Brand stories and the 7 basic plots

Image copyright pasukaru76 via Flickr

Image copyright pasukaru76 via Flickr

‘Is that true?’

‘No, but it’s a good story’.

Humans love a good story. We spend a huge proportion of our lives telling and listening to stories, whether through films, books, music, or just the anecdotes we tell in ordinary conversations. We share the story of our lives with people and tell stories about each other over a cup of tea. A good story doesn’t even have to be true – as long as it’s compelling.

Research has shown that stories activate parts of the brain that other forms of communication don’t. For example, stories that include descriptions of sensations cause our sensory cortex to spring into life, as if we are actually experiencing the sensations in the story.

Another great example of the power of stories is the Significant Objects project: items bought for as little as $1.25 each were auctioned off on eBay, but this time with a beautifully written story about their background and origin. The 200 or so objects, with their stories, made over $8,000 in total. Companies have learned to take advantage of this power, telling brand stories to engage with their audience and create a connection.

So when I read The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker, I started (mostly for my own amusement) working out which of the seven plots he identifies are used by brands. Some of them were easy – ‘Rags to Riches’ is every entrepreneurial story ever told, for example. Innocent tells this one well, with the tale of its founders giving up their secure jobs to start making smoothies.

‘Overcoming the Monster’ is also relatively familiar – challenger brands such as Easyjet (in its first incarnation), looking to disrupt the marketplace and unseat a dominant company, can tell this story to good effect.

Others were more difficult – ‘The Quest’ is a type in which the protagonist is on a search for something (think Treasure Island or Jason and the Golden Fleece). However, it can successfully be used by companies promoting something that has been developed or discovered over time. James Dyson told a quest-type story very effectively with his dual-cyclone technology for the Dyson vacuum cleaner.

‘Voyage and Return’ is similar to ‘The Quest’, but without the search element. Alice in Wonderland, the Lord of the Rings, or even Peter Rabbit are examples given in the book, but brand examples are tricky. However, on the basis that the protagonist is changed by his or her experience on the voyage, there are some good examples out there: footwear maker Toms tells the story of how its founder’s voyage to Argentina gave him both the idea for the company, and the charitable ethos that drives its One for One program. 

Comedy and Tragedy caused a certain amount of head-scratching. The Comedy plot is not necessarily funny – rather, it’s a type which often(but not always) features lovers who are kept apart by a series of misunderstandings, mistaken identities, and other confusions: think of Much Ado about Nothing, for example, or a Midsummer Night’s Dream. And the Tragedy plot is characterised by an ending featuring death or destruction. Neither of these lend themselves particularly well to telling a brand story and so have probably wisely been avoided by organisations – although if anyone can think of an example I’d love to hear it.

Finally, Rebirth. This is a story many ailing companies would love to tell, featuring as it does a protagonist who falls under a dark power before being liberated by a hero or heroine – Sleeping Beauty, for example, or Snow White. This is a great story to tell for any company that has gone through a turnaround or had to reinvent itself – Nokia, for example, started out as a paper milling company, before moving into rubber, and then via cabling into electronics, TVs and finally mobile technology. Reinvention, transformation and rebirth always make compelling brand stories, particularly if there is a happy ending.

So the stories brands are telling are often not new, and in fact in many cases are conforming to archetypes that are as old as the human race itself. This might go some way to explaining why brand stories can have such a powerful effect on us as consumers.

One final note of warning, however – all good stories have an ending, good or bad. The hero and heroine ride off into the sunset, the villain is defeated, the object quested for is found, and so on. And while customers love a happy ending on a brand story, organisations need to be able to move past the happy ending to the next story for their brand. Noone ever questions what happens to the hero after the happy ending. But a company that fails to develop a new story, or use its story in a new way, could soon find itself the central figure in a tragedy all of its own.