Yuval Noah Harari and Neil Lindsay on storytelling, society, and marketing

July 14, 2021

When Neil Lindsay, VP of Marketing, Amazon, was asked who he wanted to share a stage with at Cannes Lions, he immediately thought of Yuval Noah Harari, author of the iconic book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“I really enjoyed reading Sapiens when it first came out in 2011, which was only about a year after I joined Amazon,” Lindsay says. “The somewhat surprising insight I took away from reading Sapiens was how important storytelling was in the success of us as humans, as a species, and in the success and survival of societies. And it occurred to me then that there are some pretty interesting parallels between the evolution and success of societies, and the evolution and success of brands.”

At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity 2021, Harari joined Lindsay to explore that idea in the fireside chat “From Sapiens to Amazon: How storytelling shapes society and marketing.”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the iconic book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Neil Lindsay, VP of Marketing, Amazon.

“Nations are brands. And religions are actually brands. And gods are brands. And money is a brand,” says Harari. “So all the big structures of human society throughout history—they are brands. The parallels are definitely there.”

Here’s a look at a few of Harari and Lindsay’s key insights from the session.

Neil Lindsay: In Sapiens, you credit the success of us homo sapiens—versus Neanderthals and even other animals—to our ability to organize into groups and to work together, despite our relative weakness. And that much of the success came from our ability to organize ourselves through language and storytelling. Can you tell us more about that idea?

Yuval Noah Harari: When you look at an individual homo sapien like me or you, we are not stronger or more capable than a Neanderthal or a chimpanzee, or even a pig or an elephant. If you have a one-on-one fight with a pig or a wolf, they are likely to win. What really makes us special is our unique, remarkable ability to cooperate flexibly in very large numbers. Chimpanzees can't cooperate in more than, say, a hundred individuals. Neanderthals also never cooperated in large numbers. They could cooperate only with other Neanderthals they knew personally.

We homo sapiens can cooperate, not just with thousands of strangers, but today with billions of strangers. If you think about nations like the USA or China, or about the global trade network, this is a system of cooperation between hundreds of millions of people who never met each other. They don't know each other personally, and still they can cooperate to produce a shirt or to have a conference via the internet. And if you try to understand where this ability to cooperate in large numbers comes from, you get to storytelling because it's the basis of every large scale human cooperation.

What stories are at the basis of success of Amazon?

Neil Lindsay: One of the big, early ideas for Amazon was that it's always “Day 1,” which becomes a compelling story. It inspires teams to get up every day and invent on behalf of customers, and [believe] that there will be endless opportunity to do so.

Let me ask you, in your view, what makes a compelling story?

Yuval Noah Harari: What makes a compelling story? This is something that prophets and emperors have been trying to figure out for thousands of years and it's very often unexpected.

In the competition between stories, it's not necessarily the most truthful story that wins. The truth is often painful. People don't really want to hear the truth about themselves or about their tribe or their nation. And the truth tends to be very complicated. Like we saw last year with the COVID crisis, it’s complicated to understand what a virus is and how an epidemic works. It's much easier to believe some conspiracy theory. So an unfortunate thing about human history is the disadvantages of truth, and that you need to make a special effort to stay loyal to the truth, to reality, as you build your stories.

How do you think brands should deal with this tension between wanting to promote themselves and their story and still staying loyal to the basic value of truth and reliability?

quoteUpWe can choose to focus on the need for global cooperation. We can choose to focus on generosity—on the need in this crisis to help all the members of the human race so nobody is left behind.quoteDown
– Yuval Noah Harari, author of the iconic book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Neil Lindsay: The most interesting brands tell stories that amplify the truth about overcoming real obstacles towards something worthwhile. And the best stories, in my view, are the ones you don't want to put down because the goals and the challenges get bigger and bigger over time. I think that's certainly true for us at Amazon where we have a lot of big ideas.

Prime was, and still is, a big idea. The Climate Pledge, where we committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2040, and encouraging a lot of other companies to join us—these things are hard. They're challenging.

There are huge obstacles to making them happen. And that requires a lot of invention and grit and frankly, a lot of risk. So chasing big ideas, delivering on the promise of those ideas, and telling those stories effectively is what it takes to build a brand. And then you have to get up every day and do it again and again—and frankly, that getting up every day and doing it again and again, this is actually part of what makes it a compelling story.

How do you think the pandemic has impacted the stories we tell each other and how we evolve as a society?

Yuval Noah Harari: We still don’t know what will be the final impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, in terms of art and storytelling. It's made us realize a lot of new things about ourselves—that people, for instance, value connection, physical connection. They suddenly realize how vital this is.

I think it's up to us to decide what we want the story to be. On the one hand, the pandemic can increase tensions and hatred and illusions in the world. If we blame the pandemic on foreigners and minorities and create all these conspiracy theories and spread them around, then the result will be more hatred and more ignorance.

On the other hand, we can choose to spread other stories. We can choose to focus on the need for global cooperation. We can choose to focus on generosity—on the need in this crisis to help all the members of the human race so nobody is left behind. And we can choose to focus on the value of truth and science and put our trust in that. That is the decision that corporations need to make, and TV producers, and politicians, and individuals.

Where do you think Amazon's storytelling, or storytelling, in general is going with the new situations that COVID has created?

Neil Lindsay: The pandemic has forced a distance that changed how we collaborate and create. But in some ways, it's also forced simplicity to storytelling. Particularly in advertising, the shared experience of fear and disappointment, and the uncertainty about when this would end, has exposed some universal truths—like grit and determination, and what it takes to keep our chin up for ourselves and for each other. I think that's prompted some inspiring stories and creativity. And in some ways it's encouraged more focus on a higher order of ideas and more heart. I feel like there are some positives in the way we're telling stories that have come from this very difficult experience.

When you think about the most successful stories in societies or brands, what comes to mind? Why do you think they were so successful?

Yuval Noah Harari: The most successful story ever told is definitely the story of money, because it's the only story that everybody, almost without exception, believes.

If you think about something like the US dollar, it is just a story. You can't eat it. You can't drink it. Its value comes only for our imagination. And the amazing thing is that almost everybody believes it, not just the Americans or the Israelis. This is really the most successful story ever told. And it builds trust between all these different actors.

It could be lost in a moment. You could go to a store and the person there refuses to take your dollars. And you go to another store and the person there also refuses to take your dollars, and they’re worth nothing. All you've accumulated in your bank account or under your pillow is worth nothing.

Things like that have happened in history from time to time. So understanding how you build trust in something like that—now that's a really big story, right?

Neil Lindsay: It's so interesting to think about money as a brand and that all institutions are brands in some way. And in some way, fiction—money and successful brands are clearly dependent on trust and the system needs to be honest or, as you said, the currencies will be likely to fail.

Do you have any last thoughts for marketers on the parallels we've talked about here, between what you've learned about evolution of humans and societies and building brands?

Yuval Noah Harari: The most important thing is to remember is that, in the end, brands are just stories that exist in our imagination. We created them to help people. Brands can't suffer and they can't be happy because they don't have any minds. They don't feel anything.

Humans can suffer and humans can be happy. So yes, you must serve your brand and your profession and that's your job. But in the end, make sure that it's the humans who are happy and not only the brand.