My Time-Travelling Magic Turkish Carpet
How brands create powerful fictions in our minds that lead us to buy their products and be happy doing it
The most powerful thing you can do as a brand isn’t to tell your customers a story, but to give your customers a story to tell.
I want to tell you a story. It’s a true story.
This happened about 15 years ago.
I was already living in Prague and I was in Istanbul for a week for a friend’s wedding. A bunch of my friends were there from the US, and after they’d all left, I had a day to myself. So, I went to the grand bazaar to buy myself a backgammon board. Backgammon was a something we’d been playing all week.
I got the board and then, you know, started looking at some leather jackets because, I figured, why not?
I found one I liked, but I didn’t have any cash on me or actually even any money in my bank account. I just had my credit card.
So, the man who ran the stall said, “No problem, my friend. My cousin, he has a shop here, he has a credit card machine. You pay him.”
He walks me to his cousin’s stall.
Now, his cousin’s shop had all these really kitschy knick-knacks. Nothing of remote interest to me. But he starts showing me some things while the credit card is going through.
“I’m not really interested,” I told him.
So, he says, “Just give me ten minutes, my friend, and I try to sell you something.”
I just love how ballsy that was. Ten minutes to sell me something I already said I had no interest in. Sell me anything, it didn’t matter what.
So, I said, sure, give it a shot. I wasn’t worried.
So, he starts picking items from the shelves, telling me how much my mother or girlfriend would like them, that sort of thing. But my mother, like me, is a minimalist and hates kitsch. And I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, so that was pretty much a dead-end.
But it wasn’t his tactics that failed, he was a good salesman. It was the product. Not only was I not interested, the products were the complete opposite of who I am and what I like.
To use current buzzwords, I was a completely unqualified lead. A random visitor he didn’t know a single thing about that his cousin brought in.
In the end, he gave it a good five minutes before shrugging and saying, “I tried.”
“This makes my job difficult, but not impossible.”
So, I was walking down the street heading back to my hotel, happy with my backgammon board and leather jacket, when a shopkeeper calls out to me, “Hello, my friend, where’s your carpet?”
Now, if you’ve ever spent any time in Istanbul, you know that touts and shopkeepers are constantly throwing pitches at you. Everywhere you go it’s, “Hello, my friend, where are you from?” “Hello, my friend, come into my shop.”
It really doesn’t make you want to buy. In fact, the opposite, you learn to avoid eye contact and just keep walking.
But when the man asked me where’s my carpet, it really struck a chord with me. One, because it was funny and different. And two, because here I was in Turkey and I hadn’t bought a carpet. You know, the one thing Turkey is most famous for.
So, instead of ignoring him, I stopped and said, “I don’t have one.”
“Why not?” he asked me.
“Because I don’t have any money.”
Here, he paused and seemed to think. Then he said, honest to god, “This makes my job difficult. But not impossible.”
Now, think about that.
First of all, I love that. I’d presented him with a challenge that he felt he could overcome, maybe because it was a slow afternoon and he didn’t have anything better to do.
But think about that. What had he discovered about me?
He’d discovered that my objection was one of money, not of interest. That didn’t make me a qualified lead. But there I was, talking to him, instead of ignoring him and moving on. So, I was at least a lead.
“Come in and have a cup of tea,” he said then. “I think we find something for you.”
“You can try,” I told him.
I had no intention of actually buying a carpet. But I was curious how this would go and I was interested both in the sales process and in learning about carpets. I also just liked the idea of relaxing with a cup of tea.
“You bring part of Turkey home with you.”
So, the man led me into his showroom and bid me to make myself comfortable on a couch while he fetched some tea.
Then, as I sipped my tea, he laid out a selection of small throw rugs. These were in the twenty- to thirty-dollar range. He told me about where they were from and how they were made.
These weren’t the famous Turkish carpets and looked more like something you’d have in your bathroom. Nice, but not what you think of when you think of Turkish carpets. And not what you’d bring home from a holiday. If I was going to buy one – and I wasn’t, since I didn’t have any money – it wouldn’t be one of these.
But I was interested in what else he had to show me. I was also curious about what he could tell me about them. Like about the colors and designs and manufacturing techniques and how to tell a fake from a real one.
And, to be honest, the whole experience of being sold a carpet was fun, not to mention educational.
This, by the way, was him leading me down the sales funnel – educating me, informing me, engaging me.
So, for the next hour, he laid out one carpet after another, telling me about each one in detail. Where it was from. How it was made. What made it special.
I still wasn’t going to buy one – these carpets were in the five-hundred-dollar range – but I found myself responding to carpets with certain colors and patterns that I liked. So he showed me more along those lines until there was one in particular I really liked.
He could tell I liked it, because I told him so. But he could also tell I was hesitating, because, you know, I didn’t have any money and I also told him so.
So, he says to me, “My friend, you are in Istanbul one week already. You have nice time with friends. You enjoy food. You see sights. You go to beach. You tell yourself, ‘I come back next year. I buy carpet next year.’ But next year, you no come to Turkey. You go to Greece. You go to Italy. You go to Spain. But you no come back to Turkey and you no buy carpet.”
I had to admit it, he had me there. I’d loved Turkey and really enjoyed my time in Istanbul. And my friends and I had constantly said we’d be coming back next year. But he was right that that probably wouldn’t happen.
“When you are home,” he went on, “you go to carpet store, because you think about this carpet, you think about Turkey, and you will see there price for same carpet. You pay one thousand dollars. Two thousand dollars.”
I nodded. This seemed about right.
“But this carpet here. This carpet you like so much. You bring this carpet home with you, you bring part of Turkey with you. This carpet make you remember Istanbul. Make you remember your holiday. You look at this carpet and it make you smile. Because you remember. You no bring back a carpet – you bring back a memory.”
And right there is where he had me. He wasn’t selling me a carpet. He was selling me a memory. A story. The rest was just a price negotiation.
But you know what? Here I am, fifteen years later, telling you this story. I must’ve told this story hundreds of times and I still love it. And every time I look at the carpet – and I look at that carpet every day, since it’s on our living room floor – I remember this story.
He was right, I’d bought a memory. And not only that, I’d enjoyed buying it. In fact, I love that friggin’ carpet.
How a Turkish carpet is a brand
But what’s this story have to do with branding? This is a story about sales, right? I mean, the guy was a great salesman, for sure. Not only did he sell me a carpet I had no intention of buying, I’d enjoyed it.
But most things you sell, whether they’re products or services, won’t have the benefit of such a great salesperson.
There are some things like real estate or luxury cars or big-ticket services where the salesperson has an oversized influence. But even with, for example, luxury cars, the potential buyer already has strong ideas about what car he or she favors based on the different brands, so half or more of the work has already been done before the customer even steps into the showroom.
That’s because the best salesperson in the world is the brand itself. It sells itself before the customer even thinks about buying it.
How does it do this?
Well, let’s look at my story about the Turkish carpet.
The first salesman, the one with all the kitschy knick-knacks, he was a skilled salesman, for sure. He had his techniques down pat. But he had one major, very major problem. I was the completely wrong customer.
I hate kitschy knick-knacks. Just the thought of them filling my home makes my shiver.
But you, maybe you love them. To each their own, right? If kitschy knick-knacks are a brand, then you’re its target. Me, it should ignore. It’s wasting its time with me.
Now, Turkish carpets… that’s a brand I’m obviously interested in. I wouldn’t want to fill my home with them. In fact, we only have the one. But there was something about Turkish carpets that resonated with me at that time. Probably because I’d been in Istanbul for a week.
Maybe if I’d spent a week in Graceland – God forbid – I’d love kitschy knick-knacks. Or at least get enough of an ironic chuckle out of them to buy something and put it on the mantle.
What that tells you is that the selling environment matters tremendously.
So, how does a brand control the selling environment? Walk into an Apple store, a Starbucks – those are master classes right there in crafting and controlling a branded selling environment.
But a brand is more than a physical space. In fact, what a brand is, is an emotional space inside your mind.
A brand is a fiction in the minds of customers
I’m reading Yuval Noah Harari’s amazing book Homo Deus right now, where he writes about humans being able to organize flexibly on a mass scale because we’re able to create fictions in our minds like religion, communism, liberalism, capitalism. In fact, pretty much most of the -isms.
These fictions can be both good and bad, can be both a force for good and for evil, usually at the same time depending on whom they’re serving. And they have their benefits and faults. But one thing you can’t doubt about them is that they’re incredibly effective.
A brand works the same way, by creating a fiction inside your mind. It controls the environment in your mind by controlling this fiction.
This may sound very sinister, like brands are these evil manipulators – and there are people who definitely think they are, but we’ll save that for a different time. But the fact is, we all live according to different fictions.
One fiction is the vision I have of who I am and what I believe. I hope that most, if not all my actions, live up to this fiction. In other words, I hope I’m true to myself. This is also known as being “on brand.”
I also have an image in my mind of what the Apple brand is, because Apple has implanted it there. I know the Apple brand is a fiction, but it’s a fiction that serves me and that I feel I benefit from. Most important, it’s a fiction that fits with my own fiction about myself. In return, I overpay for a new iPhone every couple of years.
On the other hand, I also have an image of what the Rolls Royce brand is, even though I’ve never owned one or driven in one, because Rolls Royce has implanted it there. But this Rolls Royce fiction is like kitschy knick-knacks. It doesn’t fit with my fiction, so it’s meaningless to me.
The same could happen with Apple if Apple changed its fiction to the point where it wouldn’t fit mine anymore. It would become meaningless.
Communicating a fiction
So, how does a brand create a fiction in our minds?
By communicating its vision and values in a way that we either connect with or reject. A brand does this in a number of different ways.
One is price. By setting a certain price, a brand is making a statement. If it underprices itself, it’s saying, for example, that it’s made for the masses. If it overprices itself, on the other hand, it may be saying that it’s worth it because of its high quality.
Other ways a brand communicates itself is through the product. What it does. How good it is at what it does. How reliable it is. How easy it is to repair. How it feels and looks. What materials it’s made of. How it’s packaged. What kind of guarantee it offers. The list goes on.
Another way a brand communicates itself is through actual communication: advertising, merchandising, PR, events, brochures. Here the elements that drive the communication are concepts and ideas, copywriting, design, photography, videos and so on.
Brands also communicate themselves through their HR practices, philanthropy, customer service and other ways.
All of these things serve to create a fiction – an emotional space – in my head that I either accept or reject at any given moment. That’s the brand’s environment.
So, back to my Turkish carpet seller. I haven’t forgotten about him. He’s a patient fella, as we’ve already seen.
He’s already got the benefit of a brand on his side – the Turkish carpet brand. He’s got environment on his side – he’s right there in Istanbul at the heart of the Turkish carpet brand, not somewhere online or in a mall in Minnesota.
Together, these two things fit with the fiction of my holiday. By that I mean the image of my experience in Istanbul that I’d already started forming in my head.
The result, for the carpet seller, is that he has a lead – me. I wasn’t a highly qualified lead, because I didn’t want to spend any money and had no intention of buying a carpet. But I was a lead nonetheless.
So, what did he do to draw me into and keep me in his shop?
He created an experience.
The Turkish carpet experience
Tea. Stories. Conversation. A little education about carpets. A touch of his culture, or at least what he wanted me to experience of it. Together these created an emotional experience. A brand experience. The Turkish carpet brand experience.
And like I said, I really enjoyed myself there and didn’t feel bad about taking up his time, even though I knew wasn’t going to buy a carpet.
The same thing should happen when customers interact with your brand. Whether they’re walking into your store, coming to your website, holding your product in their hand or just hearing about your brand from someone else, they need to experience your brand. To engage with it.
With a different customer, all that could’ve been enough for the carpet seller to get the sale. But it wasn’t. I didn’t want to buy a carpet, remember. I just wanted the experience. So, in the end, that’s what he sold me. An experience. An experience of buying a Turkish carpet in Istanbul. An experience that I’m still telling you about fifteen years later.
I somehow doubt he remembers me in the same way.
But why? Why did that work on me, selling the experience?
The carpet seller’s offer
Let’s look at his core offer. A core offer addresses the following five questions:
What problem do you solve?
For whom do you solve it?
How do you solve it?
What are the expected results?
And what are the benefits of those results?
In the carpet seller’s case, I’ll forgive you if you think that the problem was my lack of a patterned floor covering in my bare studio apartment I was living in at the time. He didn’t know a thing about that.
What he I know was that I hadn’t had the experience of buying a Turkish carpet. That I’d been here for a week with my friends. That I’d enjoyed my Turkish experience. And that my holiday emotions, like all holiday emotions, would disappear as soon as I got back home.
So, the problem he was solving had nothing to do with floor covering, but with how to keep my Turkish experience from disappearing once I got back home.
Now, who was his target? Me, obviously. But who was I, demographically?
I was a European tourist in my early thirties with a limited budget who was at the end of my holiday.
So, he showed me carpets that fit my budget. He wouldn’t have gotten far with thousand-dollar, floor-sized carpets. He would’ve lost me. But even carpets I could afford weren’t enough to convince me.
The key part of my profile is the phrase “at the end of my holiday”. Because there’s a feeling of sentiment, nostalgia and indulgence that bubbles up as you near the end of a great holiday experience. He may or may not have known this, but that’s the part he was targeting.
So, if my problem was how to keep my Turkish experience from disappearing once I got back home, how did he solve it?
Not just by selling me a carpet, but by creating the experience of buying the carpet. By doing that, he was extending my holiday, adding one last part. Another little story. Another memory.
Did he tell me what results I could expect?
Sure, he told me all about the carpet’s features. Obviously, it would cover my floor. It was easy to take care of. It was durable. But that wasn’t really the result I was looking for.
The result I was looking for, without actually knowing it until then, was an experience that wouldn’t end once I got home. And he really made that hit home by reminding me that I wouldn’t be having this experience again. That this feeling was fleeting, like all holiday emotions. Because I wouldn’t be coming to Turkey again.
In other words, he showed me the consequences I would experience if I didn’t buy that carpet. But if I did, then the experience would come home with me.
Finally, what benefits did I get from this?
Well, for one, I’ve gotten a hell of a lot of mileage out of this story. In fact, my wife is totally sick of hearing me tell it at dinner parties. And obviously the experience has stayed with me. Like I said, I look at that carpet and I remember this story. It takes me back.
A time-traveling magic carpet
But let me get a little sentimental here and say that that carpet is a little magic carpet that flies me back to a time and a place I’ll never be able to experience again for the same reason you can’t step into the same river twice. Time moves in only one direction. But this carpet, the experience of buying this carpet, takes me back in time.
Now, that’s a powerful benefit. Going back in time to relive a moment of your life.
That’s the kind of benefit every brand should aspire to deliver.
But it only works when it tops off a complete brand experience. After the customer has absorbed the fiction the brand has created and fully accepted it. Too soon, and it won’t have any power, like putting the emotional climax to a movie right at the start. That emotional climax has to be earned and reached step by step for it to pay off.
That’s because a brand is like a story. But, contrary to what a lot of people in the business believe, it isn’t a story you tell customers. It’s a story customers tell themselves. A story where the customer is always the hero and the brand is a guide who shows the customer the way.
The carpet seller showed me the way to travel back in time.
And, by the way, he was right, I haven’t been back to Turkey. I haven’t had the chance. And even if I do make it back there, it won’t be the same. It’ll be a new experience. My experience of fifteen years ago is right there in that carpet.