Storytelling is an essential part of our humanity. It is how we have passed information along for millennia. Our ancestors painted tales of the hunt on the cave wall, depicting how they killed a buffalo so the tribe could continue. Nothing has changed since then. Stories aren’t just the basis of our favorite books, shows, movies and songs. Stories are the atomic unit of human culture.
Storytelling as a marketing tool follows the same traditions and structures as other stories. There is a hero, who makes a hero’s journey. The hero must step into the unknown, undergo a transformation, face a challenge, return to the tribe and reflect on the experience. In our prehistoric story, the hero is the hunter, the journey is the hunt, the conquest is the buffalo. The transformation and return is providing food for the tribe. Your product and service can follow this same formula in its marketing to show the consumer as the hero, and their situation as the journey. Their Unknown is when they begin trusting your product, their transformation is the benefits they receive, their challenges are overcome, and they return and reflect to others, with new loyalty to your product.
Understanding The Hero’s Journey
Before we apply storytelling to your marketing, we have to understand the hero’s (or heroine’s) journey. This journey is a circle, which begins with the hero in the ordinary world and ends with their return to that world with secret knowledge or mystical power or artifacts. The steps in the journey:
- I. The Known
- 1) The Mundane World
- 2) Call To Adventure
- 3) Refusal of the Call
- 4) Appointment of the Sage or Mentor
- 5) Facing the Guardian / Crossing the Threshold
- II. The Unknown
- 6) Mapping the Challenges
- i. Allies and Helpers
- ii. Enemies
- 7) Tests and Trials
- 8) Center of the Unknown
- 9) Slaying the Dragon
- 10) Atonement / Gaining the Reward
- III. The Return
- 11) Obstacles to Return
- 12) Resurrection / Crossing the Threshold
- 13) Return With the Elixir / Celebration
- 14) Freedom to Live / Mastery of Both Worlds
Act I: The Known World
In Act I, the hero is living ordinary life in an ordinary world. Something or someone, referred to as The Herald, challenges the hero to take up the quest. The hero may waver, and want to stay in the world they know.
A Mentor or Sage appears to give them guidance, and sometimes a magic tool or talisman to help them on the journey.
Before the hero can fully cross into the realm of the unknown, they must defeat a Guardian to the world of the Unknown.
After the hero enters the world of the Unknown, there is no returning until the journey is completed.
Act II: Journey Through the Unknown World
In Act II, the true challenges of the journey are revealed. Allies and enemies of the hero are defined.
Tests and trials will come forth to test the hero. Sometimes these come in threes, but these are not the main challenge.
The hero faces a period of serious doubt, where they wonder if they should proceed with the quest. This is the Center of the Unknown.
The hero emerges from darkness to face the main obstacle and Slay the Dragon. The Dragon is the main obstacle, villain, or challenge in the journey, and the hero cannot fulfill the journey without defeating it.
After defeating the Dragon, the hero gains The Reward, the object or goal of the quest. It can be a physical reward, freedom from oppression, secret knowledge or enlightenment, or anything else that many other people will benefit from.
Act III: The Return Home
In Act III, the hero must return home, but may feel reluctance to leave the mystical world they have just conquered, or there may be a final barrier or last enemy to challenge their safe passage.
The symbolic Resurrection is the hero’s return to the village or normal world. They have the secret knowledge or other artifact that will help others. This is known as the return With the Elixir. The hero can now grant boons to the people.
Usually there is a Celebration by the people in the regular world for the hero at the end of their journey.
At the end, there is a Reflection period where the hero has achieved mastery over the normal world and the unknown world. The hero completes the circle a much stronger and wiser person.
Applying This Storytelling Formula to Your Marketing Efforts
Taking the Hero’s Journey formula and applying it to your marketing isn’t difficult when you see it has been successful since humans have been telling stories. There are a few things to keep in mind when you use storytelling as a marketing tool. Make sure your brand story follows these guidelines.
- 1) Interesting to your target audience. Make it relevant to them.
- 2) Authentic and genuine. Not full of meaningless buzzwords or making false claims.
- 3) Consistent with the storyline. And here’s the important one…
- 4) The customer is the hero of the story, not your brand or product.
This last part is hard for some companies to grasp. Shouldn’t the product be the hero? Isn’t that the point? The brand has a role to play in the story, but in almost every case, it is the role of the magic talisman or the mentor. Weaving the story of your product and the story of your customers together is how you make them interested. No one listens to a person talking only about themselves in a crowded room. It’s not about you. It’s about them. The best stories work when the reader or observer melts into the story and sees themselves in that role. Your marketing efforts should do likewise. Show the benefits of the magic talisman, and make it a natural part of the story.
Consider this Google video showing how two friends separated for decades by political borders are able to find each other through their grandchildren using Google search. I dare you not to be moved by this three minute story.
Regular people are the center of this story, the service is merely a tool they use, but it shows how powerful that tool can be. These people accomplish something extraordinary by using the mystical talisman or tool.
Who Are You Telling Your Story To?
Know who your target audience is and tell them a story that is of interest to them alone. Think back to the classic Charles Atlas ads, where the bully kicks sand in the hero’s face. Charles Atlas is the mentor, his training program is the talisman, the journey is lifting weights, the Dragon is the bully, the Reward is the respect of the girl, the hero’s peers and his own self-respect and confidence. Don’t be all things to all people, just tell a great transformation story to your relevant audience.
Subway sandwiches took off when they built a marketing campaign around their spokesperson Jared, a regular guy who lost a ton of weight by eating Subway and undergoing a transformation, a symbolic death and rebirth as a skinny guy, and has now returned to the people with the Elixir (Subway sandwiches). While this campaign skips over the mentor figure, the talisman is the sandwiches, and the journey was the quest to lose weight. The target audience is people who want to improve their diet and lose weight while eating good tasting food without paying a lot.
Regular Businesses Have a Heroic Story Inside of Them
Storytelling is how humans transmit information and form emotional bonds. Figuring out your marketing story is much easier when you start looking for these key events and characters. If you want to read even more about the art of storytelling and marketing, Ryan Holiday has a good article on Medium about marketing mundane businesses through storytelling. The TED talk below by Andrew Stanton of Pixar Studios gives some more insight into how talk about what you know and weave humanity into your storytelling as well.
I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on storytelling in marketing and design in the comments below.