How to win the sustainability story wars: Q&A with Jonah Sachs

Editor's note: Free Range Studios will be presenting storytelling workshops at the GreenBiz Forum in New York (Feb. 19 to 21) and San Francisco (Feb. 26 to 28), where they'll guide participants through a five-step strategy in how to best tell their sustainability story.

There's a good chance you've seen some of Jonah Sachs' work. After starting out as a graphic designer, Sachs co-founded Free Range Studios to utilize the power of viral videos, mobile apps and interactive websites to tell sustainability stories for clients that include 350.org, Autodesk, Pathfinder International, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In his book "Winning the Story Wars" (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), Sachs writes about how companies and organizations can use timeless archetypes (popularized by Joseph Campbell) and Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" story to shape their storytelling.

GreenBiz editor and reporter Kristine Wong recently sat down with Sachs at the company's West Coast office in Oakland, Calif. (its East Coast offices are in Washington, D.C.) to learn more about his unique perspective.

Kristine Wong: How did you get started marketing sustainability?

Jonah Sachs: I was always passionate about mostly filmmaking and journalism, and so was interested in how you get people to listen to ideas and how you get up on the world stage and get heard widely and broadly. And I had this realization when I’d just gotten out of college that if you were going to grab that megaphone and say something really loud, the most important thing was to figure out that you actually believed in it — because if you wouldn’t want to lie to a friend, why would you want to lie to a million people? But I had that sense that good messages just don’t get through, and that the big guys have a stranglehold on all media, so was thinking about how do you break through with new ways of communicating. And right about that time, I started noticing that people were publishing their own content in ways they had never before, the stranglehold was starting to break and that people were deciding what it was that they chose to share and consume, and what they didn’t. That was starting to create very different communication between human beings.

So the things that you’d see in this early email chains back in 1999 were not like advertisements for the same old tired product, but were actually messages of passion. People were trying to share their values with their social networks even though no one knew what a social network was at the time.

And so I thought, "This is going to be a great opportunity to figure out how the empower people to share their message because the media marketplace is going to start wanting more messages of passion." So we founded Free Range Studios as a big experiment in what the most effective way is for people to share their values and to get companies and organizations to be part of that process.

And I believed then, I still believe now that true messages that matter will actually have impact on the world, not just the latest shoe or fashion trends that are more social media ready. We’ve just been experimenting the whole time with what works and what doesn’t. Stories tend to be the thing that are the most powerful, so my career became more about storytelling than design or just communications as I’ve evolved.

The Story of Stuff from Free Range Studios on Vimeo.

Photo of Jonah Sachs in front of art from "The Story of Stuff" at Free Range Studios in Oakland, Calif. by Kristine A. Wong

Next page: Bringing stories to life at Free Range