I was walking through a Barnes & Noble book store two summers ago when a book in the business section caught my eye. It said “Story Wars” in large letters across the front. That was all I needed to see for my interest to be piqued.
As a lover of stories my whole life (books, comics, movies, plays, anything)–and a passionate creator of them in my free time–I loved the idea of combining one of my deepest passions with my professional responsibilities. And the subtitle, “Why Those Who Tell (And Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future” tickled a suspicion I’d been nursing for a while.
At the time, I had just taken on a consulting job where I was hired to help a design agency build out their blog and online publishing strategy. As I worked on that strategy I became frustrated with the status quo of the blogging industry. Particularly in their approach to content strategy. It felt too reliant on lists, formula, and link bait. Nothing felt original or even genuine.
I knew that my best posts, the best content that I came across on the web, and most pieces of viral content all had one thing in common: first they grabbed my attention and then they struck a deep emotional cord, compelling me to interact and share. Sometimes this was sadness, sometimes this was camaraderie, hilarity, or something else entirely. The point is that these pieces of content (some of them not even very well produced) possessed an intangible element that I had yet to figure out. It was frustrating the hell out of me.
As you can imagine, this was particularly annoying when it happened in my own work. How could I not see what was happening? If I could only understand what it was about one blog post versus another that caused it to go viral, I would rule the internet! Or at least that’s how it felt at the time. That’s why I honed in like a laser on Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs when I saw it on the book shelf. It claimed to have figured out what that intangible thing was–the key to something deeper and more meaningful–and how I could consistently tap into it.
Well, after reading this book several times since that fateful day, I can happily report that it has completely changed the way I craft content and content strategy online. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. To show you why, I’ve gathered together some of my favorite ideas and excerpts from the book below.
Winning the Story Wars Trailer – The Hero’s Journey
Story Wars Key Insights: Archetypal Marketing Based on Jungian Psychology & Campbell’s Hero Journey
Winning the Story Wars contains a lot of commentary on the state of marketing today (broadcast era vs. “digitoral era” and empowerment marketing vs. the “evil” or “dark art” of marketing) but at its core it brings to light and then clarifies a few key insights.
The first being the anthropological observation that human beings today are still the same human beings (genetically and developmentally) as those of the paleolithic period, which lasted hundreds of thousands of years. That’s a long time! Especially when compared to the modern age, which has lasted perhaps 100. Or the digital age, a mere 30 to 50 years. And in some respects, that’s being generous.
Take a second. Let those numbers sink in. Ok, read on.
The idea that author Jonah Sachs latches onto is the simple but profound idea that there is a deep “encoding” still present in modern day humans that is left over from our longest stretch of history (and indeed some even deeper, primordial source, beyond human development, going all the way back to the most basic biological ground). A sort of unconscious set of psychological patterns of consciousness or what Carl Jung called Archetypes.
These archetypes, as Sachs’ line of thinking goes, which are so important–perhaps even fundamental–to how humans communicate and develop have more or less been suppressed by the last 100 years of broadcast media. At least insofar as they were not necessary for successful mass communication or idea adoption. Since in the broadcast era, those with money, not those who were able to harness the sincere interest, will, and basic drives/passions of the masses where able to communicate most successfully. Now however, we have the internet and connected devices breaking all of the broadcast era rules and ushering in a new, digitally empowered, oral tradition. One where ideas once again thrive or die based on their ability to evoke the archetypal patterns of the human psyche.
Luckily for Mr. Sachs, mere decades before his journey began, a scholar of mythology was already building upon Carl Jung’s ideas about archetypes and had constructed a pattern for human inner development and wholeness represented throughout every storytelling tradition the world over.
His name was Joseph Campbell, and he is the creator–or perhaps simply the discoverer–of the Hero’s Journey. A metaphorical map charting the course of the archetypal self who must overcome their ego and attain a state of mature wholeness (also commonly known as self-actualization). Which makes the second and most prominent insight of Sachs’, that this map, which has already been proven in the realms of both ancient and modern storytelling, could also be adapted to marketing as the ideal vehicle for brand messaging on a deep human level.
Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey
Viewing Your Audience & Brand Through an Archetypal Lens
While those familiar with either Campbell and (especially) Jung know, understanding the concept of archetypes is no simple task. To avoid getting into potentially confusing terms and their definitions, suffice it to say that for the purpose of both this post and the book Winning the Story Wars what we’re actually concerned with are archetypal figures. Conscious representations of archetypal ideas in the form of characters in a story.
In Campbell’s Hero Journey there are eight primary character archetypes:
- Wise Old Man or Woman
- Threshold Guardians
- Shadow (or enemies)
While all of these archetypes are helpful in crafting your full hero journey and the various stories that will eventually comprise your brand’s ongoing narrative, there are a few key parallels that must first be outlined before the Hero’s Journey can be adapted to marketing your brand.
Hero = Target Audience
Probably the first instinct and the biggest mistake someone could make when trying to use the hero’s journey to market their brand, according to Sachs, is to cast their brand as the hero. While the brand may be the hero in your eyes–as the big solution to an important problem–the most effective way to cast your brand (in terms of marketing) is as a mentor figure.
So who’s the hero? Your target audience.
Mentor = Brand Persona
By positioning your brand as a mentor you instantly become an authority figure in the eyes of your target audience. One who they look to for guidance, empowerment, and–here it is–answers to important problems. Such as the problem that your product was invented to solve.
Call to Adventure = Brand Tagline / Call to Action
Great brands have always found a way to succinctly and provocatively insight their ideal customers to action. Apple’s tagline “Think Different” is sighted in the book at this point, along with many others. A good call to adventure (or in business terms, call to action) is not a hard call to buy. It’s a call to act, both personally and at large, based on shared values.
Magical Gift = Shared Value Affirmation & Empowerment
In stories the Mentor figure often bestows upon the hero a magical gift that will help them succeed on their journey. In this case the Brand Gift is meant to function as an affirmation of shared values and a tool which empowers one to act on those values according to the call to adventure.
For instance, Apple told the world to “Think Different” and used images of famous artists and activists to spur their customers to reach for greatness by going against the grain of culture. Their brand gift was that through their products they were providing you with a way to join this tribe of world changers. Their brand gift was culture status. Their call to action was to change the world by saving it from boring conformists with creative action. They just happen to make elegant and powerful tools for creatives.
The Moral of the Story & Boon = Brand Values & the Resulting Change of their Embrace (both personally and for the world)
Every great myth, fairy or folk tale has a moral. A value that lives at the center from which everything else is derived. In this version of the hero’s journey the values of your company form the moral of the story and the “boon” or great prize is won through the full embrace of said value(s), resulting in a changed or saved world.
Jonah Sachs’ Brand Archetypes (Variations of the Mentor)
Throughout the history of storytelling there are innumerable versions of the Mentor archetype. The same is true for brands. These seven however, identified by Mr. Sachs in Story Wars, may be the most commonly successful archetypes harnessed by the best brands of the last 100+ years.
Our imaginations are stirred by the idea of boarding a ship heading for terra incognita. We all secretly wish to dive into the deepest unknown, the unexplored corners of the Earth and our souls. Most of us dream of these adventures but prefer to stay safely at home. Not you.
You revel in leaping beyond unusual solutions. Visionary new ideas are your lifeblood, and none are dismissed as too bold. You are curious, innovative, brave, and optimistic about the future.
FAMOUS PIONEERS: Sacajawea, Davy Crockett, Ernest Shackleton, Amelia Earhart, Steve Jobs
PIONEER BRANDS: Levi’s, Patagonia, Samsung
KEY VALUES: Richness, Uniqueness, Truth
SHADOW: The independent-minded Pioneer can be blindly devoted to newness and adventure, making this archetype, at his or her worst, too impatient to stick around for long-term value building.
Without order, there is chaos. But order left unchallenged too long leads to only one end: complacency and tyranny. You know this and seek a creative destruction of the status quo. You are driven by the idealistic vision of a better way. Where you tear down a problem, you also point the way to a solution. You value freedom of action and expression and are fearless, uncompromising, and creative.
FAMOUS REBELS: Che Guevara, John Wayne, the Rolling Stones, Rosa Parks, Bansky, Ron Paul
REBEL BRANDS: Apple (early days), Occupy Wall Street, Harley-Davidson, Virgin
KEY VALUES: Justice, Uniqueness, Truth
SHADOW: The Rebel is easily mistaken for the Vandal, who drifts away from creative destruction toward nihilistic disorder.
We are all born believing in miracles. When reason tells a child she has reached the limits of what can be done, she utters magic words, believing she can transform the world. As adults, many still cling to a belief in transcendence even as the magic words are silenced.
But you see no reason to settle for what others say can be done. You are creative, irreverent, and energetic.
You believe that imagination and play can move mountains. You revel in surprising and delighting those around you. and while you seek to share the gifts of your magic, you prefer to keep its secrets for yourself.
FAMOUS MAGICIANS: Merlin, Johannes Gutenberg, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Michael Jordan
MAGICIAN BRANDS: Pixar, Make a Wish Foundation, TOMs Shoes
KEY VALUES: Playfulness, Perfection, Beauty
SHADOW: Around Magicians hangs the air of mystery; to some, that mystery may smell of fraud.
Even staring deeply into the mirror, we may find it too painful to truly see our own follies. Yet, ignorant of our own weaknesses, we are doomed to be overwhelmed by them. You provide us the only way to peer behind our masks, as people and as a society, through the safety of humor.
You disguise yourself in the cloak of innocence, making us believe that laughter is witless fun. But you know it is not. You are deeply intelligent, seeing reality more clearly than others and then finding a way to show it in the most unexpected ways. You are playful but decry nonsense. You are also extremely brave, unafraid to hold a mirror up to the powerful.
FAMOUS JESTERS: Coyote (the Native American Trickster), Bugs Bunny, Mark Twain, Jon Stewart
JESTER BRANDS: Ben & Jerry’s, the Yes Men, GEICO, the Muppets
KEY VALUES: Playfulness, Justice, Simplicity
SHADOW: Jesters must always resist the temptation to fall into frivolity, turning the beauty of life and its possibilities into an endless joke.
It is the rare hero who can accept the call to adventure when it is only a whisper in a dream. But when called forth by a bold and decisive leader, heroes seem to appear everywhere. As the Captain, it falls to you to bring out heroic action and steadfastly guide those who choose to follow.
Your great strength comes from the trust you inspire, and that is derived from your clarity of vision and an ability to make yourself understood. You are idealistic, confident, tireless, and brave. And while the door is open to you to revel in glory and power, you do not lose sight of your true goal–to empower those around you to become leaders themselves.
FAMOUS CAPTAINS: Odysseus, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Wangari Maathai, Oprah
CAPTAIN BRANDS: Obama for America, Nike, Livestrong, Newt 2012
KEY VALUES: Wholeness, Perfection, Truth
SHADOW: Captains must resist the constant temptation to hold tightly to power and issue orders rather than inspiration; if they don’t, they quickly become tyrants.
That which is most beautiful, precious and irreplaceable is often most vulnerable. Beneath your armor of resoluteness, you are driven by a deep love for those people, things, and principles that cannot protect themselves.
You leave it to others to stake out the future. Your job is to defend that which is sacred but may be lost. You are strong, sensitive, selfless, and resolute. You are often seen quietly scanning the horizon until your sense of justice is violated, at which point you spring into single-minded action.
FAMOUS DEFENDERS: John Muir, Jane Goodall, Ronal Reagan, the Tea Party
DEFENDER BRANDS: Greenpeace, the Republican Party, the Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts
KEY VALUES: Justice, Perfection, Wholeness
SHADOW: Defenders are indispensible to any society, but they are often the last to accept needed change. Many have fallen by the wayside when they fail to recognize the need to loosen their grip on the past.
Observe a person’s life from afar and you will likely find repetition, pattern, even drudgery. Yet each life is punctuated by moments of inspired action, when the spirit is lifted from its day-to-day slumber. These moments bring meaning to our existence. You draw these moments out in others, inspiring through your example of beauty, creativity, and love.
You have a deep faith in those around you and believe humans were born to transcend. Your strategy is to quietly lead by example. You are humble, imaginative, creative, and optimistic. You want nothing more than to see others reach their full potential for self-expression.
FAMOUS MUSES: Charles Darwin, Federico Garcia Lorca, Martha Graham, Maya Angelou, Bob Ross
MUSE BRANDS: Lego, IKEA, Etsy, Home Depot, Apple (modern day)
KEY VALUES: Beauty, Richness, Uniqueness
SHADOW: The gentleness of the Muse is often exactly what’s needed, but at times this archetype may drift into passivity when his or her voice and influence is needed most.
3 Keys to Standing Out in the “Digitoral Era” (or How to Be Interesting)
As anyone who has ever spent a long time crafting something amazing, meaningful, and deep for an internet audience knows–none of it matters if you can’t get anyone’s attention. Which is why Sachs spends a lot of time towards the end of the book explaining some hard earned principles he’s discovered about viral content; again drawing from anthropological, biological, and psychological data as well as his own extensive experience.
For him, there are three keys: Freaks, Familiars, and Cheats. To explain these principles he uses a fictional anecdote about an ancient human named Adam who meets another ancient human named Eve.
[Adam] 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 on 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 one 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 take 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 no 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 fin 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 StoriesI, 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 attention. An organism’s world, or its search of 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 countless generations 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.“
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.
To illustrate how this process works, the anecdote continues beyond it’s theory and into the interaction between the two ancient humans.
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 spotting is not one that he recognizes and to Adam this is a major read 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 version of the world…The more unexpected the information, the more processing time it is given.”
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.
Adam is  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 greetings 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 and moans slightly. The she smiles back. Adam instantly understands, she’s thirsty! But more importantly, he learns to his delight that they can 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 the 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.
At this point the anecdote continues to describe Adam giving Eve a drink, but expecting a shell from the necklace she is wearing as a gift in return. Why?
[Because] 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 it gets 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 to punish cheaters, build trust, and allow cooperation to thrive–in other words, to build altruism. Uniquely armed with complex language, humans have mastered this far better than any other animal.
It’s at this point that we find out that Eve, after enjoying a satisfying drink of Adam’s water, simply smiles and walks away. Evoking a strong feeling of indignation in Adam. This indignation, as we’ve just learned, is a result of our evolution and it can be relied upon to manifest not just in personal experiences but also by those who relate to a character through the events described in a story.
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 that 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 of humility 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’ and Pretty Woman, in which social class constraints on marriage are torn down. Whether they be villains of 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.
Winning the Story Wars will teach you how to use archetypal symbols, themes, and motifs to create compelling narratives that will capture your audience’s attention, use identifying tribal markers (such as shared values) to become familiar, and then compel them to take action based on the inherent emotional power of story structures like the hero’s journey. In those respects it is a great resource that I can highly recommend.
However, after reading many of the books sited as sources for Winning the Story Wars I can’t help but feel like this particular book is best used in a supplemental capacity. The insights offered here are great for a certain type of marketing but I think those who take the time to study Campbell and Jung’s works separately will realize that their ideas are much more expansive and flexible than the somewhat limited framework created by Mr. Sachs.
A perfect example of this is the fact that in this book Mr. Sachs only explores one basic plot: the quest. It’s extremely versatile to be sure, but I think brands could benefit greatly from learning about other plots like rags to riches, overcoming the monster, voyage and return, comedy, and rebirth too. Depending on the brand, or even just the specific campaign or use case, these plots can help keep things fresh and engaging at times when the quest plot is not as appropriate.
All of that said, this book is still a great resource all by itself. What I’m ultimately getting at in the two paragraphs above is that it gets better the more you learn about the ideas this model is based on. Ideally, I’d package this book with The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, Man and His Symbols by Carl Jung, and The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. But that’s just me!
What do you think of what Johan Sachs has to say in Winning the Story Wars? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section.
I’m a lifelong learner and doer. I use this site to track and share my progress on various side-projects and reading goals. My blog consists of what I have learned, discovered, and documented along the way.