Using the Hero’s Journey to Share Your Brand Story

From Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy, countless Hollywood blockbusters follow a storyline format that mythology professor Joseph Campbell classified in 1949. The monomyth, or “hero’s journey” as it is more commonly referred to, is a narrative structure that Campbell argued is found in just about every culture in the world. We encounter it in movies and books, legends and folklore, even in trending news and our own lives.

Though it’s been prevalent in stories since ancient times, the hero’s journey remains one of the most popular and best-loved storytelling formats. One reason is because the promise of change makes it rewarding for an audience to follow. Somehow, some way, we know that the hero in these stories will end up in a different place or state of mind from where they began and we can’t wait to see the result.

For brands that want to up their storytelling content, using the hero’s journey is a great place to start. Its structure is easy to follow and easy to modify to fit individual brand stories, but before going any further, here’s what the hero’s journey entails. In his thesis, Campbell named 12 steps in the narrative, depicted below:

For some companies, positioning the brand as a hero helps them stand apart from competitors as someone remarkable, an innovator. Take a look at Michelin’s advert, “The Right Tire Changes Everything.”

Although the hero (Michelin) doesn’t physically leave and go on a journey in this 30-second spot, aspects of the hero’s journey are still at play here. The hero faces an ordeal (standing up to the evil gas pump) and sees a reward (relief from the monster, the town restored to safety).

Most brands engaged in content marketing are moving away from this model, however. Positioning your brand as the hero feels a lot like traditional marketing, and smacks of “look at me, see how great I am!” To really engage with a consumer, the hero needs to come first, your brand second.

Positioning the Customer As the Hero

The more popular approach to the hero’s journey in brand storytelling places the customer as the hero. Why? Because it gives the customer an opportunity to relate to your brand and its products, to envision the things your services will enable them to achieve.

Check out how Clif Bar employs use of the hero’s journey storytelling in their interactive video on the company’s website, which starts with a call to adventure:

As with the traditional hero’s journey, the “hero” can opt to refuse the call, but rather than reveal what happens if you do reject adventure, I’ll just suggest that you check it out for yourself.

After answering the call, the hero is immersed in the “special world” of extreme sports: rock climbing and wave surfing and mountain bike riding, to name a few.

With the customer as hero, the brand’s role is usually that of the “mentor,” (introduced in step 4 of the hero’s journey, but can sometimes appear earlier, i.e. in step 2, the call to adventure). Think Yoda to Luke Skywalker, or Gandalf to Bilbo Baggins. The mentor’s message is meant to encourage or empower the hero, to help him achieve something he didn’t believe he could.

In Clif Bar’s “Choose Your Adventure” video, an omnipresent narrator’s voice represents the brand and serves as a guide to the hero’s path. The hero is prompted to make choices at every turn of the journey, encountering “trials and tests” like hurtling down a mountainside or kayaking through the rapids. And at various points of the video timeline or “journey,” the hero is reminded to “feed your adventure”—a message that aligns perfectly with the Clif Bar brand, which sells energy food products to fuel the outdoors lifestyle.

Applying the Hero’s Journey

Due to the epic scale of the hero’s journey, a challenge for content marketers can arise in truncating the tale for limited marketing space. A timeline, like the one Guinness illustrated to tell its brand story, is an effective way to cover a lot of ground. So is an extended web video, like this 50-second spot by Google Stories that details the journey of an American finding love in Paris.

Yet another option is to simply hone in on one or two steps of the hero’s journey, and focus the messaging on the brand or “mentor’s” message. Sharing tips and tricks on how to succeed in a goal or “journey” (like Lowe’s does on its site to encourage consumers to “never stop improving”) reinforces the idea that the brand is there primarily to help, not to force products.

Benefits of Using the Hero’s Journey

By using a hero’s journey narrative in your brand storytelling—particularly one where the consumer shines—you’re able to more deeply connect with your consumers. We all love stories of heroes and courage, and when you tell a story that spotlights the consumer it shows that you care more about serving the people than you do about making sales. And when consumers can make that connection, when they can go on an emotional journey with your brand, it helps to build customer trust and loyalty.

Written by Alex Herring

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