As we explore the resurgence of art in marketing, this post is part two of a two-part series on the art of storytelling. This post explores seven classic story archetypes that can be used in thought leadership marketing. See post one here.
It is said that no story is new. Every story is just a variation of seven archetypes that are repeated endlessly, according to Christopher Booker that is. In his book, The Seven Basic Plots, Booker states that, beneath the surface, all of the stories we tell are remarkably alike. And the reason for this is because we, as humans, have been trained to respond to them. At first, the idea that there are really only seven stories makes storytelling seem like a simple task. All you need to do is stick to one of these plots and your job becomes much easier, right?
Wrong. It actually proves just how important perfecting the art of storytelling really is. But the archetypes can be great resources to help thought leadership marketers to tell better stories, so their ideas stand out and get remembered. In the balance of this article, I explore the seven story archetypes and offer thoughts and examples on how you can apply them to your firm’s thought leadership marketing efforts:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- The Voyage and Return
#1 – Overcoming the Monster
Perhaps the most easily recognized of all, Overcoming the Monster is the classic underdog story. The David and Goliath. The story of a hero that is challenged with defeating an evil larger than him or herself. This archetype works because we all have ‘monsters’ to overcome. The story you tell demonstrates that you were armed and ready for battle.
Fundamentally, an Overcoming the Monster tale isn’t about unearned success. These stories need to show struggle and initial challenges, even failure, on the path towards the hero’s triumph. And, by the way, the hero is your client, not you. In its simplest form, we’ve found the ‘monster’ archetype as a useful framework to develop case studies. At a deeper level, and for the thought leadership you develop specifically, the ‘monster’ archetype is a useful one when developing thought leadership designed to overcome conventional wisdom. Often, this type of monster is the one that is embodied by your firm’s point-of-view and is the central topic of your thought leadership.
The sheer existence of the National Center for the Middle Market (NCMM) is an example of thought leadership built around this metaphorical slaying of the monster. Historically, conventional thinking has been that small businesses and large companies are the engine of job creation in our nation. But the Center’s research has been challenging this conventional wisdom since 2011. In fact, during the Great Recession, the middle market created jobs while small businesses and large corporations destroyed them. Although a huge force in our economy, before the Center’s launch in 2011, the middle market was virtually ignored by the media. Over its 8-year journey, NCMM is “overcoming the monster of conventional wisdom” on how jobs are created in this country through its research and advocacy program.
#2 – Rags to Riches
Little Orphan Annie, Aladdin, Cinderella. Although fictional, these characters all have one thing in common, the protagonist begins in a situation of poverty or hardship and in the end makes something of him or herself. Typically, a key element to this archetype is the protagonist achieving success somewhere in the middle of the story, only to lose it again. It takes the protagonist learning an important lesson to be deserving of gaining it back. Aladdin’s true identity was revealed by Jafar, initially causing him to lose everything. Similarly, for this story to work for your firm, you have to show hardship. There needs to be an element of loss that keeps the reader intrigued. If your story simply tells a narrative of easily becoming rich and successful, no one will care. Rags to Riches is a complex archetype and that puts the onus on us as marketers to share what was learned along the way, the struggles we overcame, that led to success. This is where genuineness comes in, sharing the difficult details is what makes the story compelling.
At a foundational level, your brand story may be a rags to riches story. The most obvious examples of this are seen through companies like Apple and Google, starting in garages and becoming multibillion-dollar companies. That said, your firm doesn’t need to experience this archetype on that scale. In fact, rags to riches stories are more realistically told through growth in general. By using thought leadership, our stories allow us to realize the DNA of exceptionalism that lead to great success. Malcolm Gladwell depicts this in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell shares the unconventional thought that ‘outliers’–the so-called ‘best and the brightest’– aren’t isolated prodigies, but rather, are a result of the context in which their success took place. Further, he argues, successful people never rise from nothing.
L.E.K. has successfully used the Rags to Riches archetype through its case studies. This case study reveals the story of a small family business that needed an affordable way to grow. L.E.K. has helped them enter into related product categories and pursue international expansion. Over time, they have expanded from two plants to 18 plants across four countries, significantly increased sales and profits. This once small family business is now a billion-dollar company that has created thousands of jobs.
#3 – The Quest
Just as it sounds, The Quest is a story about the search for a place, item, or person that requires the hero to leave home in order to find it. Obstacles are encountered, a sidekick or unlikely group joins the hero, danger befalls them, and, ultimately, the hero encounters (and passes) a final test that only she can complete. The Lord of the Rings and Monty Python and the Holy Grail come to mind.
This archetype works well in marketing for brands with a focused mission, a conviction that there is one certain thing that is more important than anything else. The Quest is your brand strategy, your governing point of view that guides your firm and frames your thought leadership. An important detail, The Quest is never truly finished. Your brand strategy, as it is now, isn’t the end. On this quest, you must constantly be on a journey to make your firm better. Unlike most plot types, this story doesn’t end with a solution because the problem needs to be continuously illuminated and reexamined.
Rattleback client, TBM applies this archetype in its overarching point-of-view – speed wins. The firm is literally on an unrelenting quest to make their clients faster and more efficient. Continuous improvement is a hallmark to their approach, and they use it to drive rapid results. TBM knows that a small increase in speed isn’t the end of the project, their narrative continues.
#4 – The Voyage and Return
A cousin to The Quest archetype, in the Voyage and Return the protagonist usually goes to some strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses, returns home with experience or newfound knowledge. This new, magical land initially presents itself as sunny and perfect, shortly falling to darkness for our hero to conquer. Once conquered, the hero returns, valuable lesson learned or discovering something that was ‘inside of them all along.’ We see this plot archetype in Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Unlike the Quest, there isn’t necessarily a tangible goal to the journey. The hero usually returns home to find the world around them has remained the same, but the way the hero sees it is changed forever.
In the thought leadership space, this is reflected in presenting newfound insight to the marketplace and to your audience. Thought leadership is the voyage, and you are tasked with the return–sharing that knowledge in a way that changes our perspective of the B2B world and the way we fit in it. In this journey to better ourselves, we encounter an internal darkness brought on by the discovery that our methods or way of thinking aren’t positioning us for greatness. We don’t know what we are going to learn on this journey, there is no hypothesis to what we will find, and we need to be open to being wrong about what we once believed.
The Challenger Sale exemplifies the unknown voyage and the invaluable newfound knowledge that accompanies it. Starting as a curiosity, this Voyage and Return story has forced companies to rethink everything they thought they knew about selling. During the recession, consultants at CEB noticed a common theme during client conversations: given the state of the economy, most sales reps were only meeting around 40% of their quota, but these companies also had one or two high-performing salespeople that were considerably outshining their peers–selling 130-140% of their quotas. This was happening across all industries and CEB consultants set out on a voyage to understand why. Essentially, they found that a majority of sales reps fall into 1 of 5 categories with one category–the Challenger– repeatedly dominating the sales arena. Having unlocked this new found knowledge, CEB proceeded to study how these insights applied in healthy economies. Their findings were that this “challenger” sales rep was more effective in all economic conditions – the recession just illuminated their success. This new knowledge changed the way we all looked at the market permanently. Ultimately, CEB’s insights and the way in which they shared them have transformed the way salespeople sell.
#5 – Comedy
I need to make something very clear, the Comedy archetype as defined by Booker, isn’t about being funny. Today, we think of comedy as a laugh-out-loud story. This can certainly be true of the Comedy archetype, but its foundation is built upon a happy or uplifting ending rather than jokes. Usually, the story involves a conflict that becomes more and more confusing, but then, suddenly, is made crystal clear through a single revelation, and happiness ensues. For all intents and purposes, comedy stories can be reframed as ‘enlightenment’ stories. In the most cliché versions, the ending has the hero and heroine falling in love, the bad guy being punished, and everyone getting married and living happily ever after.
For your firm, the Comedy archetype should be used to deal with the complexities of human relationships and provide hope that your firm is the one single truth – the simple revelation that the buyer needs to help clear up a confusing situation. Utilize this in your service pages, again not in a funny way, but in a confusion-made-clear-way. By spinning your services into a narrative, you are taking the user through a journey that allows them to put themselves in the story as the hero with a happy ending.
In thought leadership, Comedy plots are used when venturing into uncharted waters in order to shine light on a particularly unclear, confusing topic. As thought leadership marketers, we are responsible for shining a light on these subjects in order to deliver a lucid understanding of what it is really all about. Blockchain, in recent years, is an example of a trending topic that is surrounded by a cloud of confusing noise. We know it’s important and potentially revolutionary, but its potential is still being explored. Billions of dollars have been invested and nearly as many headlines have been written about this technology causing a murkiness that prevents universal understanding. In his article, What is Blockchain? Shelley Palmer takes a step back from the hype to provide the reader with a concise and understandable, digestible view on blockchain. This isn’t to say you need to immediately become an expert on blockchain, but rather, an example of the value created from bringing clarity to a complex, fuzzy concept in the marketplace.
#6 – Tragedy
If I have learned anything from Shakespeare, a tragedy is a story in which everyone dies in the end. Obviously, the opposite of the Comedy plot. In its simplest form, a tragedy is centered around a bad decision or character flaw that results in an inevitably bad ending for the protagonist. But, according to Booker, a tragedy’s protagonist is the villain and the reader watches as they dive further into villainy and evil before their ultimate destruction at the hands of a hero. Essentially, this the Overcoming the Monster archetype told from the monster’s point of view.
Within B2B, this is remarkably enthralling for your audience because of the questions it raises about what we can truly control. The story here for your firm isn’t one of terrible misfortunes, but rather, they are thoughts that encourage your ideal audience to consider how they can take control of their professional destiny by providing a warning of the dangers that await if they don’t adapt. A universal truth, change is hard. But, with your firm by their side, it becomes a little easier. The Tragedy plot is rarely told by B2B firms as we are typically reluctant to share failure and few clients want to be recognized for failures, but the point to a tragedy story is the lessons learned through that failure. This seems straightforward, but, in fact, it is anything but. We must fully embrace the failure, determine and understand the root causes, in order to grow.
The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible, yet firms that do it well are extraordinarily elusive. This is because we are often too quick to play the blame game. We see this in the tumultuous downfall of a once formidable retail icon, Sears. A surface-level analysis of failure places fault on chairman Eddie Lampert not renovating outdated stores and the unsuccessful attempt to compete in the Amazon-dominated online sales realm. In exploring the root cause though, we find this is just mistaking the symptom for the cause. Undoubtedly Lampert did more damage than good to the company, but what Sears failed to learn from the failures of others is that the pace of change in business is drastically increasing and executives need to act much faster in order to compete. With the accessibility of data today, only analyzing internal data is sophomoric. In every industry, consumer preferences are shifting, so if we aren’t looking at all available information and how it impacts our industry, we are setting ourselves up to fail. By the time Sears adjusted their go-to market model, it was too late.
#7 – Rebirth
The story of redemption. A main character experiences an event that forces them to change their ways or become a better person. It is important to mention that this archetype must revolve around the transformation of that character. Once you add an element of a journey to retrieve an item, for example, it becomes a Quest, not a Rebirth story. The character must experience this change within her everyday life. Commonly, a “redemption character” is involved. In A Christmas Carol, for example, Scrooge experiences rebirth through the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future–the redemption characters. Side note – A Christmas Carol could be considered an early form of thought leadership disguised as a story. Planet Money examines this notion in their podcast A Very Planet Money Christmas Carol.
The exciting element of Rebirth stories is that the transformation seemed impossible even moments before occurring, which is why a redemption story can be a huge obstacle for an organization. The reason being, in order to tell the story of an inspiring rebirth, you have to draw attention to the reasoning behind why the rebirth was necessary to begin with. It takes immense courage to admit redemption is needed, but the payoffs can be monumental. A starting point to this plot type is a rebrand. But, a Rebirth’s true story is when a brand completely reinvents itself. Netflix did it when they switched from mailed DVDs to direct streaming. Apple basically reinvented the ‘reinvention’ business when they bounced back from near bankruptcy through the manufacture of handheld devices.
General Electric (GE) is in the midst of a Rebirth story with a very uncertain ending. GE’s reinvention story was one that started with immense promise and a bright outlook but has taken a significant downward turn. Once a massive conglomerate, GE began selling off major lines of business in all industries and investing more in data and analytics, a strategy that was harrowed at the time, but has left the company a shell of its former self. This story is heavily rooted in the Rebirth archetype, but as the company continues its reinvention, one can’t help but wonder if this evolution will lead to the Comedic happy ending or one more reflective of the Tragedy archetype.
The Happily Ever After
Understand these archetypes and contemplate where your clients are in their lives at this moment. Knowing where they are will help you strengthen the role you’re supposed to play in their stories and further define how you can help them along their journey. Remember, the client is always the hero and it is your thought leadership that will enable them to visualize their success. Before you tell your story, consider the research you are about to convey and the point of view you intend to use, then determine which plot type will tell it best; utilize one of these seven archetypes that are already heavily ingrained in us as human beings.
After you think you know which plot type is best, be sure to map all of the content you are planning to use against that plot type. Does the story logically unfold with this archetype? Does it follow a clear narrative that is understandable? Is it clear who the hero is and what journey they’re on? By answering these questions along the way, you ensure that your audience can relate to the story you are telling.
Stories get their power through the struggle between success and failure, meeting potential rather than passing up the opportunity, and overcoming adversity in the face of danger. Use these to your advantage to remain relevant and connect with your ideal audience in ways they’ll always remember.