Digital Storytelling: How to Use the 5 Elements of Fiction to Tell Your Brand Story

All Photography and Graphic Design by Lynn Langmade

Why We Need to Stop Mythologizing the Brand Hero Journey in Content Marketing

Your Brand Isn't a Hero, and That's a Good Thing

Digital Storytelling is now a marketing buzzword, which means that many marketers throw the word around without even fully understanding what it means. Type in the words “storytelling” and “marketing” and Google returns 21 million results. But right now you could type almost any word into search and hit some marketing website that talks about how so-and-so blogger or SVP or Brand Engineer is the primary “storyteller” of Company X. Or better yet, some influencer who prides him or herself on their storytelling.

Of course, the reason for marketing’s sudden interest in storytelling is simple. A new mythology has been created based upon a false equivalence between brand equity and storytelling: if you tell a story, your audience will be awed and inspired and then buy whatever it is you’re selling. Many content shops, like CMI, have contributed to this myth—that content marketing and inbound marketing are about storytelling, a method, so we are told, that builds “strong relationships with your customers and a thriving community of loyalists over time.” In fact, CMI has devoted probably hundreds of pages—from guides, books, and blogs—to the concept of the “hero’s journey.” CMI has published 7 discrete blog posts on the subject of “brand storytelling” or “brand story” alone.

But where did this myth come from? CMI actually borrowed the concept of the Hero’s Journey from Joseph Campbell’s theory of the “monomyth,” a pattern that can be found in almost any narrative:

hero journey in storytelling

According to this structure, the Hero goes through three basic steps: the (1) journey, (2) the transformation and (3) the return, which are comprised of smaller steps like a test or an ordeal and eventually the road back. What’s important is that this structure is essentially circular.

Similarly, Robert Rose et al, argues that brand storytelling over time has a fundamental structure, which can be summed up by the same basic journey or “10 steps for telling your content marketing brand journey.” In their version, CMI simply replaces the standard Hero with the content marketing Brand Hero to develop a slightly modified version of this archetypal pattern:

Brand Hero's Journey

The Brand Hero likewise goes through a journey, then a transformation and a final return. Along the way, he is confronted by many challenges until a sage is appointed and then he returns to see through the final renewal and celebration.

Once CMI essentially “canonized” the Brand Hero Journey above, all of the other content marketing influencers followed their lead. It is now a critical commonplace in content marketing. That is, everyone assumes that all content marketers are in the practice of writing their version of this story.

But you know what? Nobody buys it. Nobody believes your brand is a hero because let’s face it: you don’t even think your brand is a hero. Even if your brand is truly a hero, it's a reluctant one that defies the cliché heroic image. In other words, your brand hero is now more Bilbo Baggins than Skywalker. And nobody really believes that every heroic brand has this story to tell or even should have this story to tell.

So I am going to argue something pretty counter-intuitive. Your job as a content marketer is not storytelling. Ann Handley has suggested as much, arguing that there is a fundamental difference between storytelling and telling a true story:

Good Content isn't about storytelling. It's about telling a true story well. Ann Handley

Although I agree with Handley in theory, I'm not entirely convinced that there is some fundamental difference between telling a true story and storytelling itself or between telling a true story and writing fiction. As if stories that are based on real-world referents are somehow more truthful? Your job as a content marketer is not just to craft a story about your brand’s journey or to tell a true story well. It’s not what CMI claims, and although Handley is making an astute point, I don't think she takes her point to its logical conclusion. You shouldn’t just focus on the plot at the expense of everything else. Why? Because in literature—where CMI borrowed this structure from—we don’t just study the journey, plots, or storylines. In order to write or analyze a story, we examine five basic elements of fiction, and we always examine them together:

  1. Character

  2. Plot

  3. Setting

  4. Theme

  5. Point of View

The Plot or the events that comprise a hero’s journey are only one of five components that make up a compelling story. Below I will discuss each of these elements in depth and illustrate how you should use these elements when you're developing the story that will provide the foundation for a phenomenal content marketing strategy.

Character:

In today’s postmodern, self-reflexive world, we need to get away from seeing our Brands as “heroes.” We no longer need Heroes with a capital “H” in the way we once did. We don’t need our brand to slay a dragon or sack a city. We need our brand personas to be unique and inspire confidence. More importantly, we need them to care. By unique, I mean best suited to their audience. Today’s best brand personas have none of the hallmark qualities of traditional brand personas. They are quiet, quirky, honest and even vulnerable or humble. Sometimes they’re even funny.

the new brand hero is more Baggins than Skywalker

They are not brash or boastful. They aren’t conventional or common. They most certainly aren’t manipulative, exploitative, or deceptive. And you know what? They aren’t even preternaturally strong. What matters most now—what enables prospects and customers to connect to a brand is authenticity.

In order to develop a rigorous content brand, your first priority must be to develop your brand persona’s true character. To understand this concept, we must look to story’s literary evolution. As audiences became more sophisticated over time, literary critics and theorists stopped thinking about a Hero being the center of a story and aptly started calling the character who is central to the story a protagonist as a way of rethinking the notion that the only story worth telling is a hero’s story. It doesn’t matter how great the novel’s plot is—what happens in the work of fiction—if the audience/reader never comes to sympathize with the protagonist. In other words, the audience has to come to care about the protagonist before they can ever come to care about what happens to her or him.

To put this in content marketing terms, the question you need to ask is: why would your customer or prospect want to read your story if you haven’t made them care about your brand? Is your brand’s persona one a buyer can relate to? Does it inspire sympathy and admiration? What are its values and does your buyer share those values?

Storytelling has also evolved past the notion that all great narratives have only one central or main character and content marketing needs to evolve too. A company’s brand persona is definitely a protagonist of the brand story, but aren’t there other characters who might also play a central role in the story? The customer and prospect should also play prominent roles in the story. So again we want to think about developing not just a brand persona, but truly fleshing your buyer persona out within the stories you tell about your company, product or industry.

Plot:

The biggest problem I see with The Brand Hero’s Journey is the implication that there is essentially only one story that buyers care about—that the Brand itself has only one essential story to tell. That might be true if you are writing an Epic or Novel, but it is not true in content marketing or branding, where you will tell hundreds, if not thousands, of stories about your Brand over a long period of time.

It also suggests that content marketers are in some chronic spin cycle, telling the same story over and over and over again. Always confronting one or more challenges and then returning. But this isn’t how the basic narrative structure works. No, I’m not joking. It’s really not. I spent many years teaching literature--the art of so-called storytelling. Many hours deciphering plot diagrams showing students how a standard plot develops and resolves. It goes something like this:

The Basic Plot Diagram

  1. Exposition

  2. Rising Action

  3. Climax

  4. Falling Action

  5. Resolution

As you can see from this graph, although CMI references Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey model, the basic plot line isn’t circular. It’s linear, and at the end of the narrative, the story ends.

What's' even more problematic is that CMI's model makes the Brand the hero of the story, not the customer. It shifts the focus off the customer’s desires, needs and pain points onto the company. This is extremely problematic in the customer-centric climate we currently find ourselves in.

Setting:

Setting is context, but it is so much more than that. Setting doesn’t just tell the reader when or where a series of events happened. It does that by default, but that’s the not the real purpose of setting. The real purpose of setting is to draw the reader into the story and then immerse them in it. The power of narrative is actually contained in its ability to immerse a reader in a new world. To figuratively put them “into” the action. To make them a part of the story itself.

As you think about setting as a critical component of your digital storytelling, you'll want to ask yourself these questions: what's happening in your market? What picture of the industry do you wish to paint? What is your locale? Is your story set locally or does it have global implications? Is your story looking backward or forward or is it taking advantage of this particular moment or zeitgeist in time? In other words, start answering the questions that will help immerse your reader in your brand’s story.

As content marketers, we’re lucky to be practicing our craft at a moment in time when it costs us almost nothing to immerse our audience in our narrative. With the rise of social media, advances in technology that make it easier than ever to create and share visual media, and the digitization of marketing as a profession, content marketers have an abundance of tactics to use to grab our audience’s attention and keep it. Interactive content, especially video, apps, and games can help you tell a compelling brand story that will leave your reader amazed and help them to connect with the brand.

Theme:

What is your story about? Not joking. Without sounding flippant, the job of any good content marketer is to say something. Yup, you need to actually say something. No seriously. Something useful. Every time. And I mean every single time. It’s not enough to develop an empathetic character or a suspenseful plot. You need to go beyond character. Beyond action. And even beyond context. You need to take your narrative into the world of ideas. You need to sit down for at least a few hours if you’re a solopreneur or even a few weeks if you’re working with a team to think about the big themes of your content marketing strategy. What, in short, are your company’s big ideas? I really don’t want to call this thought leadership. Another word that is so overused it has been drained of any meaning. CMI calls these “content pillars” but I don’t think we need to make it that formal or stodgy for that matter. Your brand narrative needs to be about something other than "I have a solution you should buy." Your big idea(s) should answer the objection: “Okay, but why should I care?” Your theme needs to inspire and even delight your audience--customers and prospects alike.

For many companies and new content marketers, theme can be the most difficult part of crafting a compelling brand narrative. Is your brand story about change and disruption if you’re a start-up? Is it about renaissance and radical transformation if you’re an enterprise? Whatever your big theme is, you need to build your entire messaging framework around it and write it into every piece of content you create. It is this theme that will add weight and heft to your story. It will give it meaning and help to make your brand story one that customers and prospects can get behind, support, and even evangelize. If done exceptionally well, it will be the fire that ignites your fans, inspires brand loyalty, and creates brand advocates.

Point of View:

Yes, every narrative is about something, but it’s only about something because the writer has employed point of view effectively. A writer is able to say something because they say it from a specific perspective.

But Point of View is not just about having an opinion about something. It’s understanding that every character looks from their own eyes and as such sees or views the world around them from a particular vantage point. Which characters in the story are privileged with sight and visibility?  Who looks and who doesn’t get to look?

In the case of your company’s brand narrative, you have to make a decision if the story is told from the eyes of one character or many and a decision if your company is going to take a company-centric approach or a customer-centric approach to your brand narrative. Content marketing is especially effective for building relationships with audiences, but particularly prospects and customers when the narrative is told from their point of view.

What point of view does your brand have? As a content marketer, what issues, trends, or stories does your company care about? What is your position or point of view on an industry trend? Where do you see your industry heading and how can your brand’s unique vantage point help to provide a new or unique perspective?

Putting It All Together

I want to be clear here that storytelling isn’t bad or even dead from the perspective of content marketing. Rather, I wish to suggest that storytelling cannot be boiled down to a single, cyclical plot line that centers around a character that we would traditionally call a “hero.” In fact, what I’m suggesting is that web 2.0 (and now 3.0) has democratized not only who tells the story, but also what kinds of stories are worth telling and which characters gain our empathy and ultimately our loyalty. What matters most now is not a “winning” storytelling formula, but building a truly authentic brand persona that has a unique perspective and, hence, a compelling story to tell. To tell your brand’s story, you first have to find your brand’s “voice”-- a voice that largely depends upon your unique point of view that allows you to say something of value.

In this respect, the 5 Elements of Fiction can teach content marketers most of what they need to know about effective content marketing, and I hope this post helps to break the deathgrip major content shops have on storytelling--who have served, perhaps unwittingly, to turn the complex process of telling an effective story into a simplistic, one-size-fits-all formula. To do content marketing effectively, there are no real shortcuts. You have to do the work of actually defining who you are as a company and what your unique voice is before you can start saying anything of value.

So here are the 5 steps to develop your company’s story portfolio:

The Five Elements of Fiction

  1. Character: Develop your company’s unique brand persona(s)

  2. Plot: Make a strategic decision about which stories you want to tell

  3. Setting: Tell these stories in a context that helps to immerse your audience in a “world” they want to inhabit

  4. Theme: Find something to say that is worth saying

  5. Point of View: Tell your story from your unique perspective

So that’s all there is to it!  No seriously, as I said, these 5 steps aren’t easy, but they are well worth your time.

How do you use the elements of fiction to tell your brand story? Tell me by commenting below :) 


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