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Building Iconic Brands By Winning The ‘Story War’ In Mass Media

PSFK speaks with author Jonah Sachs about his recent book exploring what it means to be heard in the world of information noise and clamor.

Timothy Ryan, PSFK Labs
Timothy Ryan, PSFK Labs on October 21, 2012. @timjamesryan

PSFK recently got the chance to speak with Jonah Sachs, co‑founder and CEO of Free Range Studios.  Jonah’s work focuses on socially conscious marketing and messaging for brands that are trying to change the world. Jonah’s recent publication, Winning The Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future, explores what it means build brand through compelling stories that cut through a media saturated with messages over every medium. PSFK spoke with Jonah recently about what it means to be heard in the world of media noise and clamor.

What got you interested in the topic of storytelling?

I got interested in storytelling because about 10 years ago, I began exploring how all these new tools that were coming online that were making everybody into a broadcaster, essentially, instead of just having it in the hands of a few people, how that might change the kind of messages that spread. And I had this strong feeling that people would be more likely to spread messages of passion than simple advertising messages once everybody got their hands on the tools to pass messages around. So I started experimenting with what kinds of messages might get people to take action or spread the word about issues they cared about and what would help brands better communicate social causes that they stood for.

And after making a spoof of Star Wars about organic food, and a spoof of The Matrix about factory farming that really went crazy on the Internet, I started investigating these two movies that I had spoofed, and found out that they are basically created on ancient mythological formula.

I got really interested in myth, and how these movies were created, and how all kinds of iconic media gets created, and how that connects to the great stories that culture tells, and found that, if you want to be heard, the real common denominator, which is the stuff that spreads, are great stories that move people emotionally, that replace facts with characters, that speak to people’s highest values and make them see that they can be the hero of their own story.

I’ve been trying ever since to recreate the successes of my past, and use a firm grounding in storytelling.

Can you place storytelling in some historical context for us?

For almost all of human history, 99.9 percent of human history, we communicated in a particular way, which is the oral tradition. It’s a kind of survival of the fittest landscape. In that world, people own the idea when they have it and it transmutes over time. That’s how human beings have evolved to communicate. Then, for the last couple hundred years, we switched that on its head. Now it’s not survival of the fittest anymore. We have a broadcast tradition, where it became the survival of the richest. We have all these machines. If you can gain access to these elite machines, you can reach millions of people. Instead of traveling through social networks, as ideas once did, it just travels over these broadcast mechanisms.

But now that broadcast tradition is over, and we all see that you can’t reach people through broadcasting the same way, and people don’t trust broadcast anymore when there’s all this social media and recommendations from friends out there, I find that we’re actually returning to that oral tradition.

It’s back to a survival of the fittest landscape. Messages need to go out, and they need the permission of audiences to spread through social networks

If you ask yourself, in that oral tradition, what kind of ideas get passed and what kind of ideas die? It’s really easy to answer that question, because the only thing that really survives from oral tradition cultures, and always has, is their great stories. Those stories have lasted for millennia where all other communications have gone away.

You touched upon mythmaking. What defines a working myth?

Every society we know of that we’ve ever studied, been able to study, is based on these myths, these working myths. To have a working myth, they must be universally shared and they must provide four things, which is explanation, a clear idea of how the world works. Meaning, some sense of what that means in my own life, how I can live in accordance with it, stories, they take place in a different time, long ago and far away. When those four things all come together you have a working myth.

What’s been really interesting about our time right now is that those universal stories have begun to disappear. We don’t share myths anymore. We don’t believe them anymore. We think that myth has become a word for lie. A lot of people think we’re kind of the first society to not really have those kind of working myths.

In my research I found that there actually are some working myths in our society and those come from marketers. Because marketers have been the only place where we’ve been getting explanation. Every time a new product, a new service comes out, we get a new explanation of how the world should work.

So, for better or worse, marketers have really taken over that role of mythmaker in society and now our world really reflects that.

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Is there a danger in considering marketers as our society’s mythmakers?

In the 1940s and ’50s there were a lot of psychological assumptions about how human beings worked and what universal values they hold. There was a lot of advertising at that time while it was becoming story‑based, they were learning to tell stories.

So much advertising from the broadcast era really cast the audience as the damsel in distress and cast the brand as the hero to come along and save them. We see that in the old Listerine ads about the woman who never got married because she had bad breath and she’s 30 years old now and will never be married.

It’s a little anachronistic now, but it still survives in lots of ways. So that dark art which has created a society, I think, of people who need new kinds of myths, who are hungry for something different. The good news is that Joseph Campbell, who studied all myths across all times, said stories that people prefer in the oral traditions are not really about becoming a consumer, the helpless damsel in distress.

The stories that we’ve always loved are based on what he called The Hero’s Journey, which is about an individual who starts out in distress and actually becomes the hero themselves. Conquers their own fears, reaches for their deeper, higher value, and helps to make a better world, contributing to the community in the process, and making sacrifices along the way.

Those empowerment stories are actually the kinds that have always been passed around more quickly and robustly in the oral tradition. I see that really coming back now, that we’re entering a new marketing landscape where there’s an understanding by brands and marketers that if you want to reach people you have to empower them, you have to speak to their higher values and just frightening them and bullying them doesn’t work in a time of permission and permission marketing.

So in some ways empowerment marketing outlasts any other kind?

Empowerment marketing is kind of the opposite of inadequacy marketing. Where Freud thought that human beings were only driven by their lowest selves, Abraham Maslow comes along and says, “Well, Freud, you’re only studying sick people. What happens if we study healthy people?” He found that human beings are actually universally also driven by what he calls growth values and transcendent values. Human beings, at all points in their lives, want to be part of community. They want to stand up for justice. They want to seek truth. They want beauty and self‑expression.

It was a message that really called people to look deeper, to expose the truth, and then to live their values more deeply. I thought that that kind of thing would be coming up more and more in our new oral tradition. What I didn’t expect to find, though I did, was looking back over the broadcast tradition. I actually found that the brands that we most admire, even thought they’re the vast minority, the most iconic brands very often have, also, gone against the grain of inadequacy marketing and used empowerment marketing.

You look at something like Nike where all other shoe companies out there and all of the consumer brands are trying to show you how we can make life easy for you and convenient, which is traditional inadequacy marketing, “Life is too hard, let us make it easy for you.”

Nike came along and said, “No, achievement is really difficult. You have to dig deep within yourself. It will be painful. It will be hard. But we will be there along the way.” Instead of Nike being the hero of their ads, the viewer becomes the hero and is asked to dig deeper and connect to their deeper values. That was an amazing breath of fresh air and everybody embraced it.

Obama in 2008 didn’t come along and say, “I’m going to fix a broken world for you.” “Only you can fix it by working in communities.” I think we see that people really, actually respond and step up to these empowerment messages when they’re offered them and we’re going to see them proliferate more and more.

What are the obstacles to this?

One of the things that’s actually tricky in this new oral tradition though, is that with all the transparency out there it’s not going to be enough to simply spout these positive values and empowerment stories. With the new transparency of our times you’re going to have to live them.

If you don’t, you’re going to find pretty quickly, and I chronicle many places in our landscape in which brands that try to do this, but are not living out these stories that they’re telling, are being torn down by a public really interested in authenticity these days.

Does that leave you optimistic about the future of business?

I think there is a lot of hope. I think right now ‑‑ I wrote this book and started this exploration at a time where all the marketers and CMOs that I spoke to in the process of writing this book were feeling a lot of anxiety. There’s so much noise, there’s so much clamber out there, “How do I get heard? There’s an understanding that we need to do something different and we can’t simply be using the old tools of the past. Then, at the same time, there’s a public out there who’s looking for great stories to pass around and great pieces of content to align themselves with.

So I think that there’s an understanding that by business that is in their own interest, it’s self interest to start aligning themselves with people’s higher purpose and that there’s many iconic brands that are coming online now, like Patagonia or Chipotle and growing incredibly quickly by really not being afraid to speak to people’s higher values.

I think it’s a definite positive for us. I think there’s also a lot of negative ‑‑ one of the things that I want to be clear about is that just influencing companies to behave better is not going to save our world. And things like the Citizen’s United decision that puts unlimited money in politics. It’s a powerful force in the other direction.

So I don’t think we can abandon democracy as our most important tool for creating the world we want to create. But I think there’s a lot more opportunity for businesses and the public to partner as businesses realize that to be heard they have to stand for something. And if you stand for something you actually have to live it out.

What insights have you garnered speaking to these professionals?

One, that the hero is the outsider, not the insiders of the branch. The hero really is the audience. The brand plays the role of mentor, inviting the audience into some adventure to connect to their values and to believe more impossible. The mentor and the hero in these stories, the mentor doesn’t just come in the voice of God and order the hero to go do something. The mentor, actually, creates a very human relationship with the audience.

A second insight is really that we, as brands, can no longer speak in that voice of God, detached manner that we did in the broadcast tradition. We need to find our own, unique, very human to voice to create emotional relationships with our customers. The mentor gives a magic gift. Understanding what that magic, creative gift is that your brand gives to make a more difficult journey seem actually possible, another key.

Then, the whole thing is oriented around the moral of the story, a core truth about how the world works. So few brands can do it, but the best ones really do, do this. They find this resonance that people say, “Yes, that is an insight into how life in the world works that I would want to align myself with,” and then every communication stands for that.

Again, to go back to that Nike example, everything that Nike ever says points back to that simple core truth that everything that you need is inside of you. When you can create that consistency, you have not only telling great stories, but your entire brand becomes a story itself.

There’s a lot of opportunity, I think, to use all this ancient formula because there’s been so much testing going on. There’s been thousands and thousands of years of tests on different kinds of stories and only the fittest have survived. And we can then use those tools to make our stories survive in this new survival of the fittest landscape.

Can you point to an example that illustrates where  this idea was done particularly well?

 I mentioned, briefly, Chipotle a minute ago. I think it’s a really very interesting story of the passion of the founder for sustainable food and the passion of the founder for talking about his values. When he sort of re‑seized control of that company one of the first things that they did was they created this little viral video. It wasn’t intended for broadcast. It was hardly even promoted. It was just sent out to the small list of Chipotle fans. It’s just a little story of a farmer who sells his farm to become a factory farm, which converts his farm to become a factory farm. Then, the misery he goes through, the misery his pigs go through, the loss of meaning in his life. Then his reemergence, his changing his farm back into a sustainable family farm. At the very end you see, he puts his product on a Chipotle truck, which drives away.

Had beautiful Coldplay music performed by Willie Nelson and just very emotional, very story‑based. There’s no words in the piece. Just a little story about values and about what values Chipotle stands for and what values their customers stand for when they eat there. That thing got five or six million views pretty quickly and then became a broadcast piece because it was so popular that it started being run as content, was even shown at the Grammys as a piece of content.

What they got for almost no money, just the money to produce the little film, was this enormous reach, because they were speaking about values. The connection they made with their customers where they were not even showing themselves to be this major hero of their own story. But the connection that they got with customers was not just a little bit more brand recognition, but actual differentiation.

Here’s a fast food restaurant that stands for something entirely different than what we see before. This is something that I want to stand for, too. So this is why it’s one of the fastest growing fast food brands in the world right now is because they have not just good food, but they actually are very willing and able to talk about their values and put it in stories.

I think that’s a very exciting example that a lot of people obviously are trying to copy. One thing that I’ll definitely say is that storytelling is really an art and not the kind of thing where you can simply plug into a formula. You still need the beautiful execution. I do talk about that quite a bit in the book. It can’t just come off a strategy, but a great execution. But when you see it done right, everyone knows it right away and it does spread like wildfire.

Thanks Jonah! 

Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future 

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