Skip to main content

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, 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

KW: Tell me a little bit about some of the most iconic projects you’ve worked on and how those creative visions came to be manifested here at Free Range.

JS: We started playing around with these little short movies back in the early part of 2000, and at that time nothing moved on the Internet. If it moved, it was new, it was cool. If it had sound, it was cool. There was no YouTube. And we started putting these little films out and people started noticing them. We’d get a couple hundred thousand people watching these messages.

But one day, we sat down to work on the factory farming because we felt that factory farming was an issue that brought together all kinds of problems like health and wellness and human rights and animal rights. We really asked ourselves why does no one want to know where their food comes from. The answer is obvious — because it's gross. We asked ourselves how we could package this in a totally different way. And at the same time the third edition of "The Matrix" was coming out, so we knew there was this kind of cultural zeitgeist around it, and we realized that the whole thing about factory farming is that it’s so distasteful and bad that we tell ourselves the opposite.

The Meatrix from Free Range Studios on Vimeo.

So if you buy a pound of factory-farmed hot dogs you’ll see a picture of a family farm on the label. That’s what they put there. I was thinking, “Oh, this is just like 'The Matrix' where the world is so bad, you just don’t even want to see it, so you show the opposite. And so we started playing with that metaphor and totally transformed the communication method. Instead of showing disgusting things and hoping people would take their medicine, we made it hilarious and silly and based on the story. We launched it ("The Meatrix") without any strategy at all really, and got 25 million views. It became the most blogged-about thing for a couple of days on the Internet. It was just this huge explosion of excitement. And not only did people see that as a great message about factory farming, but USA Today covered it as “Here’s the new way people are communicating.” So that really helped us understand a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

We tried to repeat that success and we did actually kind of follow that up with a "Star Wars" spoof about vegetables and organic food ("Grocery Store Wars") that was even more successful. And that’s when I learned that both those movies that I had spoofed that worked so well were based on Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey model, so I got so excited about mythology and how that works.

Grocery Store Wars from Free Range Studios on Vimeo.

Then a couple years later, we had this big success with "The Story of Stuff," which is a 20-minute animated video about the materials economy. Again, [we were] really just turning everything into a story. We had this experience at the end of "The Meatrix," where Moopheus the cow reaches out to the viewer with a pill and puts it out of the screen and says, “If you were the actual chosen one ...” We made the audience the hero of the story and turned facts and figures into stories, calling people “the citizenship,” rather than just consumers. All these ideas started to come together. With "The Story of Stuff," we pretty much kind of invented that animated whiteboard style, which was kind of a legendary thing at the time.

That also got in the multiple tens of millions views and it really started a new way of people seeing the world. So we’ve had a lot of those kinds of successes. I have to say that the amount of content now is so intense on the Internet that the whole practice of trying to make viral videos is something that I think is actually no longer worth the investment, because the sort of hit rate and the [short] attention that audiences have. The real thing that needs to be invested in is people understanding what their brand is, how that brand is a story itself and then starting to make actual stories, including potential videos that support that unfolding story.

So that’s what we’ve moved to a lot more now, though we’re still making a lot of videos and some of them as viral videos when they’re meant to.

KW: In your book, you write about how winning sustainability stories are told through using Joseph Campbell's archetypes. Why is that approach successful?

JS: To understand archetypes, we need to step back for a second to "The Hero’s Journey" story. It's about this outsider who’s living in a broken world, who can’t quite live out their values and then meets a mentor who connects them more deeply to their values. [One example is when] Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “Look, so much more is possible. Go on this dangerous adventure. You can become a hero.” Actually, the stories are all about healing the world. That’s where the hero comes back with the treasure to heal the world.

Winning the Story Wars - The Hero's Journey from Free Range Studios on Vimeo.

But until they meet that mentor, nothing really gets going, nothing really starts in the story, so the insight that we use is “Look, don’t get up there and tell everyone how great you are and what you can do and what you’re doing in the world. Be the mentor in the story and let your audience be the hero. Tell people that they can connect more deeply through their values. Get away from that me-focused marketing because it doesn’t work in the post-broadcast era. You don’t have that platform you once had. People want to hear about relevance to themselves, not what you’re doing.

If there’s not love and human relationship between the mentor and the hero, nothing happens in the story. And so how do we figure out who we are as human beings? Nobody can love a booming, faceless — the "Wizard of Oz" voice. So how as storytellers do we recognize our voice that we tell our story in? And that’s where archetypes really come in, because archetypes are a way of choosing: Do we rely on inspiration and calls to higher values as like our core voice? Or are we the jester, using humor and pulling down falsehood by pointing out the folly of the world? Or are we the rebel really showing like what’s broke and how we’re going to pull it apart and fix it?

KW: What are some of the best examples of that approach we see out in the marketplace?

JS: Well, the most famous example of archetype brand that people always point to is Harley Davidson and the rebel. It’s like this is what they stand for. And it’s so obvious now when you see Harley Davidson because it’s the picture of the guy, right? But they really recognize that they needed to focus on only that market, and that’s not the most obvious voice to speak in or the most obvious image to put out there. It’s pretty risky, right? But they’ll never lose that. If they came out with an ad campaign tomorrow that tried to use the magician [an archetype] instead, you’d be like, “What the hell is this?” But if Sanyo came out with a different archetypes advertisement, you wouldn’t even notice. So that’s a great example.

KW: You mean it’s because Sanyo really hasn’t created a brand that’s based on any archetypes. Is that what you’re saying?

JS: Right. That’s what I’m saying. So you just wouldn’t even notice that. Disney has the wizard or the magician is another famous one. The magic of childhood. The magic of imagination. 

KW: Any other good examples?

JS: Well, I see Nike as the captain, for instance. The idea of the captain is that you’re sort of like this leader who is like a leader of leaders. You bring out the best in everybody. And you sort of — you make everyone you touch a hero is kind of the idea of the captain. And I think that Nike has done that masterfully, and woven their sustainability story into that so beautifully because it’s like you’re the hero of the story, but you have to work hard and dig deep. We can’t do it for you, unlike the typical consumption sort of stories.

And, by the way, if we believe in this perfection of craft, perfection of effort, we’re going to perfect everything that we do. So the story is totally consistent. Why does Nike bother being sustainable? It doesn’t just come across like because they want to be the better corporate citizens. It’s like they want to do the best that they can because they want me to do the best I can. So I think that’s a really powerful example.

Let me think of another good one. The transition right now, for instance, that Greenpeace is going through as another sort of harbinger of sustainability, [moving] from the defender archetype. Basically the archetype is [thinking] "The past is beautiful, we have to protect it. If we don’t, no one else will." This is where the environmental movement had been for a really long time.

Now they’re moving to the rebel muse archetypes, and you see this in a lot of their new campaigns. It’s like this sort of joyful rebellion against the old way, and through self-expression [which] gets young people to sort of do their own thing and get their own voice heard. It’s very different than the stodgier ’70s kind of environmental activism. It’s a lot more play involved, a lot more tech involved, a lot more self-expression.

KW: I see some companies with products that are really not the most sustainable, yet they’re trying to tell their sustainability story not about the product, but about what they’re doing around the world. To me, that rings hollow. It seems that they are trying in some ways to get a foot ahead by having consumers look "over here." What do you think about this and what would you advise?

JS: There’s two dynamics here. There’s how your product performed on a sustainability level and what does your company do in the world. And now I guess it’s easy to sort of say, “Well, the most important thing is how your product performs, and the rest is just fluff.” But then you can take a more neutral product like shoes, and you see how Tom’s Shoes uses those products as a platform to do social good. There's a positive feedback effect that makes them realize, “Hey, we’re a virtuous brand. We’re seen that way. That should increase our sustainability profile,” and it makes a virtuous cycle. But, really, their footprint is actually bigger for the positive social stuff they’re doing.

The same goes for Autodesk in a way. Autodesk is doing wonderful things in terms of reducing the carbon footprint of the company itself, but what really matters is what they’re trying to do with their products out in the world, which is to get people to use more sustainable materials in their designs. So who you are, what you actually do, what you stand for, what your product does, these all should sort of go together.

If it’s a sort of cynical attempt to get, like you’re saying, get people to look over there and not look at the product at all, that’s a problem.  But I think that starting anywhere can be positive because the more you start entering getting serious about sustainability on one vector, the more you feel the pressure and the desire to get better on others.

But at the same time, I don’t really have any patience for products where the entire product category should not exist and they try to be the greenest in that space, such as bottled water. We don’t need bottled water. It’s not a good thing. That’s not sustainable, so they’re trying to create the greenest bottled water. I don’t really think it has much value.

KW: What do you think are the best few steps for a company to take from your work as they go about trying tell their sustainability story?

JS: I think that one of the most important things is that sustainability stories are not just about reporting what a company is doing to become more sustainable. Again, that’s me-focused marketing that just talks brand as hero. If you want to be more story-based, the first thing that you need to know about the story is that everything that you communicate on the surface of the story points back to a single moral of the story, a single truth about how the world works.

So can you think about talking about your sustainability story as something that connects much more to sort of core truth about how life works and how people can nod their head say, “Yeah, I agree with that?" So it’s a little bit more about why are we doing this. What belief is this based on?

Where do these ideas come from that connect to the life experience of other people? If you just say how you cut chlorine or something by 30 percent, that’s nice to have, but I think we see how green marketing actually does not create that much change in consumer behavior.

But if you talk about how your own journey of sustainability really mirrors that of an individual and how it’s about a pursuit of your values and that those values are really connected to the values — specific values, not just general green values — of your audiences, you start building the story.

So figure out what is that moral of the story that your brand stands for overall, and how does your sustainability quest — for example, it’s really more of an expression of that belief than just the drive for cleaner production. That’d be the number one thing I think I’d start with.

And then we talk so much about the brand gift. The mentor basically gives the hero some kind of toll that they can use to make this impossible journey possible, like the lightsaber or the ruby red slippers or something like that. There's some magic there, right?

The best brands sort of know what that magic is and they never stop communicating about it. So is what you’re doing sustainably possibly the gift, the magic of your organization overall? And if it’s not, can you identify what the magic of the organization is and show how your sustainability work is really as much about that as it is about following some standards or protocols that green companies should follow?

More on this topic