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How Stories Make Customers Fall in Love

Connecting with your customers' highest aspirations will turn them into evangelists for your brand. Here's how to do it.
A still from Jonah Sachs's Winning the Story Wars
Jonah Sachs

Courtesy Company

Jonah Sachs


It's a crowded marketplace out there. And you have a small advertising budget. How do you break through the clutter and capture customers' attention?

By telling them the right story. That's the word from Jonah Sachs, a brilliant marketer who helped create The Meatrix and The Story of Stuff, which between them have been viewed more than 65 million times online. He's put some of his teachings into his new book Winning the Story Wars.

Sachs says there's never been a better time to be a small company. "In the old broadcast model, you'd have to get access to expensive machines to get your message out, and there were gatekeepers," he says. "Now, there's a real chance to target the audience you want to reach and get evangelists to help you." The key, he says, is to target the right people with a message they'll want to pass along.

Social media may be new, he adds, but it resembles a very ancient form of human communication. "It's a return to the oral tradition in a lot of ways," he says. "That's how human beings lived for as long as we knew before broadcast communications came along." (By "broadcast," Sachs means all forms of one-way, one-to-many communications, dating back to the Gutenberg Bible.) "We know the kinds of communications that really work in an oral tradition are stories--because those are the only things that have survived."

The right story will turn customers into standard-bearers for your brand, he says. How do you find the right story? Here are some concepts that may help.

The templates are out there.

"The thing about stories is, they've always followed a particular pattern," Sachs says. "I use Joseph Campbell's hero's journey idea. The outsider living in a broken world meets a mentor and goes into a magic world to fight a dragon and make the world better. That's Star Wars, The Matrix, and The Book of Moses, among others. It goes back to ancient times and we can get some very simple tips from this tradition."

A good story has a moral.

"The best stories are all built around one key idea, one truth about how the world works," Sachs says. "The best brands figure out one key truth that they stand for, and the audience sees it as something they can learn from and communicate to others." This is how stories build societies, he adds, by teaching us what our values should be.

Connect to your audience's highest aspirations.

This will immediately set you apart from nearly all other advertising, which is geared toward customers' needs for safety and status, Sachs says. "There are a ton of ways of connecting with people's highest aspirations instead," he says, adding that companies should go beyond the obvious steps of donating a portion of profits to charity or supporting a community effort.

"Nike was able to say that its brand is about self-sacrifice and hard work and connecting to something greater than yourself," he says. "Patagonia made its entire story about exploration and protecting nature." After all, he notes, all Patagonia is actually selling is clothes. "The clothes are an embodiment of that journey."

You are not the hero of your story--your audience is.

Any real or fictional character in your story must be someone your audience members identify with and they must see themselves starting out on the hero's journey. "Your audience is not yet living out that story," Sachs says. "They see the world as broken, and you can be the one to call them to a higher purpose. The brands that are really breaking through are the ones doing that."

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Oct 17, 2012

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

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