7 ways to the say the same thing

Published: 13th Feb 2015 by Mark Griffiths
Categories: Storytelling,  Branding

Brands must re-discover the art of storytelling – Number 1 in a series

It’s time to recover what we lost when advertising sank and branding rose.

Ever since brand marketing took pole position from advertising in the 90s, brand directors and marketing managers have been mesmerised by the power and possibilities of story.

Their brief to creative agencies has become a mantra: help us tell our brand story.

Now, I’ve had my spats with advertising gurus over the years. But one thing I know is that, since branding superceded advertising, we have mostly lost the art of storytelling.

What is a brand story?

Let’s begin by prevaricating about the bush. A brand story is NOT:

- a historical resumé of your brand’s tradition and longevity in the marketplace
- an imaginative scenario you simply invent around your products and services.

By ‘we’, I mean the marketing community – from the sellers in agencies to the buyers in companies.

I only have to look at Guinness when I lament this descent from storytelling into mixed messaging.

Back in the 1920s, at the advent of mass marketing, Guinness was in the vanguard of brand storytelling, with John Gilroy’s seminal ‘Guinness Is Good’ campaigns. Yet it took Guinness some time to come to terms with the TV age. Not until the quirky ‘Genius’ ads of the mid to late 80s, starring Rutger Hauer, did Guinness successfully re-combine humour with the essence of the brand.

In the 90s, as advertising budgets soared and the ads became filmic, we were treated to the iconic ‘Surfer’ and ‘Good Things Come To Those Who Wait’ stories.

But what’s happened since then? We’ve had £10 million films for films’ sake. Can we recall any of them? Hardly. Today, Guinness equals rugby and St Patrick’s Day. At least in this hemisphere.

It’s not as if they don’t know what Guinness is and stands for in the hearts of customers. But the ads they sign off have become very poor as stories. Guinness has lost the plot.

A brand is a building with seven stories

Those who study the art of storytelling – from Christopher Booker to Martin Johnson – will tell you there are only seven basic plots. Meaning that, whatever we want to say, there are only seven ways to tell a story. Seven ways to say the same ‘thing’.

Story is structure. The seven basic plots are:

Overcoming the Monster – the hero has to defeat an oppressive, powerful creature that has destroyed everything in its path.

The Quest – a restless journey for a hero who must reach somewhere or acquire something crucially important, because his life depends on it.

Voyage & Return – another journey, this time for a hero pushed into another world or way of being and then back again.

Comedy – the confusing and bewildering experiences that occur through misunderstanding and mishap, leading to a solution when all becomes clear.

Tragedy – the obsessed hero brings about their own downfall through their own actions, evoking pity and/or fear.

Rebirth – the hero is under a dark cloud or spell and, in order to break free, must find a powerful force that brings hope and motivation, then use it positively.

Rags to Riches – while the hero rises swiftly from nowhere to a wonderful life, everything falls apart as quickly as it arrived and the hero has to struggle to get back to success.

Once a brand knows what truly defines it – what its ‘thing’ is - it needs to grapple with one or more of these seven basic plots, if it is going to successfully reach, engage and influence a modern audience.

I’m not concerned here with what the ‘thing’ is. That’s down to research, understanding and insight – and, God knows, brands like Guinness have that in spades. I’m talking about how you use this stuff within the framework of seven stories.

In the second of this series, I’ll be looking at those individual plots in further detail and revealing the key elements of story structure.

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