The Experience Economy Revisited

Why an acclaimed concept still resonates two decades later

Photo of Case Western Reserve University faculty member James GilmorePHOTO: Roger Mastroianni

James Gilmore helped spawn a business philosophy that went global.

Twenty years ago, James Gilmore, now a Case Western Reserve assistant professor, co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article introducing the "experience economy." It spawned a renowned business philosophy that swiftly went global and still resonates.

The success of the article, "Welcome to the Experience Economy," soon prompted Gilmore and business partner B. Joseph Pine II to co-author the book The Experience Economy, which also drew international attention and critical acclaim for laying out the concept that providing basic goods and services was no longer enough to differentiate companies; instead they needed to create personal and memorable experiences for customers.

Since its 1999 release, the book has been published in 19 languages, and, in 2009, it was included in The 100 Best Business Books of All Time co-written by the founder and former president of the business book company 800-CEO-READ.

"We didn't invent it," said Gilmore, a member of the design and innovation faculty at the Weatherhead School of Management. "We merely described the shift that was happening, gave it a name and helped accelerate the phenomenon."

During the intervening years, Gilmore has documented the advance of the experience economy with several follow-up books, including Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want in 2007 and an updated version of The Experience Economy in 2011.

Gilmore and Pine, who in 1996 co-founded Strategic Horizons LLP, a business-consulting firm in Aurora, Ohio, have cited doll company American Girl and tech-support provider Geek Squad as some of the earliest examples of companies providing well-crafted and executed experiences.

Today, Gilmore said, the experience economy has transformed many existing industries and given rise to new types of businesses. For example, online lodging company Airbnb has changed the way people think about travel with its various options for accommodations, while newer business concepts focus on more participatory experiences, such as escape rooms, where people solve immersive puzzles to spring themselves from a locked room.

In 2008, Time magazine featured the Gilmore-Pine book Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want in an article about 10 ideas changing the world.

Gilmore's perspective on innovative business thinking began developing in the early 1980s at Procter & Gamble, where he managed company railroad tank cars used to haul soybean oil shortly after President Jimmy Carter's administration's deregulation of the freight-rail industry created new opportunities.

Gilmore said he reconfigured the company's fleet, generating profits instead of costs.

Gilmore incorporates many of his real-world learning experiences and ideas from his books in his courses at the Weatherhead School, where he began teaching in 2013. While the experience economy likely will continue growing, Gilmore said he'd like to see innovations that encourage people to escape the fixation on screens, particularly handheld ones.

"My own view—and maybe I have a book in me on this—is to shift from FOMO, the fear of missing out, to JOMO, the joy of missing out," he said. "These differing consumer mindsets would foster fundamentally different types of experiences."

—Jonathan Katz