SOURCE: Free Range Studios

Free Range Studios

September 11, 2012 10:42 ET

Obama vs. Romney -- Who's Winning the Story Wars?

Vastly Different Narratives Presented to America; Obama's Story, Which Casts Americans as Heroes, Appears to Have the Edge but the Battle Is Far From Over

WASHINGTON, DC and OAKLAND, CA--(Marketwire - Sep 11, 2012) - Coming out of a bruising summer characterized almost entirely by negative attacks and a lack of focus on a compelling vision for the future, both presidential candidates used their convention speeches to -- finally -- declare the "story" they intend to tell and defend over the coming months.

"It has long been understood by political analysts and even some of the candidates themselves that the best stories tend to win elections," says story analyst and marketing expert Jonah Sachs. "Going into the conventions, neither candidate had done much to communicate his story. But those stories are now very clear and how they play out could determine who wins this election."

A political is one that stresses heroes, villains and an epic pursuit of values over statistics, claims and policy proposals, says 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).

Obama Finally Offers Up a Story for 2012

Before his convention appearance last week, President Obama had downplayed, even abandoned, his effective 2008 story, summed up in the slogan "Yes We Can." In this story, the American people played the role of hero with the candidate standing up not as savior but as inspiration for voters to band together, engage in citizenship and make difficult sacrifice.

Sachs calls this approach an example of Empowerment Marketing, a strategy in which the audience takes on the primary role in the story. Though much less commonly used than Inadequacy Marketing, which leverages fear and insecurity, Sachs says the empowerment approach has built iconic brands such as Apple, Nike and TOMS shoes and was the centerpiece of Obama's 2008 successful White House bid.

During Thursday's acceptance of the DNC nomination, Obama clearly and decisively returned to this theme and its messages of "hope" and "change," Sachs says, despite the advice of experts who had written off the value of such an approach because of widespread voter disappointment in the direction the country has been heading.

Repeating the theme "you did that," Obama attempted to tell a story of a country in its ascendency with the American people responsible for its ongoing success: "My fellow citizens -- you were the change," Obama declared as he reclaimed his 2008 story strategy, says Sachs.

And Obama returned to his message of difficult struggle rather than easy solutions ahead: "Our problems can be solved. Our challenges can be met. The path we offer may be harder, but it leads to a better place."

The Risks of Obama's 2012 Story: One is not Naming a Villain

Obama repeatedly emphasized that his presidency is an unfolding story, with past chapters of repeated success and with many chapters yet to come. "A story based on hope and change is easier for a challenger to tell than an incumbent, and Obama faces the serious risk that his story will lose some resonance because many voters have seen evidence that the last four years did not bring the change they desired," says Sachs.

"Obama's story strategy has always avoided naming a clear villain. And that's dangerous for him this time around because people can clearly see things are broken. In times of insecurity and fear, people seek explanation. If the president can't provide that, the blame will default to him and his story will be in peril," Sachs says.

Romney's Story Risk: Inadequacy Marketing and Casting Himself as Hero

If Obama's story has struggled to name its villains, Mitt Romney's story had struggled through the summer to name a compelling hero. Focusing almost entirely on Obama as villain and the message of failure -- of big government, of the president, of the hoped-for economic recovery -- Romney painted a picture of America in decline. Most voters, however, were left unclear about the alternative offered, according to Sachs.

In an effort to build his story rather than put forth policy alternatives, Romney focused his convention speech almost entirely on introducing himself as a compelling hero who could solve our nation's chronic problems, Sachs says.

"'So here we stand. Americans have a choice. A decision,' Romney declared. 'To make that choice, you need to know more about me and about where I will lead our country,'" Sachs points out.

Romney's focus, from that point on, was largely on himself, his own story and his ability to create a better future from saving Medicare to creating 12 million new jobs. Romney has now introduced himself and his running mate and rounded out the story he intends to tell -- a story of America on the precipice and being driven over it by a man who didn't understand the importance of business. Romney's story offers a change-or-die narrative and a hero who stands in stark contrast to the failure now occupying the White House, according to Sachs.

"In harnessing the fear and disappointment of a nation and offering to step in as the hero to heal it, Romney's is a more traditional Inadequacy-Based Marketing approach. In story terms, this strategy casts the audience in the role of damsel in distress and the candidate in the role of white knight," Sachs says.

Romney's Hope: Use the Debates to Hand the Role of Hero to the People - and Take a Lesson from John Kerry's Failed "Me-Focused" Campaign 

"Inadequacy marketing dominated the one-way broadcast era, which is now dying thanks to social media," Sachs continues. "The approach has lost its currency. If he misses this point, I think Romney's story will fail. He needs to use the upcoming debates to hand over the role of hero to the American people -- or else history tells us he will lose."

While bleak news, such as disappointing jobs reports, reinforce Romney's story, Sachs believes Romney would do well to heed the lessons of John Kerry's failed 2004 campaign. "Despite widespread voter dissatisfaction with the status quo, Kerry's me-focused campaign, which left little role in the story for the millions of Americans he was reaching out to, cost him the election," Sachs says.

With both Obama's and Romney's strategies now introduced to the public, the challenge for the candidates, according to Sachs, will be to extend them and synch them with the news of the next two months. There is peril for Obama's story if economic troubles continue and he fails to effectively find a villain to blame them on. He would do well to note that less than 10% of voters approve of U.S. Congress. On the other hand, Romney's story faces the danger of overemphasizing failure, further depressing an unmotivated electorate while missing the chance to provide these voters with a key heroic role in his story.

Story Wisdom for Both Candidates

As the "Story Wars" continue to unfold between the candidates, Sachs notes several further opportunities and risks for Obama and Romney:

  • Both candidates have made a mistake by treading too lightly around the race and religion stories. Obama would do well to overthrow his apparent fear of being seen as "the angry black man," and Romney would do well to introduce America to his faith and connect it to the mainstream. Obama has been reluctant to name his villain -- Congress, which holds but a 10% approval rating and is the target of American rage. Obama might do better to reflect that rage and bind his audience to him in a story of triumph in the face of corruption and inaction. Fear of seeming too angry may still be driving the Obama campaign and personal style -- and be undercutting his best story ever. And Romney is not doing himself any big favors by ignoring his religion. He could tell a story of freedom that has always made America great -- tying it to a larger theme of economic freedom and freedom from government interference.
  • When it comes to Romney's Bain Capital story, Obama has stolen it. It may be time for Romney to tell his Olympics story more richly. Romney's Bain story has become more of a liability than an asset. The Obama campaign has made it toxic enough that Romney's backed away from it, except in the most abstract way. However, Romney's story of rescuing the 2002 Olympics remains a personal and managerial triumph, and in the wake of the 2012 Olympic fervor, it may be time to tell this story as one of American transcendence that can be repeated.

To speak with Jonah Sachs, or to receive a copy of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell -- and Live -- the Best Stories Will Rule the Future, please contact Katarina Wenk-Bodenmiller of Sommerfield Communications, Inc. at (212) 255-8386 or katarina@sommerfield.com. More information and a video illustrating the Story Wars can be found at www.winningthestorywars.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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 culture 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. Follow him on Twitter @jonahsachs.

ABOUT FREE RANGE STUDIOS
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 freerange.com. Follow them on Twitter @freerangestudio.

Contact Information