Susan McLennan: Jonah Sachs is known throughout the world as an author, designer, and entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and CEO of Free Range, and has helped hundreds of social brands and causes connect meaningfully with audiences through campaigns built on sound storytelling strategies. You probably know his work from legendary viral videos like The Meatrix, and The Story of Stuff series. Together they have brought critical social issues to the attention of more than 60 million viewers. Jonah, you’re here with me today. Thank you.
Jonah Sachs: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Susan McLennan: Glad to have you, and love your book, Story Wars. I think a lot of our conversation today will be focused around that. One of the reasons that I love it is that we do a lot of work in the social goods space, and I think it’s been a very helpful book in focusing, the social ills of the world are so overwhelming, and you have to start somewhere. I think the book is really great about giving people, who have a cause and who have a mission, a real starting point to shape their message.
Jonah Sachs: Thank you. That’s mostly why I wrote it.
Susan McLennan: Well you succeeded.
Jonah Sachs: I just wanted to be able to give social causes an even playing field with big corporate brands and all of the powerful messaging they put out there. And also, give big corporate brands a reason to be more socially focused.
Susan McLennan: It’s kind of an interesting time in the history of humanity because we’ve reached this tipping point where brands, big brands, have just unlimited access to power, it seems, because they can throw unlimited amounts of money at politics, and so much of it is kind of hidden. And yet, through technology, through social media, we have this disruption. Disruption is happening all over the place, and I think a big part of what your book is, is it’s giving small brands, small values-based organizations the tools to be disruptive, and to get that attention.
Jonah Sachs: Yeah, it’s interesting. I often do talk about how the sort of strangle-hold on the media marketplace has been often times broken by all the new technologies that we have out there. In a lot of ways you can’t buy that kind of audience attention that you once could in the past. It’s interesting that you mention at the same time that big brands are increasing their power in terms of their money and politics, and their influence over some of the more formal levers of power. But the good news is that we do get to choose what media we consume, what media we create, what media we pass around, and that’s very different than the dying broadcast era in which one person could tell us what we think by buying an ad on our favorite TV show.
Susan McLennan: It’s true, and even when brands create things, if it’s off, if it’s not really aligned with the core values that they are supposed to have, we feel it. You know when something is authentic or it quickly becomes apparent when it’s not authentic. All of this money being thrown around doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re achieving their goals.
Jonah Sachs: Yeah, that’s true. In the past if you were sitting there watching TV and an ad came on, it didn’t quite feel right, you thought, “This feel-good ad really reflected the company’s values.” You might have that sense that something’s wrong; you might even know that something’s wrong, but what are you going to do about it? Who are you going to tell, are you going to go stand out on the street corner with a picture of the advertisement, and a big sign scroll, “This is a lie”? No one would ever notice you, or it wouldn’t matter. You would just sort of put it out of your mind.
Now, when advertisements are created, that are not concordant with a company’s values, the internet lights up almost right away. I talk about the agents of authenticity, and there’s nothing more delightful on the internet than exposing lies and hypocrisies. In my book I kind of chronicle all of these failed ad campaigns where people try to put a positive sheen on practices that really were not helpful to society, and they really regretted it. And that’s a very new dynamic.
Susan McLennan: It is, and it’s a wonderful dynamic.
Jonah Sachs: Yes.
Susan McLennan: So let’s talk about story because that’s one of the things you do so well. What do you think stories do that facts can’t do?
Jonah Sachs: I think a couple of things. First, they connect with us on an emotional level that facts can’t. We are creatures that evolved to notice and to think in terms of, and to interact with other human beings and other individuals. Stories really take the big abstract concepts that facts embody, and put them in the lives of people that we can relate to. When we see those stories playing out, and the characters going through these adventures or difficulties, and we see them come out the other end, we say, “Oh. That could be me. That could happen in my life.”
Facts are ways of convincing people of abstract ideas, but stories are a way of playing them out of the human scale. There are all kinds of brain signs that show how that impacts us, and it impacts our behaviors far more than facts. Another problem with facts is that it’s not just about missing that emotional connection, but everybody is very used to the idea now that almost everyone has a platform for broadcasting an idea, such as, when you look something up on the internet, you don’t know necessarily where it’s coming from, what’s the veracity of it. Plus, we’ve lost faith so much in our truly empowered experts because we’ve just been lied to over time, and people have no faith.
Faith in experts has gone down quite a bit. When you use fact-based communication, you’re no longer facing an audience who reveres and respects you because you have access to buying a billboard or buying TV ads, and you’re kind of above them. They’re going to question and wonder. With stories, you don’t necessarily question and wonder. We believe because it connects with our values. If you think you are going to convince people by laying out a string of claims, you’re both missing the emotional connection and your credibility is probably lower than you think.
Susan McLennan: And there’s something about facts too, where they’ll actually cause people to dig their heels in their pre-existing beliefs. If you don’t adhere to that set of facts being true, they won’t convince you, they’ll just convince you of your already existing position.
Jonah Sachs: Yeah, we tend to see facts as whether or not they are concordant with our values and world views, and so if facts contradict our world view, we come up with all kinds of reasons that the facts could be wrong, or we interpret the facts, of course we see about the climate change all the time, and no amount of facts can convince some people because it doesn’t fit their world view. Stories have always been ways that people form shared world views. Try certain things, would share stories, and tell each other, “This is what people like us value. This is what people like us do, this is what people like us are trying to create.” And without stories, there could be no sort of shared identities, so stories are a really powerful tool for shifting a world view, not just shifting a kind of belief in a fact.
Susan McLennan: So what’s the difference, then, between story and a myth?
Jonah Sachs: There’s an obviously commonly held definition of the word myth that we use today, which kind of means a lie or something non-factual. That’s kind of a corruption of what the importance of myth has always been in society. Myths are really meaning stories. Myths have angered nearly every society that anthropologists have ever studied. They’re these core stories to tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we’re headed. Without myths, anthropologists have often said that societies don’t hold together. They combine these four things. One, they give us an explanation of how the world works. This is the core truth about how everything came to be, or the order of things. It provides meaning. We listen to these myths and we hear what this means in our own life. It’s not just about somebody over there having an adventure. We know that this is to pertain to and give instruction for our own lives.
Third, they are stories that take place long ago and far away, and so they enter this magical symbolic realm which is the realm of our dream. And four, they have rituals that go with them, and those four pieces when they come together, when you have that ritual and you live it out in your life, you actually start embodying and inhabiting this myth. Like I said, every society that has myths, we often think today that we don’t live by shared myths, and there are obviously some myths that have broken down. But I believe, as I write in the book, that we actually do have myth-makers still, and we’re pervaded by myths, we just don’t know it. Myths are kind of a way that people hold their society together through stories.
Susan McLennan: And we are kind of almost seeing the resurrection of myths as people consciously construct myths around values that they share with others. You mentioned climate change, whereas before it might have been church. You lived in a community, and the people that you formed your shared values with would have been the people within a certain radius who went to that same church. Now people are really forming those bonds wherever they live based on the things that they believe, and again through technology they can reach each other.
Jonah Sachs: Yeah, that’s true. We’re coming out of a time where the only myths that we have are really coming from brands. We have marketers who became our kind of myth-makers. As our old religious stories started to break down, marketers stepped in and gave us products, and gave us a new explanation of how the world works. They’re always coming out with a new breed of products. We learned to pass our identity based on the products that we consume. Stories, they’re telling us these great stories that we knew weren’t true, but it still helped guide our lives. Then rituals, they were giving us ways to go to the marketplace and become part of these stories. For about 50 years after World War II, marketers and brands and products became our primary myth-makers, and that’s why we see this growth, and this consumer society, and such a change in a single generation about what we value and what we think is important.
As you say, now that’s starting to shift again into which we can form shared communities around passions, around interests, and we start to create identities in new ways. And then some brands and companies that support these new ways of living are actually jumping into the myths. We’re creating new myths that become a part of them, too. An example might be [Inaudible 00:10:55], where you have this sort of movement, this sharing movement that has all this fanatical appearance to it, sharing economy that starts to be really noticed and named, and then you have a big brand that comes in to help accelerate it massively.
Susan McLennan: Yeah, that’s a really fascinating trend where instead of imposing something on the marketplace, you have an organization that is listening to the marketplace and saying, “Hey, we can be helpful here.”
Jonah Sachs: Yeah, that was not possible in the past. [Inaudible 00:11:26] you have this kind of controlled mentality because you really didn’t know what your customers were thinking or saying. You could pull focus groups together but it was all sort of guesswork. Now, there are so many tools for listening to what’s actually happening in the world, and tuning your brand to what your customers really want.
Susan McLennan: In your book you talk about, this is the same philosophy that we have. And in fact it was in the research for a book that I was writing that I discovered your then-just-published book which was very aligned with our philosophy because we write for television. The hero’s journey, that’s certainly a journey that we understand, and have employed and very much like you and what you talk about in your book are believed is that the brand is not the hero, but it is the citizen, the person who is interacting with the brand, or the person who is experiencing it. They’re always the hero of their own lives. It doesn’t matter what a brand does, I am the hero of my own life; you are the hero of yours.
What a brand can aspire to be is a mentor and you see that play out. You talk about Airbnb, and certainly others. You see when brands try and impose, “Hey, I’m wonderful. I’m either the best mentor ever or I am your hero,” really is what they’re saying. When they’ll promote a hash tag chat, their point is for you to have the opportunity to tell the world how wonderful they are, those almost always go off the rails. They get torpedoed.
People value what they co-create, so when people are left to kind of share their own experiences in their own way without that forced, “Here’s the framework in which we want you to share our story,” then they actually do it. And they do it beautifully, but that kind of imposed, “Now tell the world how wonderful we are,” just falls flat almost every time.
Jonah Sachs: Yes, that’s definitely true. The shift that I try to work on with my clients happens pretty quickly is, move away from saying, “Look how great we are,” and start talking to your audiences about how great you can be, or how great people think you have become. This is a very radical shift, and you’d think OK, I’m going to create an advertisement about my story, what am I going to say about myself? What am I going to say about my problems? And you just need to stop right there; it’s the most natural place to start and say, “Wait a minute. What am I going to say about my audience, what am I going to say about what they can achieve?” And we just see the best brands. Even in the old broadcast era, have always done what I call empowerment marketing, to help people reach for their highest purpose, reach for their highest values and desires, and that’s where you get that wild brand affinity.
You mentioned the journey, and that’s one of the models that I use to talk about storytelling. One of the insights from the hero’s journey is you’ve got this sort of helpless outsider. It could be an old person, or a teenager, a slave, or a hobbit, or something like that, and they’re the least likely person to change the world. [Inaudible 00:14:52] adventure, they actually become the hero of the story, the unexpected hero of the story. Of course the reason that that pattern of hero’s journey has been so successful throughout human history, is people listen to those stories and say, “Oh wait, I can be a hero too because that person became a hero. What can I do to become a hero?” I use it to point out that the hero in the story is not the knight in shining armor who flies out in the beginning with a map, with all the information. They’re not the insider to the story, they’re the outsider.
Susan McLennan: Yeah.
Jonah Sachs: When you think about it that way, you realize that you, the marketer, you are really an insider to all of this information, these ideas, and the passion about what you’re selling. If you make yourself the hero of the story, you’re making that opportunity for people to say, “Wait, that could be my story, too.” If you think about the outsider, and the audience is just discovering your brand, that becomes the hero of the story that you tell, and yet you can start seeing yourself as that mentor, that Obi Wan Kenobi character. You create that really human relationship, and help that hero reach their highest potential.
Susan McLennan: I love how you framed it too, in your conversation. The old broadcast form of marketing is inadequacy marketing, where you make the person at home feel inadequate unless they have your product, versus this new model that you talk about that smarter brands are using. That being empowerment marketing. I love that for a number of reasons, but one of the things you talked about earlier, about how old brands were trying to convince you that your life would be better if you had this to fill the gap. And of course that just raised us to understand disappointment and failure. Everybody else would have that great life if they just bought that particular product. But for some reason, it isn’t working for me, and the problem must be me.
Jonah Sachs: Inadequacy marketing has worked in the past, certainly. It has given us the society we have today in a lot of ways basically. It’s based on the supporting idea that people are only activated by their lowest values, and flood came out of that because we lived through some pretty horrible times. In the myths, we saw people were greedy, and violent, and dangerous, and angry. You thought the only way to stimulate people was to speak those fears and desires, and even [Inaudible 00:17:13] picked that idea up, Freud’s nephew, originated or most modern advertising technique in the ‘20s and ‘30s, picked these ideas up and built this whole idea that the best way to advertise is the world is a dangerous place, you don’t have enough, you don’t have what you need to get through it. But wait, here comes this knight in shining armor, here comes the hero to rescue you, the damsel in distress, and says you have this dream. Do you want to have bad breath when you get married? If you have this Chevy you will have the status you want. If you have this medication, you can save people.
All of those things built a major, major consumer society that worked for them. It didn’t work for breaks in citizenship. Now you have all these people who basically are running around feeling like they have no power and no ability to influence their world when they get less and less involvement in civic rights, and more and more involvement in marketplace.
It has become a moral problem with it, I think, how to treat your customers as the damsel in distress and yourself as the hero, but it also is working less and less because the dynamic has changed. Imagine basically you’re watching TV, and an ad comes on that tells you you’re a jerk, and that you don’t have to be a jerk if you buy this product. You look around, and no one’s there, and so you sort of wonder, “Maybe I am a jerk,” and you go out and you buy the product. Fine, it works. Now let’s think about how the world works now.
Now, you put out an advertisement or a message to your audience that says you’re a jerk. Now in order for that message to really stick and spread, you need your audiences to make that message their own. They need to spread it to their social networks, they need to reflect the facts you used. It’s a much more 360 relationship that you have with your audience, where a two-way conversation and they’re activating their social networks around your message, you’re losing out. Do you think that people will want to spread to all of their friends, “Hey, you guys are all jerks”? Of course not, no one’s going to pass that message around.
Susan McLennan: Yeah.
Jonah Sachs: So now we have a marketplace where positive messaging, where people are constantly giving each other likes, and follows, and thumbs-ups, and trying to empower each other on Facebook, and on Twitter, and all social media. Those messages don’t spread in those environments anymore because you use social capital [Inaudible 00:19:32]. Now we’re immersed in this world where all this negative inadequacy marketing that doesn’t really have legs in the social sphere. Then you have all this empowerment marketing that has huge legs, and people are waking up and saying, “Why can’t I do that?” And so that’s [Inaudible 00:19:50] marketing while still effective [Inaudible 00: 19:53].
Susan McLennan: And we’re facing some major challenges where we absolutely have to come together. Do you think that this shift is kind of critical to taking on the problems of the day? Is that essential for where we are in the world, facing the types of problems we are?
Jonah Sachs: No, I think there are a lot of people who would shudder at the thought that marketing could be, and advertising could be the key to our survival of the species. But I really have to observe and study how we went from a thrift-based, modesty-focused, puritan work ethic society around The Depression, into the big consumer culture in the history of the world in like 40 years, is all it took to really make that complete 180 transition.
That was important at the time, it had to happen at the time for certain reasons to keep the economy going, and work for the World Wars, according to the people who created it. So that happened, and now it’s creating all these other problems that go with it, especially environmental problems from all this consumption. What we can see though, is that good advertising, good marketing, can change the life ways, and identities, and patterns of people in generations. That’s powerful information. If you can use that to start changing the identities among certain people, and change the stories that people live by, that’s where you start creating shifts in society.
If we want to have a more sustainable, more just, more peaceful society, we can’t just legislate that and enforce that. We actually have to get people to identify with that. By getting people to identify more with that, we can be start legislating it, and it creates a positive feedback. I think there’s no better time, or no more important time to be a socially focused marketer. Maybe the hero of the future will be the people who created these stories and advertisements that helped shift the way we see ourselves in the world.
Susan McLennan: So marketing was part of the problem, why can’t it be the solution?
Jonah Sachs: Right, exactly.
Susan McLennan: Jonah Sachs, thank you so much for being my guest. I just loved having you on.
Jonah Sachs: Yeah, thanks for your time. It was great talking to you.
Susan McLennan: Thanks.