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The Producer Behind “Story Of Stuff” On How Marketers Can Build Real Connections

The era of 30-second spots taking advantage of our insecurities may be over. Jonah Sachs argues that the companies that tell stories–that create modern myths–are the ones that will thrive.

The Producer Behind “Story Of Stuff” On How Marketers Can Build Real Connections

In The Meatrix, a bull named Moopheus approaches a pig named Leo on a seemingly peaceful farm and shows him that he’s really in a nightmarish factory farming operation. Moopheus, Leo, and a character named Chickity then come together to break free of the Meatrix. In The Story of Stuff, narrator Annie Leonard takes viewers on a visual journey through the problems of the material economy. These short videos may not seem like they have much in common (besides their viral success), but they both use storytelling to create modern myths. They aren’t just about pigs and factories; they’re stories that tell us who we are and how we should act–and in doing so, galvanize us to take action. Marketers could take a hint.

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According to Jonah Sachs, author of the upcoming book Winning The Story Wars and cofounder of Free Range Studios–the creative studio behind both The Story of Stuff series and The Meatrix–marketers who want to be successful today should focus less on making us feel bad about ourselves and more on appealing to our higher nature. Today’s marketers often rely on sales pitches playing on our fear, vanity, and greed that are barely disguised as stories. It’s not a particularly effective approach, but it hasn’t been questioned until recently.

“The broadcast era was an artificial selection landscape where bad habits and poor communication styles survived and thrived,” explains Sachs. “As marketers, we reflexively use those communication styles, but they only work when the transmission of ideas is held by gatekeepers.” Sachs believes that we have now entered what he calls the Digitoral Era–a time where the rapid spread of peer-to-peer communications is bringing back pieces of ancient oral traditions. For marketers to be successful in the Digitoral Era, they need to engage consumers to participate in meaningful campaigns; 30-second TV spots won’t cut it anymore.

Marketers don’t only need to become more engaging. Myths that make us feel bad about ourselves just don’t work as well as those that promise hope. “The myths that really work are the myths that help people go from adolescent dependence into mature members of society. The exact opposite is what has been used in the broadcast tradition. They make us feel infantile emotions and jealousy,” says Sachs.

Examples of this kind of poor marketing abound. Burger King’s Whopper Freakout commercials, for example, showed what happened via hidden cameras when patrons at the fast food restaurant were told that the Whopper was no longer available. The result: Customers became outraged. It was a funny viral campaign, but it’s unlikely that it inspired any larger brand loyalty.

There are also plenty of examples of marketers who have caught on to the idea of what Sachs called “higher-nature marketing.” Toms Shoes has been incredibly successful with this, turning founder Blake Mycoskie’s personal story of starting the company (he encountered Argentinian children with no shoes, and decided to start a shoe company that gives one pair of shoes to a person in need for every pair that is sold) into endless viral marketing for the company. Mycoskie told us as much in a recent interview: “I realized the importance of having a story today is what really separates companies. People don’t just wear our shoes, they tell our story. That’s one of my favorite lessons that I learned early on.”

It’s not just companies that can use this kind of marketing. Sachs cites the 2008 Obama campaign, the Tea Party movement, and the Occupy movement as other successful examples of higher-nature marketing. “The stories they were creating and the mythology created around them give people a sense of higher purpose and empower people to create their own movements,” he says.

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Sachs says that Winning The Story Wars, set to be released in July 2012, will be something of a “training manual for how to communicate in this new [Digitoral] era.” In the meantime, marketers would be wise to check out Free Range Studios’ gallery of work.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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