Blog: Content Strategy

Storytelling In Marketing: The Hero’s Journey

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John Locke is an SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps established businesses rank higher through his web agency. Lockedown Design.

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:

  1. I. The Known
    1. 1) The Mundane World
    2. 2) Call To Adventure
    3. 3) Refusal of the Call
    4. 4) Appointment of the Sage or Mentor
    5. 5) Facing the Guardian / Crossing the Threshold
  2. II. The Unknown
    1. 6) Mapping the Challenges
      1. i. Allies and Helpers
      2. ii. Enemies
    2. 7) Tests and Trials
    3. 8) Center of the Unknown
    4. 9) Slaying the Dragon
    5. 10) Atonement / Gaining the Reward
  3. III. The Return
    1. 11) Obstacles to Return
    2. 12) Resurrection / Crossing the Threshold
    3. 13) Return With the Elixir / Celebration
    4. 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.

Hero’s Journey: Refusing the Call

Neo, in The Matrix, contacted first by Trinity, then Morpheus.

A Mentor or Sage appears to give them guidance, and sometimes a magic tool or talisman to help them on the journey.

Hero’s Journey: The Mentor Appears

In The Lord of The Rings, Gandalf was the mentor of all the main characters.

Before the hero can fully cross into the realm of the unknown, they must defeat a Guardian to the world of the Unknown.

Hero's Journey: Defeating the Guardian

Before Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man, he must defeat Bonesaw in the wrestling challenge.

After the hero enters the world of the Unknown, there is no returning until the journey is completed.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Once Dorothy enters Oz, she cannot return to Kansas until her quest is complete.

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.

Hero’s Journey: Allies and Enemies

Harry Potter had several allies, but also numerous enemies.

Tests and trials will come forth to test the hero. Sometimes these come in threes, but these are not the main challenge.

Hero’s Journey: Trials and Challenges

Indiana Jones survived many trials, like being dumped in a snake pit — but these were not the main challenge.

In a monomyth or hero’s journey, the hero may meet with the Goddess, giving the hero some sort of inner strength to hold onto.

Hero’s Journey: Meeting the Goddess

Neo, in The Matrix, meeting The Oracle, who gives him advice in time of need.

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.

Hero’s Journey: Center of the Unknown

Wesley, in The Princess Bride, being tortured to the verge of permanent death.

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.

Hero’s Journey: Slaying the Dragon

In the 1985 movie, Legend, Jack must defeat the Lord of Darkness.

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.

Hero’s Journey: The Reward

In The Hobbit, the Reward was not gold, but freedom from the dragon.

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.

Hero’s Journey: Final Obstacle / Magic Flight

In the movie Signs, all the aliens fled, except this one — who threatens to kill Graham’s son as revenge.

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.

Hero’s Journey: Return With the Elixir

At the end of the 1982 film, The Dark Crystal, the two tribes, Mystics and Skeksis, merge into their original forms after untold eons.

Usually there is a Celebration by the people in the regular world for the hero at the end of their journey.

Hero’s Journey: Return with Elixir / Celebration

At the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie siblings celebrate the victory over the White Witch.

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.

Hero’s Journey: Reflection

The end of the Harry Potter movies, where everyone pretends to be older.

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. 1) Interesting to your target audience. Make it relevant to them.
  2. 2) Authentic and genuine. Not full of meaningless buzzwords or making false claims.
  3. 3) Consistent with the storyline. And here’s the important one…
  4. 4) The customer is the hero of the story, not your brand or product.

Brand Storytelling: The Hero’s Journey

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.

Charles Atlas Ad

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.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is an SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps established businesses rank higher through his web agency. Lockedown Design.

3 comments on “Storytelling In Marketing: The Hero’s Journey

  1. Love the application of the hero’s monomyth and the hero’s odyssey to entrepreneurship!

    Definitive aspects of the entrepreneurial odyssey can be seen in movies ranging from The Matrix to The Lord of The Rings to Star Wars–the call to adventure (seeing an opportunity), refusal of the call (it’s too hard–somebody else would have done it–working a corporate job is safer), meeting the mentor (finding the angels/professors/books/coaches/leaders/entrepreneurs who can help), crossing the threshold (the point of no return–signing the lease/hiring employees), seizing the sword from the stone (getting the patent/raising funds), the showdown/ordeal (facing down competitors), tests, allies, and enemies (collaborators and competition). And even after all that, even after the patent has issued and the funds have been raised, there’s still the classic road on home (getting the product to market!) and the return with the elixir–the exit strategy.

    And too, there’s the belly of the whale (Steve Jobs being kicked out of Apple by the MBAs and into the darkness of NEXT) and the resurrection (Steve Jobs returning on home, reinventing Apple with the iPod, and leading it to new heights). And it’s always the least likely suspect–the reluctant hero–who somehow succeeds–Frodo was just a little Hobbit, Neo was a lowly cubicle worker–and Jobs, Branson, and Gates have not a college degree between them.

    Failure isn’t always failure, so much as a small step along the greater odyssey. Frodo and Neo both appeared to be dead at one point. In tirelessly testing different filaments, Edison said, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”

  2. I too have noticed the similarity between the hero’s journey and marketing (and project development for that matter).

    In marketing and development, there is always the “unsettled village” or problem. A website isn’t pulling in enough leads, customers, or sales. It’s easy enough to refuse the call to fix the problem. That is, until you are out of options. For example, distributors stop selling your product, or your on-the-ground sales people quit. Suddenly you are forced to accept the call and fix the problem.

    From dealing with clients over the years I find if you don’t make the problem clear and real enough to them, then they won’t full embrace the call. They will resent the cost of the job, under value the work, or take the victory for granted. However, if they recognize the problem, they will be happy when you solve their problems in the end and have a better perspective on future “calls to adventure”.

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