Brand Storytelling Beyond The Hero’s Journey

Chris WrenJuly 13, 20174 min

In the age of disruption, nothing is safe from profound change. For countless years, storytellers everywhere have relied on a model commonly known as The Hero’s Journey to captivate audiences. From great literature, to epic films all the way to a :30 commercial (or even world-class Ted Talk), the basic formula wherein a hero is called to an adventure, embarks on a quest riddled with conflict, discovery and enlightenment, and returns home having solved the problem, succeeds because it appeals to our sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, and fulfills the expectation of a conflict needing to be resolved.

This traditional, linear method is being disrupted by a world that is anything but linear or predictable. Jeff Gomez at Starlight Runner has done an enormous amount of research in this area, and has put together a new model he calls The Collective Journey. He says, “The model helps us explore a new way to look at story, tell stories, and participate in narrative, which has all been made possible by immersive media technologies, and how interconnected we have become.”

Our ability to express ourselves and access the perspectives of others is changing our appetite for story. Game of Thrones is just one of many shows which have abandoned the traditional stages in favor of something more complex. There is no clearly defined right or wrong. Equal points of view are given to all characters rather than focused on a single savior. In fact, an underlying theme of the collective journey is that nobody is coming to save you. As Jeff says, “Hero’s Journey stories are about how the individual actualizes by achieving personal change, but Collective Journey stories are about how communities actualize in their attempt to achieve systemic change.”

For brands, one of the greatest changes has been the rise of pervasive communication in a globally networked society. Brands used to own their own narrative in a closed system wherein they were the broadcaster. Using the hero’s journey approach, the promise of a lifestyle, or what a product said about you propelled sales and increased demand in an era dominated by consumerism. But nothing lasts forever.

To demonstrate the dramatic shift from hero’s journey to collective journey, Jeff Gomez highlights a case study using Abercrombie and Fitch. In 2006, Salon posted an article about A&F’s CEO Mike Jeffries about how he turned the brand around into something successful and popular. Deep in the piece, Jeffries says, “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny.”

In a pre-network society, a comment like that vanishes because the brand retains control of their story. But seven years later, a Business Insider article called “Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses to Make Clothes for Large Women” revived the quote setting off a cataclysm. The powerful new tools of self-expression wielded by customers grabbed media attention, set off viral YouTube hits, even drawing a bitter condemnation from celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres. While it can be argued that as an industry, the retail vertical is facing unprecedented challenges, an event like this certainly doesn’t help.

Geoff Colon says, “Managed narratives are dead just like managed PR programs.” While brands continue to be one way consumers express themselves, they now have more immediate, effective and impactful tools via networks. In the last six months, we’ve seen Pepsi, Uber, United Airlines and others fall victim to consumer outrage via new tools of personal expression.

More than ever, it is important for brands to listen. Consumers’ stories now weave in and out of a brand’s. Sometimes those stories are positive, sometimes those stories are full of mistakes, some are critiques, and others fume with disdain. The siloed approach many brands take to engagement, shackled by legal rules and inflexible processes needs to open up in this new era of story. For some ideas around this, see Geoff Colon’s October piece called “Brands no longer define their own voice.”

But the greatest takeaway in the shift to collective journey is the acknowledgement that story is now porous. Consumers want to be heard and via their new tools of self-expressions can find their way into the stories told by brands. They are quickly learning that their voice changes the story, the products, impacts sales, and can happen at lightning speed. Regardless of if they have their facts right.

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  • George Kuhn

    July 22, 2017 at 7:56 pm

    Excellent share here. We see this all of the time in our customer experience (CX) market research. Stories and brands cannot be formed without first collecting feedback and research from customers. It helps define characters, personas, and storylines. Thanks for writing.

  • Chris Wren

    July 26, 2017 at 3:12 pm

    You’re absolutely right. An important part of collective journey storytelling is something Jeff Gomez calls “regenerative listening” – much like regenerative braking charges batteries, regenerative listening can help add some current to the narrative and keep it interesting. Glad you liked the article.

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