Growing up a child of the late 80s/early 90s, there was no shortage of tangible ways to socially signal your coolness level. (And they were hard to miss, as many of them came in neon.) From the range of hypercolor shirts in your wardrobe rotation to the size of your slap bracelet collection to the number of New Kids on the Block buttons pinned to the back of your acid-wash jean jacket, social status went hand-in-hand with stuff. But of all the late-80s greatness, one social signal reigned supreme above them all: the clear phone.
But let’s rewind a bit.
In an era when a young girl’s coming-of-age/understanding of the world was heavily influenced by The Babysitter’s Club, the only thing cooler than push-down socks and papier-mâché bangles was the thought of having my own personal phone line in my room. (Just ask Claudia…she had it all.) I spent years pining away for my very own phone line as budding visions of entrepreneurship danced in my head. Meanwhile, my parents spent years insisting that our extremely fancy and high-tech cordless phone would be more than adequate for the phone needs of a preteen girl. It was a logic I begrudgingly accepted until the day I went over to my friend Liz’s house and learned not only had she received her own phone line, it was tied to a clear phone with neon innards. I had never seen anything cooler in my life.
Over the summer that followed, we spent countless hours hunkered down in her room calling our crushes on the clear phone and hanging up as soon as they answered. (The days before caller ID were truly a gift to timid teens.) We’d break occasionally to ride our bikes down to the local mart to pick up a pack of Fun Dip and the latest issue of Teen magazine so we could call the 800 numbers of beauty vendors advertised in the back to request free samples. (Side note: “Mood lipstick” is not a good look.)
Thirty years later, I find myself clutching a very expensive piece of telephone technology; a very distant cousin known as the iPhone. Its capabilities surpass anything I could have imagined. We’ve not only fulfilled, but surpassed, most of the 1988 prophecies Epcot Center predicted we’d see “some day in the future.” Unimaginable things my younger self simultaneously marveled and scoffed at. (Imagine being able to see the person you’re talking to on the phone while you’re talking to them! Impossible.) The future is now, but for some reason I still find myself thinking about that clear phone.
It occurred to me last night, as I was drifting to sleep, that the clear phone was one of the first — and best — marketing lessons I’ve ever had. In a day in age when everyone was creating the same drab product, the clear phone went the opposite way. They opened the kimono. Rather than just creating a product, they created a story. They let the world see the guts and grit of what was going on behind the curtain (or under the plastic, if you will.)
It’s a lesson that has stuck with me throughout my life. And while technology and color trends have changed (thank goodness), this particular lesson is perhaps even more relevant today than it was 30 years ago. It’s no longer enough to create a good product. Anyone can create a good product. Everyone (mostly) is creating a good product. When you’re just in the business of creating a selling a product or a transaction, loyalty is zilch and consumers will go wherever the best deal is. That’s a really hard way to compete. If you want your brand to thrive, you’ve got to be in the business of selling your story. Selling a way of life. Selling a memory. Selling a different and better way of doing things. You’ve got to let people in and give them a peek at not just what you do, but how you do it and why it matters.
You’ve got to give people a reason to still find themselves thinking about you thirty years down the road.