users in a reciprocal relationship that benefits both of you. Here are two key considerations when launching a new “experiential” effort:

Gamify: Beginning with Foursquare, which arguably created the trend of applying video game principles to real-life interactions, “gamification” has become a sometimes empty buzzword designed to entice would-be investors and users towards a variety of tech start-ups. But the idea of tapping into your customers’ competitive instincts is still a good one, especially when your business is new and still developing a customer base. It can be something as simple as awarding your most avid users digital badges to delivering puppies to your frequent customers for a play session, as Uber famously did.

Improve: But increasingly it’s not enough to simply reward your customers or users for just showing up. Instead, it’s important to make sure that what you’re offering them is useful, applicable to their lives or careers, and helps them improve themselves. This is why physical competitions like Tough Mudder and educational courses like Codeacademy are so popular: they simultaneously fulfill a person’s desire to improve themselves and be rewarded for their actions. How can your company help improve your customers’ lives beyond your existing services or products? To borrow an example from the tech world, look at Google’s Primer service, an app that teaches customers marketing skills. While it’s not directly tied to any of Google’s products, the company benefits from enhancing its users’ marketing abilities and use of its suite of tools.

While it may sound counterintuitive, making your customers work a little bit may actually be a solid decision for your brand.

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