The Hero’s Journey – An Advertising Tale

When you create a story, you are making a promise to the end user. Regardless of the medium (film, TV, book, article, blog post, painting, sculpture etc.) you are immediately setting an expectation in the mind of the consumer and if you do not live up to that expectation, there is a feeling that you are taking something away from them.

As advertisers, our job is even more difficult. With almost all creative mediums, the user makes a conscious decision to engage with the content that has been produced. With advertising, the user doesn’t always have a choice. They simply go about their day to day lives and we “disrupt” this by inserting brands, offers and sales messages in the hope that the masses will buy our products or services.

In many ways, this means that the content we produce and the stories we tell have to be better than the content that users choose to engage with because we are unceremoniously forcing our messages upon them by any means possible.

What About Content Marketing?

The content marketers amongst you will undoubtedly say that you are creating content that draws users in and offers them real value rather than using traditional advertising methods. That’s all well and good, but in order to get people to that content, you promote it to people you think may be interested and the aim when you get them there is to convert them into a lead by collecting their data.

There are also very few brands out there that use a pure content marketing methodology, nor should they. Content marketing should always be part of a wider marketing mix and used to complement other tactics and provide a long tail solution to customer engagement and lead generation/sales.

When I talk about content in advertising, I am talking about it holistically. When I talk about storytelling, I mean the overarching brand story that penetrates every single output of every campaign.

The Hero’s Journey

I am not one for formulaic storytelling and in honesty, I don’t think there is any solid formula that will enable someone to create a story that is a hit. For the most part, formulaic stories are predictable, boring and (as my old comedian friends used to say) hack. There are, however, certain themes that run through some great stories that I believe are a good starting point.

In 1949, Joseph Campbell popularised “The Hero’s Journey” narrative in his book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” describing the basic narrative as:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

Famously, this narrative was said to have greatly influenced the work of George Lucas on the “Star Wars” franchises, but numerous other works have also been forwarded as examples of this narrative including the likes of; Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The below illustrates how this narrative works.

The Hero's Journey Illustration

The Hero’s Journey Illustrated

On close inspection of some of the most famous works of fiction throughout history, this narrative can be seen incredibly clearly. A call to adventure, challenges and temptations, transformation, atonement and return. Moving between the “Known” and the “Unknown”. There are obviously intricacies to every story, and the creator of the story will often add more levels, emotion and personality to this skeleton in order to create something that is infinitely more engaging.

What The Hero’s Journey offers is a framework from which to create a story arc that could help to lead consumers down a path that will simultaneously offer comfort and familiarity as well as excitement and surprise.

Accessibility of Advertising

Advertising methods are now more accessible than ever. You know longer need to be a big brand who has media buyers, creative staff, planners, strategists, agencies and all of the other extraneous things and people that big brands used to (and still do) use. The digital age has transformed anyone who has an internet connection and a smartphone into a  person that has the potential to engage and influence the masses at the click of a button. Influencer marketing has largely grown out of this ability which is why you now see brands paying people (barely out of school) huge sums of money to pedal their wares.

What the digital age has not provided, is an innate ability to create good stories, or as the industry might put it, engaging content. The disrupters of old simply viewed new digital platforms as a way to extend traditional advertising methods. Another way to get in front of more eyes, more often. What most didn’t see is the opportunity to create more immersive experiences that span the length and breadth of everyday life.

The Advertiser’s Hero

In many ways, the hero for advertisers is the user. Yes, they are the person reading, listening or watching, but as they consume our content, they also become a key player. When you think about it, the decisions a user makes influences the next step of the story that is told to them. Every click, every website visit, every video view puts them on a slightly different path to every other user which in turn, creates a whole new story that is largely unique to them. Our users are ultimately responsible for where the story goes next or if they want to continue to be a part of the story at all.

Advertising is the largest “Choose Your Own Adventure” story ever told and we may not have realised it yet

 Creating Your Brand Story

Having a framework from which to build your brand story could be one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal, but first of all, you need to understand what story your brand wants to tell. This involves a huge amount of honesty and thought to discover what the core truth of your brand is.

Ring.com (recently acquired by Amazon) did a great job of understanding their core truth. Their product is a smart doorbell with a camera that connects to smartphones, but their core truth (their mission) is:

To Reduce Crimes in Neighbourhoods

This was the core of their story and all of their messaging led back to that. When someone purchased a smart doorbell from Ring, they liked the product, but they also felt like they were helping to reduce crime for themselves and their neighbours. They actively took part in that story by sharing recordings of thefts from their Ring devices with their neighbours, the police and with the brand.

This core mission is something that many brands fail to produce and so, their content fails to reflect the true benefits of their products and services. People may still buy their products, but they don’t feel like they are part of a story and in many cases, stop engaging with the brand post-purchase.

Ultimately, as advertisers, we sell solutions to problems. Behind every problem is a story and behind every solution is a core mission.

Get to that core mission and create a story around it. Understand that with every decision, a user takes a slightly different path and the story needs to adjust according to those decisions. If you can grasp all of the different aspects of that user journey, tell a great story and make it as personal as possible, not only will you see increased sales, you will also see a continued engagement with users after the sale and find a whole range of new stories to tell.

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