Defining brand storytelling using the hero’s journey

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Brand storyteller

Storytelling is in vogue, a phrase which here means ‘brands and agencies are all talking about it without taking due time to appreciate what it means’. Done right, brand storytelling is indispensable as a framework for telling authentic messages in a way that resonates with the consumer.

As it stands, it’s a nebulous catch-all term that lets anything said or written about you, be it on Twitter, a YouTube comments section, a local news feature – all be construed as a part of your de-facto story, leaving you with little control of the narrative. So how do you take it back?

Direct your own narrative. Develop a story so memorable that it defines your brand – something compelling, entertaining, and undeniably you. A story that warrants undying loyalty and one that, just for a moment, makes everyone forget you’re a brand. Sure, this is typically the realm of bestselling novels and film franchises, but what have novelists and Hollywood got that you haven’t?

The hero’s journey

Star Wars, Toy Story, The Lord of the Rings, Die Hard and the rest of your favourite film franchises all have something in common, along with a good proportion of the myths, fables, and fairytales you read at school. It’s the hero’s journey.

Put forward by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 Hero with a Thousand Faces, and adopted later by George Lucas, Pixar and many more, the theory posits a universal formula for a story that resonates with our collective unconscious. Dan Harmon (creator of Rick and Morty and Community) has since simplified the theory into eight steps, which I’ve illustrated here using Toy Story:

1. Establish a protagonist (You)

A character is in a zone of comfort.

Woody is Andy’s favourite toy.

2. Something ain’t quite right (Need)

We learn that things aren’t perfect in our hero’s universe, setting the stage for external conflict.

It’s Andy’s birthday. Woody needs to remain Andy’s favourite (or at least thinks he does).

3. Crossing the Threshold (Go)

They enter an unfamiliar situation, and begin their journey.

Andy gets a Buzz Lightyear, who replaces Woody as his favourite toy. Woody pushes Buzz out of a window, and is thrown out by his friends.

4. The Road of Trials (Search)

They adapt to their unfamiliar situation. The protagonist is broken down into their component parts. They gain the skills they’ll need to achieve their goals and return home (the most obvious example is a training montage – think Mulan, Rocky, the Empire Strikes Back).

The two fight, are almost run over by a truck, and infiltrate a pizza delivery van. They’re captured and taken back to Sid’s house.

5. Meeting with the Goddess (Find)

They get what they wanted. The Need (number two) is fulfilled.

Buzz loses his arm, and finally accepts the hard truth that he is, in fact, a toy. Seeing Buzz’s vulnerability, Woody reaches out, offering teamwork and friendship.

6. Pay the Price (Take)

They pay a heavy price for achieving their goal, but a secondary goal is achieved.

Buzz is strapped to a rocket, and surrounded by (seemingly) cannibalistic toys. But the rocket buys Woody time to plan their escape.

7. Bringing it Home (Return)

They cross the return threshold, and come back to where they started.

Woody and Buzz land safely back in the car, and Andy assumes they were there all along.

8. Master of both Worlds (Change)

The protagonist is in control of their situation, having changed.

Woody is no longer worried about being Andy’s favourite, since now he has a friend in Buzz.

Represented as a circle, we can see the descent and return between order and chaos, and it works with conscious and unconscious too. As soon as we cross the threshold at point three we journey into the collective unconscious, find out something important about who we are, before returning to the safety of the waking mind. Campbell called myth a ‘mirror to the ego’ – seeing ourselves in that mirror is what we what engage with; this is where the value lies for us as the consumer. The hero’s journey rings true because it shows us more of ourselves, and of what we all have in common. This is what your consumer will remember, and what will endear them to you.

How to make it work for you and your customer

Find your hero.

Is it the consumer? Great. Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World immediately eclipsed the beer itself with his Internet meme status, and the product’s popularity soared.

Is it the product? Lego continue to assert their pop cultural relevance with hugely successful feature films and an ever-expanding videogame universe which, with sales of over 100m units, is the 15th most successful franchise in the industry. Luckily you don’t need a $60m budget or hours of screen time to impress your story upon the world. All you need, to mould the way people talk and write about you, is to tell a unified story across your touchpoints.

Show us the mirror

Create a character (or set of characters) to define your brand – give them an overarching narrative that has room to unfold over months or years, and so long as your content released in those years sits under that arc, it will feel consistent, unified and give you regular opportunities to direct your own narrative.

Nobody’s going to pay the same attention to your brand story that they do a major movie franchise. But that doesn’t mean it matters any less. If you (and your agencies) know your brand story inside out, you can see that the content you create has its logical place in the overarching narrative. That makes you relevant, accessible, and memorable, and it will build a reputation for human affinity that puts you head and shoulders above the brands without one.

Curtis Batterbee is a copywriter at Hugo & Cat

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