How to Sell Ideas: Learning from Beer

 By   Shlomo Maital  

     Some of us, from time to time, get tired of wringing our hands at the awful things that happen in this world, and want to actually do something. (The poignant signs that greeted Trump in Dayton, “Do something!”, are sad, frustrating and damning).

   But how? How do you change minds that are increasingly frozen and locked?

   Let’s learn from Professor Shelle Santana, a Harvard Business School marketing expert, interviewed for the Working Knowledge online journal and podcast:

       “There are four elements to a great story.

  • You need to have a character.
  • You need to have a plot.
  • You’ve got to have some conflict or challenge that they overcome,
  • and you have to have a moral of the story, like what’s the message we’re trying to convey?


That’s actually surprisingly easy to do in 30 or 60 seconds. Some people, obviously, are better at it than others, but with those four pillars, you can absolutely tell a great story in a short amount of time.”

   And here is Santana’s strong example: a Budweiser beer Super Bowl ad, perhaps the greatest ever:

Santana: : Budweiser has advertised on, I believe, all Super Bowls. It’s 132 ads they’ve run, and to the tune of $440 million. And they’ve had some of the most iconic ads on the Super Bowl, as well.

Kenny: Your case cites one in particular… Which ad was that?

Santana: That was puppy love. Consumers really loved that ad, and it’s just a really sweet story. It’s very enduring about this puppy who is on a farm, and the puppy manages to dig under the fence every day and run over to the barn where the majestic Clydesdales are. He hangs out in the barn with the Clydesdales all day. He’s eventually adopted by someone, and as their car drives away the puppy is looking out the window at the Clydesdales in the field, and they notice… They block the road, and the next scene is the puppy running back with the Clydesdales. The brand logo isn’t even shown until the very last screen before the screen goes to black, and the hashtag is #BestBuds from Budweiser. So, yeah. A lot of people still say that’s the best ad ever.

   So – bottom line. If you want to persuade people, if you want to ‘sell’ ideas, if you want to stir people to act, you need to tell a strong story, with a strong character, a plot, a huge challenge, and a moral or conclusion. One ad about a little puppy can be more powerful than hundreds of billboards.  

   But did it sell beer? Here is Santana’s ‘take’:

“I think there’s stronger evidence of when brands don’t invest in advertising and messaging and storytelling on a consistent basis, you see almost an immediate decline in sales. When they do invest, it tends to either remain stable or go up, but it may not do that in the immediate short-term, right? It’s a patient long-term play, unless, in that ad, there’s a very specific call to action like if you call within the next 30 minutes, then you’ll get X, right? That doesn’t typically tend to happen on Super Bowl.    … when brands don’t invest in advertising and messaging and storytelling on a consistent basis, you see almost an immediate decline in sales.”

   Conclusion: If you want to persuade and sell ideas, tell stories about real people, N=1. Plot, conflict, challenge, moral. Just like Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), only much much briefer. And – the second part, crucial – you have to keep doing it!  

Trump does it in his political rallies. He brings people with stories up onstage with him and tells their story. N=1 is for professors not a proof – but it is strongly persuasive for the public.