Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Creating heroic brand narratives

I am intrigued by the art of storytelling in helping marketers create more meaningful and lasting brand identities.

Stories help us understand. They convey meaning. And in an increasingly overwhelming and fast-moving world, meaning trumps information.

If we step into the way-back machine and return to our English Lit classes, we might remember that stories are built on several essential elements, including archetypal characters, the hero's journey and resolution of conflict.

Archetypes are the universal characters that form what Carl Jung called our collective unconscious. Over the millennia, we became hardwired to instantly recognize the meaning of archetypes like the outlaw, hero, ruler, jester, temptress, innocent and the everyman. Defining and expressing brands as archetypes may be more powerful than the traditional brand personality statement in creating a deep connection with consumers.

The "hero's journey" was first defined in Joseph Campbell's book on comparative mythology, "The Hero With A Thousand Faces." Campbell isolated the hero stories that recur in ancient fables, the Bible and Hollywood films. In short: a person ventures forth from the common world...confronts obstacles and adversaries...wins a decisive victory...and returns with the power to help their fellow man.
We see the Hero's Journey in Hollywood:

An innocent young prince tries to run away from his troubles and instead discovers the redeeming power of friendship and truth.


A farm boy leaves his family and unites with rebels and outlaws in an epic battle of good vs evil to save the world from the corrupt and villainous empire.

We see it in politics:

A common man rises above racial barriers to inspire a nation to defy the divisiveness of red states and blue states and reclaim the promise of the United States.


We see it in brands:

A free thinker liberating the world from beige conformity.


An advocate of women's self-esteem battling against the falsehood of media-defined beauty.

An authority-defying rebel uniting a community in a crusade against fear.


Great brands tell great stories. The best among these find a way to be the hero in an ever-unfolding narrative. Like our favorite literary protagonists, heroic brands have a clear sense of true north that shapes their beliefs and behaviors.

True to Campbell's concept of the hero's journey, heroic brands make clear what it is they stand for by being equally clear about what they oppose. Classic brand positioning leads us to define what a brand stands for. The heroic brand model compels us to go further -- define the antagonist. After all, the most passionate causes tend to be in pursuit of both – a noble ideal that inspires us and a status quo that must be vanquished. It is the tension between these opposing forces that trumpets a call to arms.

The moral of this story? We need to stop thinking like advertisers and begin thinking like storytellers.

7 comments:

Don Longfellow said...

Agree. This provides a really rich filter for the way your brand should behave. Now if we can also use it to guide the content we create to influence and enable people's behavior (rather than just how they feel), we've got a home run.

domlee said...

Can we make every brand be a heroic brand?

Claire Dalton said...

domlee, interesting question. During my time at VCU Brandcenter some of the students and I discussed whether or not every brand could be a "lifestyle brand" and we decided it isn't the case. I think the same goes for hero brands. The story needs to be an organic part of your brand. For many hero brands, that role IS their ISP. But if everyone went that route, we'd lose a lot of differentiation unless we went back to using information as definition. Cheer and Tide can't both be the hero of detergents.

David Murphy said...

The questions posed by Claire and "Domlee" are good ones. Can every brand use a heroic brand model? I don't know. Some brands aren't brands at all -- they're merely products. (We use the word "brand" too liberally in our biz.) A product becomes a brand when it forges a relationship with its users. I'm suggesting that heroic branding is a route to a more empathetic relationship. Archetypes can be the basis of immediate empathy. Further, I have come to believe that when a brand makes it clear what it stands for by being equally clear about what it opposes, it can create a more compelling and passionate connection with customers through a sense of shared values, both social and personal. So to Claire's question, it is not about being THE hero of the category, it is about using the elements of the hero's journey to create a more empathetic connection with customers. Cheer and Tide may choose different archetypes -- the earth mother or the magician -- which could lead to vastly different brand ideas. Ditto for choosing markedly different foes. Thanks for the POVs! Good convo.

domlee said...

ok, but I contend any mere "product" can become a brand (look at Method) and so surely any product could try the hero model if they wish to be a brand. Which now begs the question...

When is it in a product's interest to become a brand?

Dr. Elliot McGucken said...

Cool words on branding, business, art, entrepreneurship and the Hero's Journey.

You'll enjoy the words and videos here:

http://herosjourneyentrepreneurship.org/

"A vast demand exists for the classical ideals performed in the contemporary context--for honor, integrity, courage, and comittment--on Wall Street and Main Street, in Hollywood and the Heartland, in Academia and Government. And thus opportunity abounds for entrepreneurs who keep the higher ideals above the bottom line--for humble heroes in all walks of life."

The same classical values guiding the rising artistic renaissance will protect the artists' intellectual property. The immortal ideals which guide the story of blockbuster books and movies such as The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Star Wars, are the very same ideals underlying the United States Constitution. These classic ideals--which pervade Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and the Bible--are the source of both epic story and property rights, of law and business, of academia and civilization.

It is great to witness classical ideals performed in Middle Earth, upon the Scottish Highlands, long ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, and in Narnia, but too, such ideals must be perpetually performed in the contemporary context and living language. :)

Dr. Elliot McGucken said...

Cool words on branding, business, art, entrepreneurship and the Hero's Journey.

You'll enjoy the words and videos here:

herosjourneyentrepreneurship.org

"A vast demand exists for the classical ideals performed in the contemporary context--for honor, integrity, courage, and comittment--on Wall Street and Main Street, in Hollywood and the Heartland, in Academia and Government. And thus opportunity abounds for entrepreneurs who keep the higher ideals above the bottom line--for humble heroes in all walks of life."

The same classical values guiding the rising artistic renaissance will protect the artists' intellectual property. The immortal ideals which guide the story of blockbuster books and movies such as The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Star Wars, are the very same ideals underlying the United States Constitution. These classic ideals--which pervade Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and the Bible--are the source of both epic story and property rights, of law and business, of academia and civilization.

It is great to witness classical ideals performed in Middle Earth, upon the Scottish Highlands, long ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, and in Narnia, but too, such ideals must be perpetually performed in the contemporary context and living language. :)