Have you ever stayed up for hours to finish a really good book, or got so busy binge-watching a show? “Just one more minute” or “just one more episode” you say to yourself, and before you know it, it’s 3 am and you’re living off caffeine the next morning at work. Trust me, I’ve been guilty of this too many times (don’t tell my boss).
So what is it about certain stories that we just can’t stay away? At the heart of it, stories resonate with us at an instinctive, base level. It’s in our human nature to connect with stories and its characters. Whether it’s the shows we watch, or the products we consume, some part of us just connect to it.
As any English major worth her salt can tell you, the hero’s journey is a big deal for storytelling. The hero’s journey — a concept coined by Joseph Campbell in the late 1940s — is threaded throughout modern day books, movies, tv shows, podcasts, and, yes, companies.
Of course, when you hear “hero’s journey,” you’re going to take it literally. Like, for example, Wesley from The Princess Bride rescuing Buttercup from the Fire Swamp. Or, maybe, Frodo’s long and hard-fought trip to destroy the ring in Mount Doom in Lord of the Rings.
Those are, certainly, theatrical and exciting stories about a hero on a journey. But storytelling isn’t just for the storybooks. You may be surprised to hear it, but some of the most successful marketing campaigns have leveraged this time-honored storytelling narrative. The likes of Apple, Disney, Nike, and Target have structured their brand story and marketing efforts with the hero’s journey at the center.
Let’s take a closer look at the hero’s journey, how companies use this technique in their marketing, and tips for success in implementing this narrative in your own brand storytelling.
What Is the Hero’s Journey?
So, what is the hero’s journey anyways? The hero’s journey is a common narrative archetype, or story template. It typically follows the steps of a hero who goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, emerges victorious from adversity with that newfound knowledge, and then returns home transformed. The hero’s journey can be broken down into three essential stages:
- The departure: The hero gets a call to adventure but rejects the call. Something or someone (typically a mentor figure) prompts him to accept the call and leave the familiar world behind.
- The initiation: Here, the hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world and experiences ups and downs as he faces obstacles and/or the enemy of the story. Typically, to win, the hero requires some sort of sacrifice (physical or emotional).
- The return: The transformed hero returns to the familiar world.
Examples of the Hero’s Journey
Let’s take a look at some popular stories and how they fit in the hero’s journey, starting with Star Wars. In fact, the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, credited Joseph Campbell for inspiring how he shaped the Star Wars plot. Let’s see how Episode 4: A New Hope stacks up to the hero’s journey:
- The departure: Luke Skywalker receives the call to adventure from a droid (R2D2) with a message to come save Princess Leia. At first, Luke rejects the call and the idea of traveling so far from home. After meeting Obi-Wan Kenobi (the wise mentor figure) and losing his family, Luke starts his adventure.
- The initiation: Luke begins his journey to become a Jedi and learns the Force under Obi-Wan’s mentorship. He encounters mental obstacles (his own doubts) and physical obstacles/enemies (bounty hunters, stormtroopers, Darth Vader). He overcomes the trials, but loses his mentor Obi-Wan during his escape with the princess.
- The return: Luke does not physically return to his home at this point of the story, although he does later return at the conclusion of the trilogy as a full-fledged Jedi Master. At this point, however, Luke is transformed by the initiation stage and joins the Rebels for his new home.
When you look at the Star Wars trilogy as a whole, you would draw many comparisons between George Lucas’ universe and the hero’s journey. The same can be said about the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Another widely popular franchise, Harry Potter draws inspiration from the hero’s journey. Let’s take a closer look at book one:
- The departure: A young orphan boy named Harry Potter receives letter after letter from Hogwarts, school of witchcraft and wizardry, but each letter is destroyed. A half-giant named Hagrid (mentor figure) tracks Harry down, tells Harry he is a wizard, and invites him to attend Hogwarts.
- The initiation: Harry faces obstacles in his first year, including rivals, his surly potions professor, a troll, venomous plants, magical chess board, and the evil wizard who murdered his parents (Voldemort). At the end of the book, Voldemort tempts Harry with his greatest desire — resurrecting his parents. Harry turns down the offer and defeats the dark wizard.
- The return: Harry returns to his aunt and uncle’s home at Number 4 Privet Drive with new friends, new skills and education, and a new sense of belonging.
Much like Star Wars, Harry Potter closely follows the hero’s journey. Both of these franchises are hugely successful and well-known throughout the world — and there’s an argument credit is owed to the core storytelling elements from the hero’s journey.
Does Brand Storytelling Really Work for Businesses?
While it’s easy to write it off and think it’s just for fun stories, the hero’s journey is a formula that we can use in the business world as well. Understanding this template for storytelling can help you lead consumers down their buyer’s journey in a way where they identify with your offerings.
Why does storytelling matter? How will people relate to the hero’s journey?
Here’s a breakdown of why the hero’s journey and storytelling work:
- First off, the hero’s journey is familiar. Star Wars and Harry Potter are just the tip of the iceberg — countless stories we know and love use this storytelling template. This means that consumers can quickly understand and relate to the story. And people prefer the comfortable over the unfamiliar.
- Playing off the first point, the hero’s journey also makes it easy to condense complex information or make tedious information more appealing. Putting something into story format makes it immediately more interesting as a consumer. Plus, when someone is explaining a concept, think about how often you hear analogies or examples. That’s simply because it’s easier to learn from stories.
- Brand storytelling helps your company stand out. The market is saturated with products and solutions, and you likely have your fair share of competition. To make a lasting impression on consumers in this environment, you need to get creative. Research has found that storytelling not only increases brand loyalty and favorability, but also makes consumers 22 times more likely to remember you.
- Lastly, brand storytelling creates connection with the reader. Whether you create a hero for your brand, or the consumer takes on the persona of hero, you’re giving them something to identify with beyond your logo. When we hear stories, our brains actually release a bonding chemical called oxytocin. It’s not just chance that you feel attached with your favorite book character or the random stranger in the commercial — it’s science.
How Do Brands Use the Hero’s Journey in Marketing?
Companies can use the hero’s journey from anything to a commercial or ad to a bigger campaign across multiple platforms. When using the hero’s journey model, a brand takes you on a hero’s journey with an individual who represents what your brand stands for. Well-done commercials will make the commercial relate to it, or feel like they are on their own hero’s journey.
Hero’s Journey Example #1: “The Little Duck”
One example of the hero’s journey is the “The Little Duck — Disneyland Paris” commercial. In this commercial, a little duck forms an attachment to Donald Duck after hiding underneath a magazine featuring the beloved Disney character. The little duck travels far and away with his family, and eventually has to give up his treasured magazine during a storm. At the end of the commercial, the little duck and his family make it to safety and land in the grass at Disneyland. There waiting for the little duck is his role model, Donald Duck.
The Disneyland commercial does an excellent job of telling an impactful story and bringing the viewer on a journey alongside the little duck. The little duck at first is scared to leave his home, but gathers courage from mirroring Donald Duck. Again, it follows the hero’s journey model when the little duck is forced to sacrifice his magazine to fly away with his family. At the end of the commercial, the little duck’s dreams come true (a very Disneyland value) and he is rewarded for his bravery throughout his journey.
Hero’s Journey Example #2: “Thin Ice”
Another great example of the hero’s journey is Toyota’s “Thin Ice” commercial. In the video, Olympic ice skater Ashley Wagner tells the story of answering the call to compete as an Olympian. As her journey begins, she stumbles and falls through the ice into a dark abyss. In this moment of peril, she comes to a transcendent realization: “Strength only comes from our struggle.” She rises above her trial, stronger and more determined than ever before.
This commercial depicts a condensed version of the hero’s journey, but the steps of the narrative are noticeable if you’re looking for it. Notice how Ashley gets a call to adventure, experiences trials and hardship during her adventure, and in her darkest moments chose to overcome and keep going. That is one of the biggest hallmarks of a hero’s journey. At the end, she is transformed into who she is today: an Olympic medalist.
Tips for Implementing the Hero’s Journey in Your Brand Story
- Be the helpful guide along the way. Every hero’s journey has a mentor or “wise old man” figure to support the hero along the journey. You can apply this to your own marketing strategies by acting as the source of knowledge and a trustful guide for consumers. For example, as a health brand, you want to instill trust that you’re there for your consumers to live their best, healthiest lives, and you have products and helpful tips to get them there.
- Don’t be afraid to lean into your core values. As part of standing out from the crowd, you want to attract like-minded people and hone in on what makes you different. You want consumers who will not only appreciate what you do or sell, but who also become brand loyalists. For example, take the Kia commercial “The Hero’s Journey” starring Melissa McCarthy. Melissa takes on the role of an environmental activist out saving the world, and at the end of this humorous commercial, it shows how driving a Kia car supports sustainability efforts.
- Ensure your hero’s journey aligns with your brand identity. When you start a campaign using the hero’s journey, you want to pick a hero and a story that makes sense for your brand. During the brainstorming stages, get together with your team and consider what your target avatar cares about most and how they relate to stories. You want to align your brand identity, your audience, and the campaign all together.
- Learn from others before you. You may have heard this quote from Warren Buffet: “It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” With this in mind, look at how other brands have used the hero’s journey and brand storytelling, what worked, and what didn’t work. Also, read up on the subject experts on the topic. The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell is the best place to start for a deeper understanding of the hero’s journey, and for modern day application, you will want to read Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller.
- You don’t need to follow the formula exactly. No need to follow the script exactly. Instead, use bits and pieces of the hero’s journey that suit you, especially for shorter commercials or campaigns. Some aspects of the hero’s journey may not fit the situation or your unique brand. So, don’t be afraid to put your own spin on it.
- Some of the most successful marketing campaigns have leveraged the hero’s journey storytelling narrative.
- The hero’s journey is a common narrative archetype that typically follows the steps of a hero who goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, emerges victorious from adversity with that newfound knowledge, and then returns home transformed.
- Because the hero’s journey template is familiar, consumers are more comfortable and can relate with it.
- The hero’s journey also makes it easy to condense complex information or make tedious information more appealing.
- The hero’s journey can help you stand out from your competitors. You need to get creative to make a lasting impression on consumers in our saturated market.
- Brand storytelling creates connection with the reader. Whether you create a hero for your brand, or the consumer takes on the persona of hero, you’re giving them something to identify with beyond your logo.
- Don’t shy away from using your core values and aligning your brand storytelling with your brand identity. This is how you attract like-minded consumers to your brand.
- Some aspects of the hero’s journey may not fit the situation or your unique brand. So there’s no need to follow the script exactly. Find what works best for you and your brand.