Book Review: Winning the Story Wars

by Gregg on August 22, 2013

story-wars-coverI met with my buddy Mike Carrozzo at a Panera on a recent Saturday morning to talk shop, sports and other topics. He brought along the book Winning the Story Wars, by Jonah Sachs. Got to tell you, Mike, good share.

Sachs’ premise is that it’s your STORY that matters when building a memorable brand – especially in a world where every brand is screaming its loudest to be heard, across every available channel and marketing discipline: Print, broadcast, social media, advertising, direct mail, PR, etc. But if everyone is screaming, nobody’s being heard. Ask yourself: What brands truly resonate with you today? What do you really remember?

So what is a story? Here’s how Sachs defines it:

“Stories are a particular type of human communication designed to persuade an audience of a storyteller’s worldview. The storyteller does this by placing characters, real or fictional, onto a stage and showing what happens to these characters over a period of time. Each character pursues some type of goal in accordance with his or her values, facing difficulty along the way and either succeeds or fails according to the storyteller’s view of how the world works.”

Remember when you were a little kid? I’d bet that most nights before bed you wanted mom or dad to read you a story. It was something you needed or the day didn’t feel complete. Obviously, our needs as adults are different, but I’ve contended for awhile that we still need that type of experience only stories can provide to help us make sense of the world, particularly when there are so many choices to make.

Sachs dives into the deep end in Winning the Story Wars, and uses relevant examples from across history to make his point. For example, he lists five deadly sins of storytelling – vanity, authority, insincerity, puffery and gimmickry – and makes his point for each with a relevant story. Vanity is the first sin, and he relates the story of Narcissus to John Kerry’s run for the presidency in 2000 vs. George W. Bush. According to Sachs, Kerry’s messaging was more about him (his service, his resume, etc.), which became a litany, vs. W., who presented a narrative that resonated with voters.

He also spends a good portion of time explaining how brands should find their values, using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a basis, and express them through stories. “Great stories teach truths about the way the world works and they stand for something,” Sachs says.

Every story should have a hero, and he introduced me to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey Map, which shows the progression of the hero from the call out of the ordinary world into adventure; the influence of his/her mentor; testing, leading up to The Ordeal; seizing the treasure; and the road back to the ordinary world. I admit, Sachs dives so deeply into this that it seemed esoteric at points, but he has sections called Basic Training that lay out an approach for brand builders. Foe example, the section on Designing Your Core Story Elements succinctly explains the components:
-Brand Hero, or the collectively your target audience; think of them as your brand’s apprentice
-Brand Mentor, or your brand, which guides your hero
-Brand Gift, which is the creative thing that makes your brand special and influences your hero to pursue his/her values
-Moral of the Story, which is the brand’s core message
-Brand Boon…the payoff, or what the hero will add to the world with the help of your brand

This is a remarkable book, and one that requires a few reads to not only understand, but apply. It’s forced me to consider how the brands I represent on the job mentor their brand “hero,” i.e., target audiences; the next step is to find ways to apply this approach, and I’m mulling that now.

Since reading it, I’ve also been much more attuned to the story aspect of particularly advertising; think Ford and Sears’ narrative commercials that look like movie or TV promos. To me, they make those brands’ message more compelling – but I also wonder what happens when every brand is doing this. Will we be “storied out”? Sachs thinks not, because the brands with the best stories will “win” the Story Wars.

Tell me below – which brand do you think has the best story, based on Sachs’ description? Who’s winning?

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