Why The Hero Narrative Works for Brand Strategy

There is a heroic narrative connected to commerce, baked into our evolutionary psychology. When we spend money, we become the hero to fulfill this narrative. This is why brand and storytelling are precisely linked. The fact of this connection is smart news for brand strategy work and marketing plans.

How brands can use storytelling has long been championed by the media. Stories are at the heart of most entertainment, education and advertising. There is a simple explanation for the connection. Stories lead us to our emotional center. This is where we make our purchasing decisions. A story, for most U.S. audiences, is defined by conflict leading to resolution. Meanwhile, a brand leads its audience away from fear, toward hope. These are the same activities using the same decision processes for consumers.

The hero is an archetype, a shared cultural narrative. We have examined stories at least since an era preceding Aristotle in Athens, 335 BCE. He published Poetics, the first known book of literary analysis. Hero comes from the ancient Greek word protector. In a story, a hero needn’t be a warrior knight with a sword, though she may be that, too.

Today there is debate on distinctions between heroism and altruism. For story archetypes though, the hero is simply one who sacrifices something important for the greater good. The hero makes a sacrifice.

Advertising and marketing creative briefs often pose the question: “Who/what is the hero?” Is it your product or service, the organization, or your customer? The hero often takes the form of as simple protagonist, especially in sales strategies. The hero in this case should be more than an offer in your ad campaign. You have an opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with your target audience.

Bestselling writing teacher Steve Almond puts it nicely: “Your audience has two questions. Who do I care about? What do they care about?” This is true of audiences for all stories, whether readers of books or watchers of ad campaigns. Your audience will follow the hero. This fact that audiences have an emotional connection to the hero makes storytelling mechanics a useful tool for brand marketers.

The hero narrative is perhaps as old as our shared evolution. In the psychology of Darwinian natural selection, the hero left the safety and sanctity of the cave or the fire circle, to hunt in the elements among predators, to return with food for the clan. Coming back with bounty was a big part of this early hero worship. Hunger and need for survival created conflict. Our hero had to return with food or there was no resolution.

Jungian archetypal work of the hero fits this common vision of the knight’s tale. For Jung, this archetype was a part of the ego, like the warrior within, that competed to prove worth. The hero quested with confidence leading to arrogance. Prior to Jung’s work, Freudian psychology referred to the heroic escape from parental guidance. For Freud, an individual may first be reluctant to leave the metaphoric womb. With freedom from the nest, the hero emerges.

It is fascinating to consider that for these definitions of hero from evolutionary psychology, the act of heroism has been replaced by commerce. Bringing home food for the table, or finding freedom from the nest, require money and making purchasing decisions. When we spend money, we fulfill our hero narrative. This is the reason marketers can use stories effectively. This is why it all works.

Stories work to connect audiences with their emotional drivers. For this reason, the study of the hero is crucial for effective brand strategy and advertising. Story analysis provides a fantastic method for brand strategists to quickly identify the brand’s emotional drivers. When you understand an audience’s true motivations, you can more easily convert casual observers to super fans.

The hero archetype is part of our shared psychology for what makes a good story. For the same reasons, your customers will make a purchasing decision. The rules of classic storytelling are manageable and the results provide authentic, engaging, meaningful, timely messages.