SOURCE: Free Range Studios

Free Range Studios

July 23, 2012 11:32 ET

In the Digital Age of Peer-to-Peer Engagement, What's Old Is New: Communicators Who Tell the Best Stories Will Win the Day

The Story Wars Are Upon Us -- Whether Selling a Product, a Candidate or a Cause, You Will Only Prevail by Telling Compelling, Authentic Stories; The "Broadcast" Messages That Have Dominated Marketing Will Falter, According to Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs

OAKLAND, CA--(Marketwire - Jul 23, 2012) - All communicators need to adapt to a new digital era, one based on audience engagement and peer-to-peer sharing, in which truth and positive values will reign over ad spending and volume. In the evolving digital world, messages are not broadcast: they are shared, much like oral traditions of the past. Just as with the ancient traditions, today's successful messages will be those based on positive human values -- a storytelling formula that has persisted through all cultures and epochs.

"The story wars are all around us. They are the struggle to be heard in a world of media noise and clamor. Today, most brand messages and mass appeals for causes are drowned out before they even reach us. But a few consistently break through the din, using the only tool that has ever moved minds and changed behavior -- great stories," says Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell -- and Live -- the Best Stories Will Rule the Future (Harvard Business Review Press, July 2012).

In Winning the Story Wars, Sachs, digital entrepreneur and co-founder of Free Range Studios, describes how we are on the verge of a new era in communications -- one that is modern in its digital tools and formats, but harkens back to ancient traditions of shared myths and oral storytelling. This "Digitoral Era" presents enormous opportunities for communicators who understand that audience empowerment is essential to creating break-through messages, and that the best way to empower an audience is through mythic storytelling.

Great Stories Are Part of Our Human DNA

Myths and stories form the foundation of culture, and we can't live without them, Sachs argues. They establish our identity and shared values. "When you look at what myths really are, they're a form of 'viral storytelling.' They last for generations because they allow the listener to internalize the myth, live it out in their own lives and share it with others in the community."

He points out that the stories that thrived in the survival of the fittest landscape of the oral tradition were based on an ancient mythic formula known as "The Hero's Journey," in which the audience is called to adventure, toward a moral lesson and a higher purpose. Think of the story of Moses.

But the Traditional Mythic Structures Faltered in the Broadcast Era

In the modern consumerist age, those ancient narratives have crumbled. Marketers stepped in to fill the gap, creating new myths that defined how we should live. And they did it with "inadequacy" messages -- creating a sense of urgent need (for a mouthwash or a prestigious car) and then selling a quick fix. Instead of appealing to our higher values and purpose, inadequacy messages appealed to negative instincts like fear, insecurity, shame, envy and greed.

"The Broadcast Era -- the past 100 years -- made us marketers lazy. Audiences were guaranteed, so we could simply treat them like captive sales targets, not free-thinking partners. Many marketers forgot how to tell enticing stories. We learned to rely on the typical marketing speak that carries on to this day -- even though it no longer works," says Sachs.

The Tables Are Now Turning: Once Again, Storytelling Has the Power to Move Audiences to Share a Message

In the new Digitoral Era, communicators with an idea to promote will not be successful without getting people to take up their message and make it their own -- and pass it along. Sachs believes that that the structure and function of the mythic stories make them perfectly suited to the "crowdsourcing" of the digital world, where the audience shares and re-tells narratives, much like in ancient oral storytelling traditions.

"Communicators who master the art of storytelling and myth-making will achieve the greatest triumph: People will internalize the story and continue telling it -- whether it's about an idea, movement, brand or product -- long after the initial message has been delivered," Sachs says.

What Makes a Great Story? Positive Values and Authenticity

The audience is more likely to internalize a cultural message, activate their networks and virally spread a story or endorse a brand if doing so means spreading values they care most about, according to Sachs. In the book he includes dozens of examples of values-driven heroic narratives, from VW's "Think Small" campaign for the original Beetle, to Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign launched in 2004. In a recent interview, he discussed a viral video from the Chipotle restaurant chain: "It was such a powerful statement of values that people shared it voluntarily. It required no distribution on the part of the company. Owing to its online popularity, it was even shown as content on The Grammy Awards, which was worth so much more than paying for a 60-second advertising spot."

These narratives differ from inadequacy messages like those in Listerine ads in which a young woman dubbed "Sad Edna" would never find a husband because of her bad breath; or the "Daisy" ads for Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign, which implied that voting for Johnson's opponent would doom America's children to die in a nuclear holocaust.

Why Do the Tea Party and Occupy Movements Resonate? Both Use Mythic Storytelling

Even conflicting stories can be successful as long as they are values-based, heroic and authentic. Sachs points to the Occupy and Tea Party movements, "Both weave compelling myths around powerful special interests who killed the American Dream."

While their narratives are contradictory, they each deploy key elements of the Hero's Journey to get their message across: each offers a powerful story, with the audience in the role of the hero, to help them make sense of the world. And each offers rituals for fighting back against evil, powerful special interests. The stories are told and re-told, the rituals shared over and over, binding people together in a community built on common values and beliefs.

"That's the power of myth-making and storytelling at work. It's up to the audience to fully vet the story, assess its truthfulness, then consent to participate in it and share it. That's why it is in our own best interest to know how myths work -- otherwise we risk participating in something we don't fully understand," he says.

In The Story Wars, The Stakes Are High: Weak and Inauthentic Stories Risk Failure, or Even Backlash

In the new Digitoral Era, communicators no longer have control of their own story: anyone and everyone can weigh in, tune out, spread the word or completely reject a story. Therefore, communicators who rely on outdated or inauthentic strategies are destined to fail.

Old strategies like inadequacy marketing turn off audiences and make them less likely to share the message. The model of using money to simply push a message at the audience will also likely fail because such campaigns are rarely designed to drive engagement. The book includes dozens of examples of companies and organizations whose storytelling missteps led to disaster, including: Fiji Water, BP, Kenneth Cole, Pepsi, Groupon and the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and George W. Bush.

According to Sachs: "Marketers and communicators can no longer dictate the story. When it comes to delivering a powerful enduring message, it's no longer survival of the richest; it's survival of the fittest. Only the strongest stories will survive, those built on 'empowerment' messages that appeal to positive human values and follow the ancient heroic storytelling formula that has persisted through all cultures.

"That's how oral traditions work, and how stories build culture. That's how you find the sweet spot where audiences can't wait to be part of your story -- no matter what your product, candidate or cause."

For more information or to speak with Jonah Sachs, author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell -- and Live -- the Best Stories Will Rule the Future (Harvard Business Review Press, July 2012), please contact Katarina Wenk-Bodenmiller of Sommerfield Communications, Inc. at (212) 255-8386 or

Jonah Sachs is an internationally recognized storyteller, author, designer and entrepreneur. As the co-founder and creative director of Free Range Studios, Jonah has helped hundreds of social brands and causes break through the media with campaigns built on sound storytelling strategies. His work on legendary viral videos like "The Meatrix," "Grocery Store Wars," and "The Story of Stuff" series has brought key social issues to the attention of more than 60 million viewers and his interactive work has been honored with "Best Of" awards three times at the standard-setting South By Southwest interactive festival. Jonah and his work have been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, FOX News, Sundance Film Festival, NPR, The Colbert Report, and in Fast Company Magazine, which named him one of the 50 most influential social innovators. For more information, visit, or follow him on Twitter @jonahsachs.

Free Range Studios works with visionary companies and organizations to create story-based brands, transforming clients' visions for a better future into emotionally compelling media -- from interactive and mobile to print and video. The company has offices in Washington, DC and Oakland, CA. For more information, visit Follow them on Twitter @freerangestudio.

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