How To Build Positive Marketing Stories That Work

Want your story to go viral online? Just follow these three universal story elements, all of which were hardwired into us as the human mind evolved.

How To Build Positive Marketing Stories That Work

Throughout human history, the stories that have survived and been passed from mind to mind have been based on human beings’ higher values. And in a marketing landscape that has gone from broadcast to peer-to-peer, these ancient rules will apply more than ever. That’s why in past posts in this series we’ve explored the critical importance of basing marketing efforts on values. Still, it goes without saying that viral success takes something more–some spark of joy or emotion or outrage that takes a message from launch to world famous in seconds.


That something more can be revealed by looking at a couple of the most iconic Internet viral successes through an unlikely lens–the evolution of the human brain. What we’ll discover are three universally powerful viral story elements: Freaks, Familiars, and Cheats. Anyone who wants to be heard in this world of noise and clamor has a stake in understanding these shortcuts to audience attention.

Let’s begin our explanation by looking at two of the most outrageously successful viral videos of all time: The Gregory Brothers’ Bed Intruder and Old Spice’s The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (see videos below). We’re talking hundreds of millions of delighted views for these two odd and compelling pieces. They are a marketers wildest dream. Yes, these story triumphs took advantage of character, conflict, and plot–the classically understood elements of story. But how could we possibly reproduce these stunning successes using only such general and conventional elements?

I propose we go back to our deepest roots and enter a time machine to discover the earliest days of our oral tradition. What we’ll look for in our travels are clues to the resonance of Bed Intruder and The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.


A side note before we begin: Our search here focuses on viral Internet video, which has become a dominant digitoral art form. But the lessons to be learned from video are not limited to this medium–they form the basis of effective storytelling for all types of marketing in our post-broadcast age. Let’s begin our journey way back in time with a visit to Adam.

This guy lived about seventy thousand years ago on the savannah of East Africa. If you’re reading this book, Adam is in your family tree. We find his unique genetic marker passed through the Y chromosome from every father to every child born today. Adam’s social world is much simpler than ours, of course. His is not an interconnected world of 7 billion people. He knows of no more than a few hundred souls. He lives the life of a hunter-gatherer in a clan of about ninety extended family members. A small, flat social network dominates his experience.

There is general agreement among scientists that our brain structures have not evolved much since Adam’s day in the sun. Here’s how we know: Adam’s lifetime coincided roughly with the moment that humans left the small territory in Africa they had long inhabited and began to disperse around the globe. At that time, ours was a relatively homogeneous gene pool. Today, that pool remains strikingly homogenous. Take any three humans from anywhere in the world and compare their genetic makeup. Despite variation in visible traits that seem overwhelmingly important to us, like skin color, height, or hairiness, you’ll find less difference between these three humans than between three chimpanzees taken from the species’ small territory in Africa. There’s only one way to explain this continued similarity in the face of the widely varying environments we now inhabit: since Adam, we simply haven’t changed much at all.


If our genetics haven’t changed a lot, neither have the brains we’re born with because our genes hold the blueprint for the brain’s structure. We’re still working with Adam’s neural architecture. If we brought Adam back to the future in our time machine, provided we picked him up at birth, he’d grow up to fit in perfectly with us modern humans.

Having the same brain as Adam also means that, despite our totally different upbringings, we share many of the same ways of sensing the world around us. In his persuasive book On the Origin of Stories, which traces the rise of storytelling through an evolutionary lens, Brian Boyd explains that genetics deeply influence how certain types of information in our environment grab our attention. An organism’s world, or its search field, offers so much input that if the organism were to focus equally on every piece of sensory data offered to it, it would be totally overwhelmed, following an infinitely large number of search paths.

Evolution, writes evolutionary scholar Henry Plotkin, solves this problem by “gain[ing] knowledge of the world across countlessgenerations of organisms, it conserves it selectively relative to criteria of need, and that collective knowledge is then held within the gene pool of species. Such collective knowledge is doled out to individuals, who come into the world with innate ideas and predispositions to learn only certain things in specific ways.” (italics mine)


In other words, whether you’re hunting on the savannah or choosing between millions of videos on YouTube, your brain is programmed to ignore almost everything and home in only on what is most important or interesting. Otherwise you’d be pointing your spear at every tree and rock or, just as annoyingly, you’d belost in an infinite trail of video links, hoping in vain to find something worthwhile. Fortunately, as we’ll see, our genes are programmed to cut through almost all of the nonsense and direct our attention directly to nonsense we’ll find interesting, like The Man Your Man Could Smell Like.

With an understanding of the discriminating nature of our genes, we can begin to construct the basis for stories that grab our attention and stay in our memory. This is a very different, but complementary, approach to building resonance based on myth structure. Where Powers’s first commandment, Tell the Truth, is about deeply connecting with audiences’ values and identities, Be Interesting is all about getting noticed by them in the first place. In Bed Intruder and The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, I’ve chosen two case studies that isolate the power of Be Interesting from the resonance building of Tell the Truth. These are not empowerment stories that leverage the power of myth–far from it. They’re pointless nonsense that still found a path to at least temporary breakthrough success. Because they lacked much truth, they aren’t lasting iconic victories, but they are undeniably interesting.

But Adam’s getting tired of all this theory. He’s walking away. Let’sfollow him and see what he finds interesting. What’s his mind scanning for in his search field? The answer is freaks, familiars, and cheats.


While we follow a few steps behind Adam, pull out your mobile device and watch Bed Intruder and The Man Your Man Could Smell Like. Ask yourself why these videos were such digitoral hits and jot down a few one-word explanations for the success of these pieces. Sure they’re funny, but push your explanations to go deeper. We’ll soon see that Adam’s brain provides enormous insight into why your brain responded the way it did.


Here we go. Something is catching Adam’s eye–another human being. So much of Adam’s brain is devoted to identifying other humans that within 170 milliseconds he realizes that the face he’s spotted is not one that he recognizes and to Adam this is a major red flag.

The widely accepted social intelligence hypothesis tells us that the greatest evolutionary pressure for social animals comes from our need to interpret the identity, status, and intentions of other humans and to use the information we get to our best advantage. This is what nature has designed us to do.


The fact that the stranger is human makes her interesting. The fact that she breaks Adam’s idea of a normal human puts her on the fast track through his brain to the front and center of his attention. Jerome Bruner, a giant in the field of cognitive psychology, says the very structure of our brains favors attention to the weird: “Our central nervous system seems to have evolved in a way that specializes our senses to deal differently with expected and with unexpected versions of the world . . . The more unexpected the information, the more processing time it is given.”

In the largely anonymous landscape of our modern life, we have come to take unknown faces for granted. Our social intelligence is not always on red alert because the presence of strangers is no longer, in itself, a threat or opportunity. On the other hand, a stranger who looks unlike any other human we’ve ever seen will set off alarm bells and we have to force ourselves not to stare.

For Adam, this woman, though she may be average in her own tribe, is a freak. She does not fit into his definition of normal and that demands his focused attention as a matter of life and death.


The beginnings of Adam’s encounter illustrate two things about Adam’s brain. First, that nothing is as interesting to a human being as another human being. Second, one of the most interesting types of human beings is a novel human being–a freak.

So Adam’s brain is scanning for clues about what to do. Most of his attention is on the strange woman’s face, but then, he glances down at her body and notices that she’s wearing a shell bead necklace. This is unusual too, and it triggers a memory of a story he’s heard often around the campfire. What his brain finds interesting in the plane of reality, it also finds interesting in the plane of imagination. So the stories Adam tells and hears are full of all kinds of freaks–giants, pygmies, forces of nature in human form, and animals that can speak. He has heard a story about the Shell People too, a tribe that, in legend, once sheltered an ancestor of his.

It is no coincidence that Adam has heard this story. Stories, in fact, are designed for just this type of situation. Brian Boyd arguesthat one key function of storytelling is to make us more expert in social situations, to prepare us for an unusual encounter just like this one. Stories speed up our ability to understand and respond to complex scenarios. Of course, we’ve all experienced a novelmoment just like Adam’s in which we don’t know the right way to act. Often we’ll turn to a story we’ve heard, true or fictional, that provides us with a lesson–a moral–that we can apply and act on.


People love stories about people, especially people who instantly stand out from the crowd. The lesson here is that to grab attention, we must bring our ideas on everything from climate change solutions to better ballpoint pens out of the abstractions of facts and claims and into the realm of expectation-breaking characters. Audiences will pay attention because they want to see, or hear, what these freaks will do next.

Antoine Dodson of Bed Intruder and Isaiah Mustafa of The Man Your Man Could Smell Like are freaks. If you found either of these characters displayed in a single frame as a tiny thumbnail on awebsite, you’d be compelled to click. This alone is a major advantage provided to freaks in our quick search age. Dodson, with a handkerchief sloppily tied to his head, frizzy hair, scraggly beard, and sticklike arms poking through a tank top, is instantly worth our attention. Our brain wants to put him into the neat category of TV-news crime victim, but his head wagging and totally unconvincing expressions of menace defy all expectations of how a typical person might react to an intruder. We’ve never seen anybody behave this way in this situation. Spend a moment watching and listening to Antoine Dodson and you will never forget him. We are immediately drawn into the story of Bed Intruder because its star won’t let us look away.

It’s hard to look away from Isaiah Mustafa too. With his statue-worthy pectorals and resonant deep voice, Mustafa is one kind of freak marketers have always loved–the perfect-looking man. This catches our attention, but it’s not until Mustafa breaks all expectations of the advertising sex symbol that we’re riveted. With a shower running full blast in the background and Mustafa’s opening lines, we recognize that Mustafa is going to be laughing with us at his own beauty. This ad is someone worth watching both for its star’s physical perfection and, because unlike every other perfect man, he’s willing to joke about it.


Our brain registers both of these characters as something new. Freaks inspire big emotion, whether it is fear, curiosity, attraction, or humorous delight. In these two examples, our social brain focuses in right away and we are laughing within a few seconds.

If, as you watched these films, you jotted down words like wild, bizarre, unforgettable, or drop-dead gorgeous, you were likely responding, in part, to the freaks on your screen.


Back on the savannah, Adam is still considering the intriguing stranger he has just encountered. But now, remembering the legend of the Shell People, he lets his guard down a little, and rather than run to his tribe with an urgent warning, he decides that he will try to communicate.


He proceeds carefully. He wants to reach out but does not go through the elaborate greeting common among his tribe, which he knows the stranger will not understand. Instead, he smiles

A smile is a universal human social sign, and Adam is not surprised that the woman understands and smiles back. She then puts her hand to her throat and gives a small cough as she frowns andmoans slightly. Then she smiles again. Adam instantly understands, she’s thirsty! But more importantly, he learns to his delight that they can communicate.

In this interaction, the strangers have found a way to remain as the most important things in each other’s search fields by meeting each other on common ground. Had Adam gone through an elaborate greeting ritual specific to his own tribe or had the woman chosen to start jabbering in her own language, they might have frightened each other, or at the very least frustrated attempts to communicate.


Now Adam’s social brain is engaging even more deeply. His attention had initially been grabbed because the woman was a freak but had she been so freakish that communication was impossible, his attention would have turned away from a positive interaction with her. Thanks to some simple communication markers, however, the woman has now taken on characteristics of a familiar.

If marketing guru Seth Godin had been in our time machine, he might want to remind us that our modern world can be seen as a return to tribalism in which people gather around shared interests. These tribes form strong bonds no matter how niche or geographically far flung they are. They also form networks of trust through recommendations and sharing of information they care about. This is essentially what a Facebook wall is or how a social bookmarking service like Digg works. These tools help tribes create a language of familiarity with each other that becomes their members’ main sorting strategy, the best way to navigate the flood of information of the digitoral era.

As marketers, we are much like the thirsty stranger in Adam’s story–we’re not yet members of the tribe, but our success depends on communicating with it. If we’re lucky, we’ll be novel enough to capture a tribe member’s attention. But to hold his attention and eventually have him bring us back to his kin, we must make ourselves instantly familiar by speaking a language that he can understand. We must meet him not where we’re coming from but where he’s already at.


People speak so many different languages of familiarity that in the broadcast era, marketers had to use a strategy that approximated Adam’s smile, speaking a language universal enough that a very broadly defined demographic could respond to it. Today, as people have been empowered to choose what media they take in, the smile is no longer the only, or necessarily the best, strategy. Marketers can now encode messages to be familiar to a single specific tribe.

Doesn’t speaking the language of one tribe exclude all others? Here we need to see how the tribe metaphor is imperfect. It would be hard to imagine a single individual seamlessly sharing membership in twenty literal tribes. But in the digitoral era, we can be foodies, underground Reggae fans, baseball enthusiasts, and political junkies all at once. As marketers, when we craft stories to resonate deeply with one tribe, we are more likely to turn that tribe’s members into evangelists for our message. A targeted message will first be ushered through the tribe it was designed for, and then those tribe members use it to reach out to other tribes in which they also claim membership. As a tribe member, I can–using the power of personal recommendation–share a great foodie story I’ve come across with my baseball tribe. In doing so, I am expressing my passion and also personally vouching for a message that will direct a hot-dog-scarfing Mets fan to the delights of fresh, sustainable food. In this way the encoding of familiars into a story doesn’t so much limit a message’s reach as provide a spark that can catapult it to success.

This strategy of building deep familiarity markers into a message is what I call arming the choir. Most of us resist the strategy. We get so afraid of “preaching to the choir” that we forget that through the web of tribes they belong to, our choir members are our best conduits to the wider public. We fail to meet our audiences where they are and wind up meeting nobody. Adam’s stranger deftly avoided the tempting strategy of shouting, “I’m thirsty!” in a foreign tongue. Marketers, on the other hand, often fall right into that trap.

Bed Intruder is a perfect example of how familiars form the second building block of an interesting story. By the time the Gregory Brothers discovered Dodson’s news segment, it was already picking up viral steam, powered by its strong use of freaks (and, as we’ll see in a moment, cheats). By inserting cameos of themselves into the story and introducing a hip-hop aesthetic, the Gregory Brothers helped the movie to meet several tribes on their own turf. The remixed version of Bed Intruder quickly became an inside joke to the millions of political humor fans who watch Auto-Tune the News. It also became familiar, and thus cool enough to share, to the fans of mainstream hip-hop, who recognized the piece as a parody of rapper T-Pain and his widely imitated auto-tune sound. Recognizing that this was a story designed for them, these tribes began to spread it among themselves and then quickly to other tribes of which they were members. Instead of relegating Antoine Dodson to a hip-hop or political parody niche, these familiarity markers lit up the brains of readymade evangelists, who turned the message’s momentum into an avalanche. “This story is not just communicating,” these fans said. “It’s communicating with us. Let’s spread it.”

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like also owes its success to familiars but, as something closer to a broadcast piece, it is less laser-focused on specific tribes. Anyone can relate to how Adam drew a sense of delight from the fact that he and the stranger shared a common life experience and a way to express it. This is thesame delight we get from a parody, in which we instantly recognize that its creators share a cultural reference point with us. A parody is an inside joke between strangers with whom we suddenly feel kinship. It’s a powerful strategy for creating familiars.

Mustafa seems to be addressing “ladies” with the piece–“Hello ladies, look at your man . . . ” In fact, he’s addressing anyone exhausted by the overblown claims of consumer product advertising that for years have treated people like fools. The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is a perfectly executed parody of just such an ad. According to its creators: “We’re not saying this body wash will make your man smell into a romantic millionaire jet fighter pilot, but we are insinuating it.”

Mustafa constantly changes locations throughout the ad: “You’re on a boat with the man your man could smell like. What’s in your hand? Back at me. I have it. It’s an oyster with two tickets to that thing you love. Look again. The tickets are now diamonds. Anything is possible when your man smells like Old Spice and not a lady.”

Without the familiar, shared language of beauty product ads, Mustafa would still be a freak, but a creepy one. “Who is this guy and what is he trying to say?” we’d wonder. But Mustafa becomes a familiar freak, and a beloved one at that, when we realize we are both inside the same inside joke. We both know that Old Spice won’t deliver any of these laughable features, but we could care less: we’re too busy bonding.

By adopting the strategy of familiars, the makers of both of these pieces added a second brain-stimulating, attention-grabbing element to their stories. “Not only is this novel,” our brain says, “I can relate to this.”

Looking back at your notes, if you wrote down words like hip, current, pop-culture, or parody, you may be responding to the familiars before you.


Adam and–I can’t resist–let’s call her Eve, are now becoming comfortable with each other. Adam feels sympathy for Eve and hands over his antelope-skin canteen filled with fresh water. Even before he lets go of the bag, though, he starts thinking about those beautiful shell beads. He can’t help but wonder if this woman will give him one in return. His brain, in fact, is evolved to wonder.

Natural selection provides us with a tricky problem in explaining the development of social creatures. There is, no doubt, an advantage conferred on animals that hunt in a team. Packs or tribes that cooperate with each other are more likely to survive and pass on their genes. In order to hunt together, however, tribe members must all trust that they will share in the kill. This is where itgets complicated, because we’d expect that those who grab as much of the meat for themselves, excluding others, would get the most nutrition, becoming the most robust and fit to reproduce. So while evolution might favor a tribe that learns cooperation, evolution’s favoritism for individual members who hoard or cheat should make cooperation impossible.

Natural selection has solved this problem by favoring tribes where elaborate emotions and social systems have evolved topunish cheaters, build trust, and allow cooperation to thrive–inother words, to build altruism. Uniquely armed with complex language, humans have mastered this art far better than any other animal.

One way that our brains have evolved to make altruism possible, with all the benefits of social behavior it provides, is by automatically paying close attention to situations where established norms are either being upheld or violated. We want to be sure that if we behave altruistically, our partner will too–otherwise we’re evolutionary suckers.

Let’s go back to the action to see how this plays out. Eve takes a long swig, then returns the antelope skin. She gives him a smile of gratitude. Now Eve bows her head, smiles again, and walks away. What, no gift in return? Wait, she’s a cheat! Adam stares in disbelief as Eve strolls off into the distance, never to be seen again.

We’ll never know why Eve didn’t reciprocate. Perhaps she just happens to be antisocial or maybe in her tribe, the smile was adequate reciprocation. Eve’s motivation is of no concern to Adam, though. He’s simply angry.

This negative exchange will not just be an unpleasant memory for Adam, it will likely become the basis for a riveting story to share with his tribemates. He may even embellish it to provide extra suspense and drama, perhaps adding a satisfying punishment for Eve to provide resolution–as she walked away he heard her singing to herself, pleased with the uneven exchange, and this attracted a hungry crocodile. Anthropologists believe that simple real-life events like this one formed the basis of embellished folk tales that have lasted for millennia.

Brian Boyd says such stories have been absolutely critical in human development. Before we had rigid power structures to enforce altruism–like police who arrested you if you didn’t pay for your cab–we told stories that reinforced social expectations, and reassured us that those who don’t meet them would be penalized. Some scholars go so far as to say that stories to reinforce altruism explain belief in God. Having a higher power to send cheats to the fiery depths is itself a story that reminds us that cheating is a bad strategy even when nobody’s looking.

Adam will feel compelled to tell the story of the exchange with Eve. Just as the prior legend of the Shell People’s gentleness prepared Adam for a productive encounter, the legend of their poor grasp of reciprocation will prepare future tribe members to be wary of any altruistic exchange.

Here’s where Adam’s story of indignation gives us a deeper understanding of the resonant stories than the old model of conflict between characters. Conflict doesn’t need to be simply about good guys fighting bad guys or one character standing in the way of another’s goals. The kind of conflict that really rivets us is the story of cheats, people who are in opposition to established norms of behavior. The story is resolved when they are either punished for their behavior or evade punishment, perhaps paving the way for new norms. If the social norms that are being cheated are norms we admire–kindness, reciprocity, creativity–the cheat becomes the villain. We hope to see her punished. Some familiar and timeless examples of this story include Sisyphus, destined to roll a rock up a hill for eternity because he was a poor host (he killed his guests); Ebenezer Scrooge, punished for his lack of generosity (though ultimately redeemed); and Icarus, who plunged to his death, a victim of his own disobedience to his father and his lack ofhumility before the gods.

In our modern society, where norms are constantly in question and often appear no longer functional, the mirror image of these stories has also emerged, and they’re just as powerful. When the norms being resisted are ones we detest–soulless conformity, unjust hierarchy, abuse–the cheat becomes a rebel, and we listen to the story hoping she will overthrow these unjust norms. This formula explains the enduring nature of stories such as The Wizard of Oz, in which a young girl reveals the illusory power of a ruler; Robin Hood, in which social inequity is cunningly subverted; and Pretty Woman, in which social class constraints on marriage are torn down. Whether they be villains or rebels, in the digitoral age of short attention spans, homing right in on cheats lets us cut directly to the chase attracting maximum audience attention.

The viral videos we’re analyzing are no exception. Bed Intruder seems to be successful because those viewers who saw past its exploitation of tragedy found it hilarious. We’ve seen already that the video’s freaks and familiars are major contributors to this. But what raises the emotional stakes and seals the deal is Dodson’s totally unexpected reaction to a situation we find extremely compelling. Someone has just tried to assault Dodson’s sister in her own bedroom. This is horrible. We are prepared to feel righteous indignation and anger toward the villain, a cheat who has violated a social norm we almost universally uphold–a woman’s right to safety. In his comically absurd way, Dodson establishes himself as the sympathetic hero as he seeks justice: “You don’t have to come and confess. We’re lookin’ for you. We gon’ find you.” It’s a story we’re programmed to be hooked by.

If Dodson were just yelling at his mom for forgetting to buy milk, he never would have been on the news in the first place. Thenews, in fact, is almost wholly focused on finding cheats and highlighting their stories. It was the criminal cheat that made the story compelling and emotional and primed us to witness anger, indignation, and maybe even violence. Instead we get something totally different: Dodson’s clownish rant. Millions burst out laughing and forwarded it to their friends.

The Man Your Man Could Smell Like is also funny because of a cheat–“your man.” The central joke is that your man is using women’s scented body wash. He smells like a lady! This creates an irresistibly amusing little morality tale in which someone who cheats a norm–men should smell like men–risks punishment in the form of losing his woman to someone who smells like he should. Just as Mustafa parodies the handsome pitchman, he perfectly parodies the classic tale of the hero who punishes the cheat, and we instantly respond to the joke. Without it, there’s no story and no breakout success.

If you wrote words like outrageous, uncomfortable, or conflict as you watched these videos, you may have been responding to the cheats baked in. So Adam didn’t get what he wanted out of the exchange with Eve. But he did get the elements he needed to tell a great story, and so did we. Freaks, cheats, and familiars are indispensible tools–and now your tools–for building stories that work.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell–and Live–the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. Copyright 2012 Jonah Sachs. All rights reserved.


About the author

Jonah Sachs is a digital marketing pioneer who created some of the internet’s first viral social change campaigns. He writes about storytelling, creativity and the work of groundbreaking innovators