In the early days of mass advertising, companies would exploit customer anxiety: is my breath fresh? Are my shirts white enough? Will I look unsophisticated if I don’t own an X, Y, or Z? “There was a drift toward an ‘inadequacy approach,’” says Jonah Sachs, co-founder of Free Range Studios and author of Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future. “There was an assumption designed in the 1940s by the titans of advertising that that fear, greed, lust, and the need to fit in were the only universal values, and things swung very far in that direction.”
But with the rise of media options, from cable TV to the Internet, consumers finally had a choice – and they’ve largely given ‘inadequacy marketing’ the heave-ho. “People are more likely to share stories that make them feel good and motivated. There’s a swing back to a desire for empowering stories,” he says, which echoes many of the principles Joseph Campbell espoused in his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces: “Campbell said the most dominant story form in oral tradition was the soaring myths of society – that you can contribute something more.”
Why have companies like Apple or Nike broken through to become iconic? Sachs believes it’s because their messaging isn’t about how great their companies are. Instead, it’s about the greatness inside you, the customer. Just as in legendary myths, says Sachs, “You have this person, this outsider, and they’re frustrated because they don’t know what to do next. Then they meet this person who tells them more is possible in their lives.” Whether it’s Luke Skywalker meeting Obi Wan Kenobi, Moses meeting God, or Neo meeting Morpheus, when a hero meets a mentor, powerful things happen. The trick, says Sachs, is that many brands assume they’re the hero of the story. They’re not. They’re the mentor, helping the hero – customers – become “empowered to do something different.”
Of course, the more companies adopt ‘empowerment marketing,’ the less unique and effective it will become. That’s why Sachs says the next frontier is authenticity: “It’s a race to see who lives out their values the best,” he says. After all, in the Internet era, “the more you become successful with inauthentic stories, the more likely you’ll be a target,” says Sachs. “It doesn’t take everybody recognizing you’re not living your truth. It takes 10 people who are motivated.”
But that doesn’t mean the future of branding is only about social consciousness. “It’s not a call to make all marketing holier-than-thou,” he says. “We still have to figure out what makes us creatively exciting and unique,” as Apple did with their distinctive design, embodied both in their products and advertising. “There’s room for humor, for aesthetics, for joy. But the key is not to start with yourself as the hero. Start with the audience as the hero.”
What do you think makes a brand iconic? What are your favorite examples?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on January 21, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.