Harvard Business Review Press was kind enough to send me a book called Winning the Story Wars, by Jonah Sachs. Storytelling is a concept you hear a lot about in the online world, but it seldom is dug into with great emphasis and detail. Rather, it’s more a peripheral look at how storytelling can make your business seem more compelling. This is true, but Sachs proves that there’s a lot more…well, there’s a lot more to the story.

Winning the Story Wars begins with a description of what Sachs calls the Digitoral age. According to Sachs, the competition for attention that is marking the 21st century is actually causing us to revert all the way back to the age of oral tradition, when stories were passed from one person to another. If you think about it, that’s a pretty brilliant way to describe what web 2.0 has done, right? You tell a story, a friend likes it, then another friend sees it, and so on. Marketers have really grasped this tactic, but some have been much more effective than others. Why is that? That’s the substance of the rest of the book.

Tell the Truth, Be Interesting, Live the Truth

There are three key components to using storytelling as a marketing technique. Sachs spends the most time on telling the truth because there are so many components to this. For example, Sachs notes that we have shifted away from “This product will make you feel whole” to “Participating in this community that is striving to improve the world will make you feel whole.” This is called empowerment marketing, and one of the companies that does the best at this is Nike. By showing people accomplishing amazing things and then saying, “Just do it,” Nike is telling you that you too can do amazing things. Of course, buying Nike products will help you, it’s implied, but the emphasis still rests on you becoming empowered to do amazing things.

Dove is another company that has excelled at using empowerment marketing according to Sachs. The idea that any woman is beautiful and that all women can use a simple Dove product rather than some super expensive salon foo-foo product is empowering for women who are always bombarded with photoshopped images of perfection. Now you can feel just as beautiful as anyone else. Dove can just give you a little boost.

Be Interesting

Now, “be interesting” sounds about as solid as “be awesome” but the way Sachs explains this is via the use of “Freaks, Cheats, and Familiars.” Freaks are people who fascinate us because they aren’t quite normal (as the name would imply). Sachs uses a surprising example to illustrate this mode of storytelling – the Old Spice “Man your man could smell like” campaign. In this campaign, Old Spice used a freak (a man who is extremely good looking in a classical sense and who has a great voice). Old Spice further took advantage of this “freak factor” by making fun of what made him freaky. Isaiah Mustafa is literally making fun of himself for looking so good.

Cheats means people who challenge societal norms. Sachs worked on a video called “The Meatrix” which explored the evils of factory farming, bu the video was a play off The Matrix, a story people were extremely familiar with at the time. Neo, of course, is your classic cheat. I mean, he convinces people they shouldn’t live in pods. That’s pretty good. An effective marketing campaign can take an “ordinary” person and present them as a person who challenges the norm and thus becomes a hero. This kind of story is one of the favorites among us homo sapiens. If you can find a way to use that kind of story for your marketing campaign, boy are you in good shape!

Finally, there’s the concept of “Familiars.” One can again turn to Sachs’ use of The Matrix as an inspiration for The Meatrix. People were familiar with The Matrix story and they knew characters like Morpheus. Sachs used a bull named Moopheus in his story – this gives people a feeling that they already kind of know the story, but it also keeps them interested in how you’re going to wrap your story in with the one they already know. One might not immediately draw parallels between factory farming and the Matrix, but once you start, you can plug in all sorts of similarities.

Live Your Truth

I enjoyed this chapter the most. Living your truth means that you can’t get carried away by your own story. The example Sachs draws on in this scenario is BP. Having created a campaign about how they were green, having changed their full name to “Beyond Petroleum,” and having convinced the world that BP was the most green, most safe oil company in the world, the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico transpired. What might have looked like a disconnect was actually the end result of years of safety violations and reckless behavior, but customers, world leaders, and the leaders of BP did not notice any of those problems because the story was so compelling. Sachs writes,

“When certain conditions are present, [Irving] Janis discovered, groups quickly reach consensus decisions with amazing disregard for obvious warning signs that they are on the wrong track. Extremely cohesive groups, oriented around a strong leader, will ignore or punish dissenting opinions.”

Now there’s some food for thought.

In short, I highly recommend this book. It was a fascinating read. The only negative thing is that there were rather more typos than I like to see in a book, which is always kind of a bummer. But that did not taint the content as a whole.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/soldiersmediacenter/3351707140/ via Creative Commons

I’ve written a new e-book called The ABCs of Marketing Myths. You can read about it here!