Brand Narrative: not the Same Old Story

In 2004, Christopher Booker set out to explain storytelling, giving us The Seven Basic Plots. He argues that the most enduring stories told throughout human history can be fitted to one of seven archetypes.

His theory remains the most accessible introduction to narratology available and it informs a lot of the work we do with brand narrative.

We agree with the thesis (one can reduce all stories to a few key cultural archetypes), but we also believe we have something to add. To understand how brands can use narrative archetypes, it’s handy to dive back into Booker’s work.

Four Narratives or One?

Although their names will resonate (“Overcoming the Monster”, “Rags to Riches”, “The Quest” and “The Voyage”), four of the narratives appear to be articulations of a single, deeper theme.

This is the “monomyth”, described by Joseph Campbell in 1949. A template for heroic narrative, it consists of 17 “elements” (equivalent to major plot points) which are recurring and consistent aspects of the “hero’s story”. You don’t necessarily need all seventeen to make the story work, but you’ll end up using some of them no matter what you do.

All seventeen elements not pictured.

The Monomyth, or “Hero’s Journey”, neatly captured in graph form.

Booker’s first four plot-types are:

The Monster story, in which the hero has to venture forth to destroy a threat to his normalcy. In “Rags to riches”, he stays in his normal world and overcomes normalcy itself. In “The Quest”, the hero has to venture to far-off lands to complete a purpose that will save his home. In “The Voyage”, there may be a monster to overcome, but home is the goal.

In all of the above, the hero is actually fighting the other, the fears and dislikes of the people telling the story externalised as something that can be overcome. All that changes is how the narrative handles the alien presence.

Heroic narratives are only satisfying when the hero themselves is transformed – and what is transformation but the overcoming of our internal demons? Jung would approve: Projection of this kind is one of humanity’s most basic psychological defences. It makes sense that it would form an important part of our storytelling arsenal.

Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth: One of these things is not like the others

Booker treats Tragedy and Comedy as distinct and separate plot-types. They actually both spring from the cultural impetus to question the status quo.

Tragedy reflects a much older and more brutal aspect of storytelling tradition: The narrative as a stark portrayal of the terrors that can befall a good person straying from the narrow path of “goodness”.

Comedy fulfils a similar function: In its earliest Greek stages, the comedy poked fun at the absurdities of society’s rules. But it also demonstrated that abandoning the rules could be just as ridiculous, and potentially harmful.

“Rebirth”, although some examples are obvious (see Persephone and Demeter), resonates less. This is because we have largely abandoned the cyclical narrative. Although it is a common mode for storytelling in many societies, it is less applicable in a society so focused on a strict linear progression of events.

What does this mean for brands?

When we meet something new, the sane response is to try and incorporate it into our existing mental landscape. The easiest way to do this is by mapping it onto a narrative we already know.

Brands need narrative for this reason. In the absence of an explicit narrative, (what the brand is like and unlike, where it came from, and where it is going – and why), consumers build one for themselves.

They may even respond violently to this alien imposition on their minds.

Why do we have self-service check-outs in supermarkets now? In the absence of any explanation from the supermarket owners, we are wont to apply the most ‘obvious’ narrative: the unrelenting striving of the capitalist-owner to reduce costs by marginalising the role of humans in favour of subjecting us all to increasing automation.

And the fact that we are collaborating with the supermarket owners in the battle with their competitors to bring us cheaper food, doesn’t occur to us.

Projection? Indeed.

Does the world need you?

When we work with brand owners who need to align their internal audiences, we pose this question: “Why does the world need your brand?” Without a coherent answer, it becomes difficult to make decisions.

To help our clients reach an answer, we look at what the brand is, what it has to achieve.

We also ask: what is the other that stands in opposition to your brand? Can consumers learn from its example? Will it allow them to renew themselves? Or does it address the problems of an absurd and outdated tradition? And, more interestingly, what do we do if the answer is “none of the above”?

You don’t need 17 points to a Brand Narrative. But what do you need?

So, there are definitely archetypal narratives. And their recurrence through time suggests there is some form of hard-wiring in our brains to allow us to quickly understand and appreciate the complexity of a new situation.

But which will resonate best with your customers? And do you need all 17 points accurately to be included? Well, it depends on the cultural mood.

And since one of the oldest narrative tricks in the world is the cliffhanger, we’ll tell you more about that next week.

If you feel you can’t wait until next week and would like a sneak preview of Part 2, or if you would like to ask some questions, please email me or leave a comment below (filling in the question box to prove you’re not a robot).