Empowerment marketing and the VW Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle

Volkswagen Beetle ads with headlines like “Think Small” flew in the face of inadequacy marketing approaches. Route 66, Shutterstock.com photo.

In a previous post I talked about inadequacy marketing. This is marketing that reinforces our insecurity and tells us that if we just buy a certain product, we will feel strong, safe, secure or sexy.

Here’s another idea. What if marketing helped us realize our potential, tapped our better instincts or engaged us with something more than self-interest? In Winning the Story Wars, Jonah Sachs calls this approach empowerment marketing.

I grew up in Michigan, a state whose economy was based in the auto industry. I remember my parents (and my friends’ parents) buying a new American-made car every two years. They were supporting the industry, but they were also influenced by automobile advertising.

Auto advertising was a great example of inadequacy marketing. The ads said that your status, taste and social acceptance resulted from the car that you drove. My father’s car was very important to him. He babied it, washing it every week so it gleamed.

The Cadillac was THE status symbol. According to Sachs, Cadillac ads “sold a whole set of values–values about happiness, identity and the good life.” Owning a Cadillac showed that you had made it, you were on top.

But that sense of achievement only lasted until the next year’s model–bigger and better–rolled out. Then your car was no longer the height of fashion. It might look small and worn out. Do you think people were feeling anxious and inadequate?

Then in 1959, full-page newspaper ads began to appear with a simple image of the Volkswagen Beetle. The headline said “Think Small.” The ad copy talked about the car being modest and efficient. The antithesis of a Cadillac ad.

People found the ads funny and honest. They flew in the face of traditional advertising approaches, allowing people to celebrate something small and clunky rather than a fashionable status symbol.

“Live Below Your Means” was the headline of another Beetle ad campaign. It celebrated the fact that the car’s design had not changed for almost two decades. New model year, what model year?

Fifty years later the VW Beetle ads are “still widely considered the stand-alone best marketing campaign of the twentieth century, number one on the Ad Age list,” according to Sachs. The Beetle became a symbol of the counterculture revolution. It celebrated not the suburban dream, but freedom and the open road.

The Beetle ad campaign was creative, but it was also powerful because of its values. As Sachs said, “While Cadillac was celebrating an endless quest for status and wealth, VW celebrated joyful modesty of material desire and truth in the face of insincerity.”


Inadequacy marketing and the magic solution

Magic solution

A magic solution may reduce your anxiety, but at what cost to you and to society?

Marketers are letting us down by making us feel inadequate, says Jonah Sachs in Winning the Story Wars.

Marketing has enormous power and reach. Each of us has received more than one million marketing messages in our lifetime, and they have a big effect on how we see ourselves and the world. In other words, in many ways marketers are mythmakers.

Marketing stories and myths could raise us up, help us grow and mature as individuals and as a society. Instead, for many years marketers have told us that we are somehow incomplete.

Most advertising reinforces emotions like vanity and insecurity. It tells us that we only need to buy a certain product to feel strong and powerful, safe and secure, or sexy and desirable. Sachs calls this inadequacy marketing.

Inadequacy marketing is a two-act story: [Read more…]

Storytelling and the myth gap: the American dream

Building AmericaHere is where storytelling gets interesting. It’s not just about writing an engaging plot. The bigger picture is about using myths. Myths play a powerful role to explain what’s going on and help us connect with others in a shared story.

In our modern, rational society, we tend to think of myths as either a lie or as something that’s important only to primitive peoples. But myths are important to all societies. They help us create meaning and bring us together. They help us interpret and understand the world.

Jonah Sachs defines three ingredients of myths in “Winning the Story Wars.” [Read more…]

The simple story test: a dad, a daughter and a basketball hoop

Here’s a quick test from “Winning the Story Wars” to see if you are using the power of stories in your marketing and communications. And here’s an example of one of the top ads of 2014 that does a great job of storytelling.

As Jonah Sachs said, the more you can answer “yes” to these questions, the better your stories and communication will be. [Read more…]

Gimmickry: The fifth deadly sin of storytelling

“I love to laugh,” sang Uncle Albert in “Mary Poppins.” Laughing made Albert lose his connection with solid ground and float up to ceiling height. Albert’s laughter was infectious. Eventually Bert and the children couldn’t resist. They too floated up to join Albert in laughter. Only the stern Mary Poppins was left on the floor.

We all like to laugh. Humor is a universal emotion. When we laugh at the same joke, we create an instant connection.

But we need to use laughter carefully in telling stories, especially in marketing, said Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” An empty gimmick, just for the joke, isn’t effective. People may laugh, but the laughter is fleeting. Or the joke may bomb.

“There’s a far more inspiring kind of funny,” Sachs said. It “comes from hearing something we know to be true told in a way we’ve never thought of before.”

The question we need to ask when writing a funny story is, “Is it funny because it’s true?”

Puffery: The fourth deadly sin of storytelling

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

We all know this unforgettable line from “The Wizard of Oz.” Oz makes himself out to be godlike. But inevitably he is exposed as the small man he really is.

We commit the sin of puffery when we issue commands or proclamations from on high, said Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” If we want to tell good stories, we can’t adopt a puffed-up posture. Our audience needs to be able to relate to us as people like them.

Insincerity: The third deadly sin of storytelling

What's the universal element of your story?

What’s the universal element of your story?

The wolf in sheep’s clothing: that’s the essence of the sin of insincerity. Don’t try to be something that you’re not, said Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” Don’t try to please your audience so much that you lose your core identity.

While Sachs doesn’t use the word “authenticity,” he’s talking about what makes your story authentic. What are the values or the moral of the story you’d like to tell? How does that relate to your audience as human beings, not as a targeted demographic?

“Great stories are universal because at their core, humans have more in common with each other than the pseudo-science of demographic slicing has led us to believe,” Sachs said.

He points to the example of Pixar. They are aiming to tell stories that connect with a human audience. Stories that are creative, inspired by core values that everyone can relate to, not just kids. Maybe that’s why I have found myself on the edge of my seat more than once in the “Toy Story ” movies.

Authority: The second deadly sin of storytelling

Girl and puppy on lawn

Make an emotional connection. People don’t trust experts and their data. They need more.

We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. The emperor trusted experts who told him he had a fine new garment, even though he couldn’t quite see it himself. He paid them lots of money for the fabric and construction. It took a child to tell the truth: the emperor was wearing nothing.

Our belief in our own expertise causes us to commit the sin of authority, according to Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” We believe that the facts speak for themselves, that the data are persuasive. We forget to make an emotional connection.

The problem is that in today’s world, facts aren’t enough. The public no longer believes experts. Scientific opinion changes. Are eggs bad for your cholesterol, or are they a good source of protein? What about cigarettes or DDT, lead paint or leaded gasoline?

When I worked on reducing pesticide use, we turned to the potential impacts of pesticides on children. We knew that parents loved their children and would be concerned about harm to their children’s health. We thought their concern might get them to act.

One of our strategies was to send postcards like the one above, with compelling messages about children and pesticides and a few tips for alternate ways to deal with garden pests. A follow-up survey found a high recall of the postcards. Those who remembered the cards were more likely to change to a less harmful garden practice.

Sachs singles out people working on climate change for the sin of authority. He talks about NASA scientist James Hansen, who spent 40 years dispassionately publishing his findings about the role of CO2 in climate change.

Now Hansen has become an activist. He protests outside of coal-fired power plants and participates in climate rallies with 350.org. His own story of scientist turned into activist gives him an emotional authority.


Vanity: The first deadly sin of storytelling

We can’t tell great stories if we fall prey to the five deadly sins, said Jonah Sachs in “Winning the Story Wars.” This is the first of five posts about these sins.

The story needs to be about your audience, not about you.

The story needs to be about your audience, not about you.

Sin #1: Vanity

You are not going to convert people to your brand or cause by telling them how great you are. Your own opinion isn’t enough to convince your audience or community.

You need to connect with their stories. People really want “to see their own reality and values reflected in a message,” Sachs said.

According to Sachs, one of the reasons that John Kerry lost and George W. Bush won the 2004 presidential election was the difference between their stories. Kerry’s story was about his issues and his credentials. Bush’s story connected with American voters.

Here are excerpts from the first few minutes of their acceptance speeches at the respective national conventions: [Read more…]

How telling better stories can change the world

I just finished reading an intriguing book about storytelling, “Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell—and live—the best stories will rule the future,” by Jonah Sachs.

Sachs takes a different route than most of what I’ve read about storytelling. His book is about myth making. The real story wars in today’s world, according to Sachs, are about how we interpret the world and ourselves. They’re about values and morals, archetypes and heroes.

To give you an example, let’s talk about Annie Leonard and Glenn Beck.

I bet you have seen Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute video about, well, STUFF: the things that we buy, use and turn into garbage. Leonard turned abstract economic theory into a simple story, populated by stick figures, that’s easily understood. (Sachs’ studio produced “The Story of Stuff” for Leonard.) Here’s the video. [Read more…]