“Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.” ― Yuval Noah Harari
Since the dawn of time, humans have shared stories. Our 50,000 year-old human brain is hardwired to respond to stories, and that hasn’t changed since we lived in caves, seeking shelter from saber-toothed tigers.
In their book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath reveal that “a key to making an idea sticky is to tell it as a story. Stories encourage mental stimulation that burns the idea into the mind of the listener.” Nowhere is this truer than in marketing.
Through the aid of clever storytelling, brands have been able to turn what might be considered “boring products” ― think razors, deodorant, glasses, or domain names ― into the Dollar Shave Clubs, the Old Spices, the Warby Parkers, and the GoDaddys of the world.
In this blog post, we’ll uncover one of the most effective forms of storytelling ― one that has endured the test of time ― and how it can take your company’s messaging to new heights.
A Story As Old As Time
Think of your favourite movie. Perhaps it’s Lord of the Rings? Star Wars? Harry Potter? Or maybe a Disney or Marvel movie?
As different as these stories may seem on the surface ― different settings, characters, time periods, plot lines ― they actually share a lot in common. When you boil them down to their core, they share a very similar narrative arc.
This fact was brought to light in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Campbell studied some of history’s greatest, most enduring stories ― from Greek Mythology and the Bible to Shakespeare ― and uncovered that they all follow 17 distinct stages, which he coined the monomyth or The Hero’s Journey.
These 17 stages have been whittled down and simplified over the years by several authors and screenwriters. For the purpose of this post, we’ll examine the following 6 key stages along the journey.
1. The Ordinary World
We begin by meeting the hero living an ordinary life. We can think of Frodo comfortably going about his day in the Shire. Of course, this wouldn’t make for a very exciting movie. We therefore need…
2. The Call to Adventure
The hero is called to leave the ordinary world and the status quo to embark on a great adventure, much like Luke was called to respond to Princess Leia’s message of distress in Star Wars.
3. Refusal of the Call
At first, the hero may hesitate or ignore the call, just like Harry initially had trouble accepting that he was a real wizard in Harry Potter.
4. Meeting the Mentor & Crossing the Threshold
The mentor then arrives to provide help and guidance to our hero. In the Matrix, we can think of Morpheus offering Neo the choice between the blue pill and the red pill. Neo chooses the red pill and crosses the threshold into an unknown world.
5. The Ordeal & Resurrection
A series of trials and tribulations arise that create tension and culminate in a great ordeal. This is often the very crux of the movie. In the Lion King, Simba fights Scar and throws him into a pack of hyenas, restoring his role as King of the Pride Lands.
6. Return With the Elixir
The hero returns to the ordinary world transformed having won the ultimate prize; either a physical object like a ring or a sword, or in the case of Aladdin, Jasmine’s hand in marriage. This releases the build-up of tension and rewards us with the happy ending we’ve been seeking.
The Hero’s Journey, Applied To Business
At this point, you may be thinking: “this is all fine and dandy, but what the heck does it have to do with business?” I’m glad you ask!
There is a very good reason these stories ― or rather, this singular story ― has been retold over and over again and has fascinated the human mind for millennia. It’s because it provides something we as humans crave: an incredible amount of tension, and a release from that tension.
I previously worked for an adventure touring company called Sacred Rides and helped produce the following 2-minute video. As you watch it, try to identify some of the above stages throughout the main character’s journey:
That little clip quickly amassed more views and created more engagement than any of our previous, higher budget videos. It told a story that spoke to our target audience ― busy professionals in their 40s, 50s, and 60s seeking meaningful adventures in remote destinations ― and put them in the hero’s character.
Here are a few other examples of The Hero’s Journey applied in marketing:
- Apple’s Macintosh commercial (aired during the 1984 Super Bowl) showed a heroine saving us from a dystopian, Orwellian future.
- Proctor & Gamble’s Mother’s Day commercial (aired during the 2012 Olympics) portrayed everyday moms as the heroes.
- Nike’s controversial “Dream Crazier ” commercial inspired us to dream bigger regardless of challenges, barriers, or adversity.
- Brian Chesky’s launch of Airbnb Experiences in this live presentation from 2016 was inspired by The Hero’s Journey.
These are deeply moving and compelling forms of storytelling that have proven incredibly effective. One common thread you’ll notice through each of these narratives is this: the hero is the buyer or the consumer, not the brand or the business.
Where Have Businesses Gone Wrong?
If we see businesses go wrong when adapting The Hero’s Journey to their marketing, it is in the characterization of the hero.
The temptation is often to portray our services or products as the hero that wins the battle, slays the dragon, and rescues the princess. Let’s take this well-meaning commercial from Michelin as an example:
It has all the elements of The Hero’s Journey crammed into 30 seconds: a town held captive by an evil gas pump, feeding on people’s hard-earned money until the Michelin Man saves the day with the right tires.
Not bad, right? On an emotional standpoint, however, did it do much for you? Did you feel anything? Are you tingling with excitement or inspired to take action? If not, it’s likely because you didn’t identify with the hero in that story (it’s hard to when we’re talking about a giant man made of tires).
That type of advertising ― of heroes embodied by brands ― was deeply popular and engrained in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Just think of the Green Giant, Mr. Clean, or Mr. Muscle as examples, and reflect on how much the media landscape has been flipped over its head in the last 50 years. Yet we are still flooded with messaging around businesses being “the greatest, the best, the shiniest, the finest”. And it’s progressively falling flat.
We’re so oversaturated with advertisements that our attention span has narrowed to the degree that our skepticism has grown. Which has ultimately resulted in this undeniable fact: people care about themselves, and they want to be the heroes of their own journeys.
If your business can help them in that quest, you’ll earn their attention and their trust. This leads us to an often forgotten yet all-too-important character…
The Lesson: Be The Mentor
We all want to be empowered to make our own decisions, but we also want a steady, helping hand to guide us along in our decision making journey.
Enter the mentor. That cool, calm, and collected presence that offers wisdom and reassurance when crossing the threshold away from the status quo and into an unknown world.
Your offering to your audience.
It begins with your website copy and then trickles down into everything you do; from your content marketing to your social media presence to the way you train your sales and support staff.
Establish yourself as a knowledgeable expert. Become a trusted friend that eases tension and provides certainty in an uncertain world. Be Gandalf, Genie, or Yoda in your messaging, and let your audience be their own hero.
Do so, and they’ll thank you with their business.