Everybody shares pictures of puppies, kittens, and gophers online. People rarely share branded content, but when they do prolifically, it goes viral. For example, Pepsi’s “REFRESH” project brought in 80 million votes the year it launched and tallied 3.5 million Facebook fans. Virgin Mobile’s “Retrain Your Brain“ ad reached nearly 2 million people in its first week out and Red Bull’s “Stratos“ was seen more than 170 million times in 2012.

Why did these campaigns explode?

In his book Winning the Story Wars, author Jonah Sachs addresses this by using examples of other successful campaigns, explaining how the use of psychology and mythology helps map the battlefield for the modern marketer and storyteller. How can such individuals thrive in the digital era? By reversing tradition and casting their supporters, rather than themselves, as the heroes, according to Sachs.

He shares charts, checklists, and creative exercises to help brands and agencies isolate their values and develop engaging stories. On a basic level, a good story has a moral, a hero, a villain, and conflict; it needs to avoid what Sachs calls the “Five Deadly Sins” of marketing, which are: vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery, and gimmickry. A good story employs archetypes to make it instantly relatable and understandable. It uses “freaks, cheats, and similars” — characters that people have evolved to pay attention to — and creativity to make it engaging and entertaining.

But above all else, a good story is truthful.

Apple’s influential “1984” Super Bowl ad is an example. It’s set within the drab, gray nightmare of George Orwell’s novel of the same name. Legions of stupefied people stare upwards at a man’s face on a screen, under the spell of his authority, as a woman in bright athletic clothing runs down a nearby hall chased by guards. She carries a sledgehammer and hurls it through the screen, after which Apple declares that “1984 will not be like ’1984′” because of the introduction of the first Mac. That’s creative dynamism, suggesting that everyone who buys a Mac helps to add color to life and challenge authority.

Nike’s 2008 “Courage” campaign doesn’t offer a magical solution to athletes. It doesn’t declare that Nike shoes will make them faster or stronger. It simply opens with the words: “Everything you need is already inside” and drives that message home with a montage showcasing an emotional gamut of failure, struggle, and victory. The message is, by striving for greatness and unlocking your full potential, you will become a winner. Don’t you want to be a part of that story?

Sachs covers many other campaigns and ads — including Green Peace’s inventive “Ken leaving Barbie“ video — to examine why brands tend to fail or succeed. He examines his own work too. He co-created The Meatrix and Grocery Store Wars, two parodies that tackle the food industry and have reached tens of millions of people.

He calls on marketers and advertisers to tell tales that change the world for the better. After all, that’s what people really want. Successful brands say what other brands are afraid to say: “We are not the solution. You are.” Successful brands don’t make themselves the focus, but instead make their fans the heroes in an overarching story that strikes a universal chord and leads to glory.

Did you hear that? Ten thousand tweets were just deployed. That? It wasn’t a gatling gun, it was one million Facebook Likes. Propelled by honest narratives, you’re succeeding on the battlefield of stories, my friend.

So take a deep breath and ask yourself: what stories will inspire, embolden, and move the consumer that my client wants to reach? Also, am I sure this story is worth fighting for, or does the brand need to live out a better narrative?

While Sachs provides the map throughout his book, it’s now up to you to take the lead. Godspeed.

Watch this cool illustrated promo for the book titled “The Myth Gap: And How The Best Marketers Fill It.”

Any thoughts on prolific, positive ad campaigns? Have you read Sachs’ book? What did you think of it if so? Let us know in the comments and connect with us on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn.

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