The anatomy of a good story

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Brands need a new ‘hero’s journey’ to guide them through the overloaded media environment. Richard Millar breaks down the pattern for successful brand storytelling.

Richard Millar

Hill and Knowlton

To quote Seth Godin: “Consumers believe stories. Without this belief there is no marketing.”

We like to tell a story, we like to listen to stories. Storytelling is the method by which people tell each other who they are, where they come from, what they believe in and how they are different from one another.

We tell stories to make sense of what we are saying, to provide perspective, to simplify the complex, to explain origins, to establish traditions and behaviour and to communicate ethical and moral positions. 

For companies and brands that have something real, emotional and powerful to say, it is worth adopting a new anatomy for brand storytelling and employing people who know how to hold an audience – journalists, writers, animators or film-makers, with real experience as storytellers.

Effective storytelling is not about the brand but it embodies the brand, its attitudes and promises. Brands must turn themselves into stories.

In recent years, one of the best examples of a brand story was Mercedes-Benz’s controversial ‘Tramp a Benz’ project, which told the story of a hitchhiker who takes rides only in Mercedes-Benz vehicles as he travelled across Europe recording his adventure – a story not about the brand, but in which the brand was the story.

A more recent example is Intel’s ‘The Beauty Inside’ – a ‘social movie’ about a man called Alex who wakes up every day inside a new body with a new face. No matter his physical appearance, Alex is the same inside.

A global casting call let social media users audition to play different versions of Alex by uploading videos. Selected users were then woven into the story’s fabric.

Here are five principles for great brand storytelling:

* Think of stories as fables not fairy tales. Stories do not have to be true but they do have to contain truth. If you want people to believe in your brand, first tell them what your company or brand believes in and make it something the consumer cares about. Stories are most effective when they have a moral or ethical foundation – they are about a larger ambition to make the world or people’s lives better.

* Find your hero and take them on a journey.

* To move people, tap into a specific emotion, a situation that transcends culture and language – love, desire, happiness, fear, disgust, anger.

* Use the story to engage your audience, to build relationships and to create a community of sharing and belonging.

* Above all, tap into the audience’s imagination. Stories are entertainment. 

HK Butterfly
Understanding patterns is the key to telling stories in a world of infinite media

A new hero’s journey

Anyone who has watched Star Wars knows the classic film is an example of a monomyth – a narrative that follows a common pattern.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell famously referred to this concept as the ‘hero’s journey’. From Superman to Luke Skywalker, from Hercules to Harry Potter, this pattern can be found throughout literature and film. We are, in fact, hard-wired as humans to follow the hero’s journey – it is the bedrock of all great storytelling.

The traditional hero’s journey is essentially:

* Leaving the ‘known’ world for an unknown challenge or experience.

* A test or tests of character and resolve.

* Triumph or resolution that benefits a greater good and changes the hero for the better.

This pattern has stood the test of time. But like any organism, the pattern also evolves and adapts. And it is happening again.

Brands need a new hero’s journey to guide them through the overloaded media environment. We need to help brands shift back to narrative, to real emotion that we can trust. People do not want to connect with marketing messages – they want to connect with their innate human nature.

There are four main steps in this new narrative approach to brand storytelling:

* Universal truth: The story begins with a common frame of reference, a universal truth or situation
that transcends culture or language. Often there is little or no dialogue, the truth being so honest and relatable that words would merely get in the way.

* Emotional hero: Emotion, not logic, is the raw material that paves the story’s path. Embodied by people, brands or circumstances, the emotional hero is a construct of feelings over logic, of humanity over messaging.

* Twist of fate: Here the journey takes on an element of surprise, an unexpected turn in the narrative. This is more than just a standard plot twist, but rather a truly unanticipated event that can take the entire narrative in a new direction.

* Transformation: The journey concludes with a form of transformation – a problem is resolved, the main character or circumstances are changed, a new universal truth is revealed. The conclusion can also be a call to action or a reminder to refocus or do things in a different way.

Of course, merely following these steps is no guarantee of success. For every Star Wars there is also a Krull. Storytelling requires more than a good formula, it requires a good story.

How to be remembered

But for brands that have something real, emotional and powerful to say, the brand storytelling hero’s journey is worth exploring.

Stories are patterns, and understanding these patterns is the key to telling stories in a world of infinite media. Stories today live across paid, earned, owned and shared channels – once-divergent narratives now layer together for maximum impact.

Yet this still is not enough. There is one more critical piece we need to break the story code.
It is the reason – the only reason – why the brand storytelling hero’s journey should matter: we want to be remembered.

This is the common goal that the public and brands both share. It is what moves people to action, even if they do not realise it consciously or want to admit it. Yes, brands, products and companies want to make money, but they want to be remembered, too. At a certain point just selling stuff does not cut it.

And remember, stories do not always have to be based on a new idea. Most stories already exist, they just need to be rediscovered and cultivated. Every brand, every organisation, has a story waiting to be told. Find it, find your best storytellers, and then let them weave their creative magic.

Storytelling has the power to change the destiny of your company, the health of your brand and
your place in consumers’ lives.

Richard Millar

President and chief executive
H+K Strategies UK and Europe

The Buckley Building
49 Clerkenwell Green

T: 020 7413 3000