Skip to main content

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.