You think you're being all clever and original with your brand storytelling. In fact, you're not. From Shakespeare to Spielberg to Soderbergh, there are really only seven different types of stories, an Advertising Week panel hosted by TBWA suggested on Wednesday. The challenge becomes finding which one best suits your brand, and then telling it skillfully, believably and—if you're going to invite consumers to join in the story—extremely carefully.
TBWA's global creative president, Rob Schwartz, led the discussion, which was based around author Christopher Booker's contention, in his book Seven Basic Plots, that seven archetypal themes recur in every kind of storytelling. Booker looked at why humans are psychologically programmed to imagine stories this way. Schwartz and his two panelists, Droga5 executive creative director Ted Royer and novelist (and former agency creative) Kathy Hepinstall, focused on how the theory applies to brands—and how creatives can make use of it in developing persuasive stories for them.
Below are the seven basic plots—with examples from art and advertising of stories that fit each one.
1. Overcoming the Monster. This type of story goes back through Beowulf to David and Goliath and surely a lot further than that. It's the classic underdog story. Ad examples include Apple's attack on Big Brother in "1984" and American Express's attempt to dent the dominance of Black Friday with Small Business Saturday.
2. Rebirth. A story of renewal. It's a Wonderful Life is a prime example from the movies. Brands telling stories of renewal include Gatorade, whose "Replay" campaign gave aging members of high-school sports teams a chance to recapture their youth through rematches against old foes; and Prudential, which is presenting retirement as the beginning of a new chapter, not the end of an old one.
3. Quest. A mission from point A to point B. The Lord of the Rings is the classic example. IBM and Lexus are among the marketers who are on self-professed quests—making a smarter planet and relentlessly pursuing perfection, respectively.
4. Journey and Return. A story about transformation through travel and homecoming. The Wizard of Oz and Where the Wild Things Are are both journey-and-return stories. Corona is one of the brands that also encourages a trip, urging you to "Find your beach" and return refreshed. And Expedia has built its whole new campaign around the idea of changing one's perception through journey and return.
5. Rags to Riches. In literature: Charles Dickens and Cinderella. In the movies: Trading Places. In ads: Chrysler, which is rising from the ashes of Detroit; and Johnny Walker, whose entire brand history is about a simple Scottish farmboy's rise to global prominence.
6. Tragedy. From the Greeks through Shakespeare, these are stories of the dark side of humanity and the futile nature of human experience. Advertising has little use for such stories, except in PSA work, where shock tactics and depressing tales can get people to care about an issue.
7. Comedy. The flipside of tragedy, and the last of the great storytelling tropes, it's perhaps the hardest to do well but is hugely popular in both popular art and advertising—with Old Spice and Geico among the brand leaders in the space.
Schwartz suggested the seven plots can provide a blueprint for figuring out what a brand story should be when there isn't one, or isn't a strong one. During the panel, both Royer and Hepinstall talked about the importance of generating potent stories that ring true, and can't be hijacked or exposed as fraudulent.
"Ads most often are 'The husband's dumb, the wife fixes it, now he's better,' " said Royer. "They're these simple little stories that, I think, a lot of people react against. But if we do it right, we can tell some really beautiful stories. One of my favorite ads of all time was the Halo ad with the metal figurines. They beautifully portrayed what the game was about … I thought it was captivating and wonderful and amazing."
At the core of every brand, Royer added, is a good story waiting to happen.
"Brands are stories," he said. "They want to embody a story. When we start working with a client, we don't want to take a brief. We don't want to just say, 'What's your problem?' We want to go right back to, 'Why was your company started? What's your mission?' We talk about mission all the time, and it's just another way of saying, 'What kind of story are you on? What kind of story do you want to tell?' … Part of our job as an agency is to reignite that and really figure out what that story is."
A new wrinkle in the digital age is the hijacking of brand stories. "The hilarious thing to me is when a story is now taken over by the people," Hepinstall said. "It used to be a one-way thing, where the company would say, 'We're this,' and invite no feedback. Now, in the age of social media, that's impossible." She pointed to Shell's recent crowdsourced posters and the Walmart/Pitbull incident as evidence of disasters that can happen when brands lose control of their stories.
Royer discussed Droga5's "Day One" work for Prudential, which doesn't encompass merely the brand story but also the individual stories of many of the 10,000 people who retire every day—who harbor fears that Prudential would like to turn into optimism.
"It is a very dry category, and also absolutely terrifying. And you don't want either one of those," he said. "There's got to be a way, we thought, to find a middle ground where you can have an open conversation about what that period of your life is, what it can be, what you think it is now, and the potential of it. That's why we named it Day One. It is a label, but it's a fixed point that everyone owns. Everyone in this room has a Day One. And if you see it as a point moving forward, as a point where there can be optimism, there can be renewal, there can be bigger themes at work than just fear and confusion, then I think that gives Prudential a brand mission beyond just the products it sells."
So much retirement advertising has been rags-to-riches stories, he added, with lots of golfing and yachts in the imagery. Switching to a rebirth story gives the brand a more relatable platform, particularly in harder times.
The panelists also discussed the phenomenon of product utility as story—in particular, the Nike FuelBand. That product, developed by R/GA, embodies the Nike brand mission, which at its core is a quest story—the quest for the perfect body.
The seven basic plots might give creatives inspiration when it comes to crafting brand stories. But Hepinstall said it sometimes can help to focus outward, away from the brand, toward consumers—and figure out their experiences and their stories.
A "genius burst of energy about the customer's story," can ignite a campaign, she said. "The most perfect example is 'What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.' I thought that was such a genius reframing of the customer experience."