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You run a business that sells an exceptional product at a fair price. As soon as a customer tries it for the first time, you’ve got a loyal customer for life. Your product and your customer service are just about flawless, and you spend a sizable portion of your budget on advertising. Why, then, are you struggling to attract new customers? Why aren’t your ads working?
They probably just need a little boost from more storytelling.
Whatever you’re selling – healthy snacks, a five-star hotel, vehicles, industrial waste management, or professional consulting services – a great product deserves a great story.
A tale of two stories
Consider this ad that Procter & Gamble ran during the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. It’s brilliant storytelling. The universal mom is the clear-cut hero of the story, and we follow her on a beautiful journey that every mom can identify with.
Now compare it with this notorious 2013 ad for Samsung’s 840 EVO Series Solid State Drive:
If you can look past the cringeworthy acting and the tone-deaf sexism of the ad, you’ll see that there is nothing for the audience to engage with; all of the content and emotions are spoon-fed to the viewer.
Moreover, there are three heroes in the story. Who are we supposed to be identifying with? The dialogue is so unrealistic that these protagonists and their problems just become comical. By trying to tell a story to everybody, they end up telling a story to nobody.
Look at the ‘like’ to ‘dislike’ ratios of both videos: Viewers love the P&G ad and they hate the Samsung ad. Even if they’ve never studied story structure in their lives, people are natural story critics.
Our storytelling origins
The response to ads like these is significant, and reflects a deeper truth: Humans are pattern seeking creatures. We have a deep-seated need to try to make sense of the world in which we live. This is why we instinctively gravitate towards stories – they make sense out of chaos, and music out of noise.
Stories are what separates us from the animals. One theory suggests that we outlived our Neanderthal cousins – who were stronger and had more robust bodies than us – because we were better able to cooperate in large numbers. How did our prehistoric ancestors manage to band together by the hundreds, and even thousands? With shared stories.
Today, millions of people who have never even met can work together across global supply chains. In his book Sapiens, historian Yuval Noah Harari explains how this synergy is only possible due to our ability to create myths and narratives that bind us together.
Stories are so deeply ingrained in our psyches, that we can immediately recognize a good one … and a bad one.
Consider the following paragraph:
Once upon a time in a faraway land there was a poor village boy who dreamt of being a famous knight. The mafia boss shot his lieutenant in the head and said, “It was time for you to … cash out.” The people at the front of the train were getting crushed by the waves of people trying to escape the newly turned zombies at the back of the train. The T-Rex stomped on the doghouse, and they lived happily ever after.
Despite the interesting images, it’s is an extremely unsatisfying read. Why? Because it’s just a collection of scenes. There’s no story. It’s all noise and no music.
Regardless of the genre – classic literature, high-concept fantasy, science fiction, or romantic comedy – stories need structure.
The hero’s journey
In his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell discusses how every mythological story ever told follows essentially the same structure and stages.
Here’s what it looks like visually:
It might seem complicated, but it isn’t. Some of today’s most popular movies and TV shows follow the structure Campbell laid out.
The co-creator and head writer of Rick and Morty, Dan Harmon, uses the hero’s journey structure for every episode.
The titular characters end up in fantastically far-out situations involving aliens from other dimensions and versions of themselves from alternate universes, while still connecting with audiences on a deep level. Rick and Morty manages to be both novel and familiar at the same time because its writers take such great care to follow a universal story structure.
This YouTube video breaks down how Harmon uses the framework in one of the show’s most iconic episodes:
Although a bit simpler than Campbell’s version, Harmon’s stages of the hero’s journey still takes the protagonist through the same cycle:
Harmon simplifies it even further in a tutorial he wrote for Channel 101:
It sounds like a caveman giving orders, and that’s intentional. As Harmon says, stripping language down to its bare elements:
Behind (and beneath) your culture creating forebrain, there is an older, simpler monkey brain with a lot less to say and a much louder voice. One of the few things it’s telling you, over and over again, is that you need to go search, find, take and return with change. Why? Because that is how the human animal has kept from going extinct, it’s how human societies keep from collapsing and how you keep from walking into McDonald’s with a machine gun…
We need go search – We need get fire, we need good woman, we need land moon – but most importantly, we need RETURN and we need CHANGE, because we are a community, and if our heroes just climbed beanstalks and never came down, we wouldn’t have survived our first ice age.
Transform your customer into a hero
If good storytelling structure can work in an episode of Rick and Morty where, for example, a collective hive-mind takes over a planet of green aliens who would be having a nipple-based race war if left to their own devices, it can also work just as effectively in a marketing campaign for, say, consulting services.
The most important thing marketers need to remember is to position the customer at the center of the story. We’ve said this in previous blogs, but it bears repeating: Customers don’t need a hero. They need a guide.
Customers want to be taken on a journey. They want to cross a threshold – or go through a portal – into a new land where they can seek, find, take, and return home with the magic elixir (in this case your product), finding themselves transformed.
And what of your story? You run a business that sells an excellent product. Your advertising wasn’t working. You went on a search for how to solve your problem. You found this blog. Now you know how to structure a great story. You’re ready to return to your business with this new knowledge, and tell the story your brand deserves – the one with your customer as the star.