To Sell Your Story, Be The Story


For this week’s marketing post, I’m going to delve into the world of politics again, which holds some interesting lessons for the business world. 

One of the major advantages that Barack Obama currently holds over Hillary Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination here in the United States lies in how his campaign has managed the media.

Clinton’s campaign has complained that the media coverage is more sympathetic to Obama (which is pretty evident to anyone who watches CNN or MSNBC), but a bigger issue is simply the volume of coverage.

In political contests, pundits often refer to the “air war” and the “ground war.”  The air war consists of media exposure (either paid advertising or press coverage)  to drive awareness, while the ground war consists of the door-to-door organization to get out the vote.

In many ways, this division resembles the classic divide between Marketing (air war) and Sales (ground war) in business.

When it comes to the air war, the key is to drive awareness.  As I’m fond of saying, your most potent competitor is generally ignorance.

Because Barack Obama has become a magnet for free press coverage, he has a significant advantage over Hillary Clinton in the air war.  Every time he holds a 15,000-person rally at a sports arena, with thousands more spilling out into the streets, it’s a newsworthy story that can draw national coverage, and perhaps even more importantly, local news coverage in both print and TV.

It’s possible to substitute money for coverage by blanketing the airwaves with paid advertising, but as Mitt Romney has demonstrated, pound for pound, paid ads are less valuable than free coverage.

The advantage that free coverage brings can be seen in the relative fortunes of the Obama and Clinton campaigns.  While both have raised roughly the same amount of money since 2006, Obama’s press advantage also allowed his campaign to spend more on the ground game than Clinton, while still maintaining a larger warchest.

The same principle applies in business.  If you can get the press to do your job for you, why spend money buying ads?  What’s more valuable, a 1-page ad in Fortune, or a glowing article?  And don’t forget, that article didn’t cost you $25,000.

The key question then is, how do you get that press coverage?

You can spend a ton of money ($20,000+ per month) on high-priced PR agencies, but as the example of Hillary Clinton shows, the best spin machine in the world can’t help much if you don’t have a story people want to write about.

Barack Obama has been successful during the nomination battle not because of his spinmeisters, but because he successfully embodies a story that people want to hear and retell.  What American doesn’t want to believe that anybody (including an African-American with a Muslim name and father, raised by a single mother) can grow up to be president?  And if people want change and a break with the past, there is no way for Hillary Clinton to argue that she is best positioned to deliver it.

Great marketing isn’t about selling your story.  It’s about being the story.

The same applies to the business world.  Google famously refuses to spend any money on advertising.  Guess what?  They don’t have to, because they are the story.

Microsoft can spend far more money than Apple on ads (and it does).  But Apple always wins the air war (at least during the iPod era) because it is the story.

To sell your story, be the story.

Published by Chris Yeh

Chris has been building Internet businesses since 1995. He has been a founder, founding employee, or seed investor in almost a dozen startups, including PBworks, and advises a wide array of startups ranging from network equipment makers to vertical search engines. He liked his investment in PBworks so much, he decided to join the company. Chris earned two degrees from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

4 thoughts on “To Sell Your Story, Be The Story

  1. Dear Chris

    I don’t disagree with your argument of the superior media marketing campaign by Obama and I agree with your thesis ‘that to sell your story, be the story,’ but…don’t you think that that the media might have a different agenda and could be barracking for Obama for more devious reasons? Isn’t it possible that they might believe that the majority of white Americans would never vote for a black man but would vote for Clinton? An Obama victory in the Primaries then is a lesser threat and would give the Republicans an otherwise unlikely victory. A view from the grassy knoll perhaps?

    Patrick Went

  2. Definitely I agree on the idea expressed in this peanut, and let me say that using the Obama/Clinton story for making it clear is a clever beat.
    Shure, it holds for business as well, and not limited to the internet (see the Google example) or cultural business. and industries (Music, Movies etc).

    From a marketing and product communication point of view, I would extend the principle to all the “hybrid” industries where industrial (manufacturing) products are sold jointly to cultural and semantic content: from the Ipod to the fancy mobiles (again Iphone) to the fashion industry (clothes with cultural semantic and content) to the design industriy (furniture, home appliances etc) and many others.

    Perhaps You can draw a line between goods that are bought (or candidates that are voted) 90% for their functionality (andministrative efficency) where paid ads still stay in the first lane and goods (or candidates) 90% bought (voted) for the common and shared feelings where just telling a story is not convincing for your potential customers (voters).

    Being the story instead of having a story to tell reminds me the old alternative between having or being of the 60’/700.

  3. Patrick:

    I think that Republican strategists would dearly love to run McCain against Hillary. They fear Obama, even though he might be vulnerable in terms of experience, because he represents a much scarier possibility: A liberal Reagan.

    Reagan’s dominance in the 1980s nearly destroyed the Democratic party.


    Good point about differentiating between products that are bought for functional reasons versus emotional ones. But remember that even high-consideration B2B products are bought by people…and people respond best to stories.

  4. Chris,

    You stated, “Great marketing isn’t about selling your story. It’s about being the story.” I agree! One fine example that readers might recognize is that recently Donald Trump gave a waitress a $10,000 dollar tip. It made the broadcasts and headlines all over the nation, which would have cost Donald a lot more than 10 grand. Hats off to him and the waitress!


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