There Are Only Seven Stories – Are You Telling One of Them?
April 17, 2018
How would you feel if I told you that there are really only seven stories and that every children’s story, novel, film or play that you can remember is just a variation on these endlessly repeated themes. That’s the argument that Christopher Booker puts forward in his bestselling book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. It explores the nature of human beings’ relationship to stories and concludes that all the tales we ever tell are, beneath the surface, strikingly similar. It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve ever read about storytelling – and if you ask me, it throws down a serious challenge to any marketer who aspires to be a storyteller.
Broadly speaking, we’ve seen brands use two different approaches to storytelling. Marketers can seek to tell many different stories that resonate with their audience, capture attention, drive engagement and make their messages memorable. Equally, they can try to make their brand itself into a story, positioning it as the hero and weaving themes around its identity and history that resonate on an emotional level. Whichever approach a brand is taking at a given point in time, it’s equally important to respect the characteristics of a story as Booker defines them.
Storytelling made simple – or more challenging?
On one level, the idea that there are only really seven stories seems to make the task of engaging audiences through storytelling a lot simpler. After all, as marketers we love nothing more than a proven formula that we can execute time and again. According to Booker’s theory, the seven basic plots are so dominant because every human being has been primed by shared points in our culture and history to respond to them. Pick your plot, ensure that you are delivering against all of the key elements of it, and you can be confident that you are creating something that appeals on a subconscious, emotive level. The task of telling stories just got a whole lot easier.
Or did it? Because when you start to look into the seven plots of all stories in detail, you realise that these aren’t just handy checklists of content elements that you can pick and choose from as you see fit. To be a genuine storytelling brand you have to tell one of the seven stories – and you have to tell all of it. That includes the elements that businesses aren’t always comfortable talking about.
Booker describes how all seven plots involve anticipation and dreams giving way to frustrations and nightmares before eventual resolution. Many stories may have happy endings but these happy endings always follow (often pretty harrowing) tensions. That’s the bit that makes securing sign-off for genuine brand storytelling so tricky.
How does your brand story compare to the seven plots?
It’s a great exercise to take your content and your messaging and try to apply it to these different plot structures. Take the plot that most naturally fits your message but then challenge yourself to include all of the elements of that plot. You’ll often find yourself in a very different place to where you started – but you’ll have crafted something much more compelling in the process.
You might equally find that the message you’re delivering or the content you’re creating isn’t actually a story at all. That’s fine. History is filled with examples of advertising and content that has engaged through being funny, entertaining or useful without necessarily taking the form of a story. Many of these are anecdotes rather than stories – they are interesting because they really happened or because they are difficult to believe or incredibly funny, but not because they engage on a deeper, story-driven level. As a marketer, it helps to be clear on what your strategy for engagement is. If you are telling a story, you need a plot – one of the seven basic plots, to be precise.
Here’s a quick summary of the seven stories that Booker identifies – and the brands that have taken the plunge by applying them whole-heartedly to their content and advertising. The creative process hasn’t necessarily been easy but the results have been spectacular:
Overcoming the Monster
Overcoming the Monster is the oldest and most instantly recognisable story of all: the hero must defeat an antagonistic force that threatens them or their homeland. It’s simple and endlessly repeated: through ancient myths like the tales of Perseus and Beowulf through Hollywood blockbusters like The Magnificent Seven, James Bond and Star Wars and classic literature such as Dracula or Nicholas Nickleby.
Overcoming the Monster is the natural narrative of a challenger brand. Apple epitomised it in its famous 1984 SuperBowl ad, framing itself as the protagonist and staid old IBM as the monster. Under Armour does something very similar in defining its brand story in opposition to Nike. This is ironic, of course, because Nike itself is one of the most practised brands at telling the Overcoming the Monster story. From Eric Cantona blasting a football through a demon goalkeeper to the people overcoming everyday demons in its current ‘Nothing beats a Londoner’ campaign. We all have monsters to overcome – and brands that promise to arm us for the task have an inherent, emotive appeal.
B2B marketers find themselves naturally gravitating towards the Overcoming the Monster theme as well – especially when it comes to creating case studies or customer testimonials. However, it’s important to remember that a true Overcoming the Monster story isn’t a tale of inevitable success. It’s a story filled with uncertainty and tension, triumph against the odds and moments of despair followed by eventual redemption. Finding those stories isn’t as easy as it sometimes seems. Having the courage to tell them in full can be even more challenging. We have to be comfortable with accepting the possibility of failure for our hero, in order to make their success compelling.
In one of the campaigns I launched late last year, ‘The Real Faces of Sales, the monsters were the sales stereotypes that have dominated perceptions of the profession for too long. Facing up to the reality of how people perceive sales may not have been comfortable – but it enabled us to engage our audience at a far deeper level than would otherwise be the case.
Rags to Riches
A poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, popularity and love before losing it all and gaining it back only when they grow as a person. The Rags to Riches story is the essence of Cinderella and Aladdin, David Copperfield and Trading Places. And it has an obvious, instinctive appeal to brands as well. Brand stories from Johnnie Walker to those of high-flying tech businesses are often framed in these terms. However, there’s a catch. Rags to Riches only works as a story because of that key moment in the plot where everything the hero has gained appears to be taken away. It’s compelling not because it’s aspirational, but because it touches our fear of losing it all, and forces the protagonist to discover what true wealth is. Otherwise, this would just be the story of people becoming rich and successful – and who wants to listen to that?
The true Rags to Riches story is one that marketers tell when they focus not just on how big their brand is – but on what it’s learned about itself along the way. HSBC’s The Elevator ad, which shows the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, is a great example of Rags to Riches in all its complexity.
Something very specific is lost, missing or desperately needed – and a hero and his or her companions must overcome obstacles and temptations to find it. This is the story of The Holy Grail, Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz. Its power comes from clarity and focus – the conviction that there is one thing that matters above all others. That makes it a natural story for brands with a strong sense of mission. IBM is on a quest for a better planet. LinkedIn is on a journey to create economic opportunity for everyone. These are genuine quest stories because of the wide significance of the goal involved – and the genuine difficulty in achieving it.
There’s a great deal of confusion between the characteristic of comedy and comedy as a story. Being funny is fantastic. It’s a proven strategy in marketing terms and it delivers great results for the likes of Old Spice and Dollar Shave Club. But comedy as a platform for storytelling is different. It refers to a plot in which things become increasingly complicated, tangled and confusing, while never too threatening, before being instantly and simply resolved through a single revelation. Comedies deal with the complexities of human relationships – and hold out the hope that a simple truth can help to clear them up. Appmesh makes great use of comedy as a storytelling platform in its approach to humanising the challenges of sales and marketing alignment: it uses the complexities that are created in working relationships to make its proposition all the more compelling. The Rainforest Alliance’s Follow the Frog campaign is extremely funny but it also leverages comedy as storytelling in a way that few brands do: an increasingly complex, bizarre and disastrous course of actions gives way to a simple proposition that restores everything to how it should be.
It’s similarly easy to misunderstand what tragedy means when it comes to storytelling. Something that’s heartbreakingly sad is tragic – but it’s not necessarily a tragedy. What makes a tragedy unique is the sense that it is inevitable – that the central character has a flaw that eventually brings them down no matter what balancing qualities they might possess. This is a very powerful idea and a compelling one for any audience because of the questions it raises about how much of our destiny we can control. The great examples of Tragedy in marketing aren’t shocking public safety campaigns that depict horrible things happening to people – they’re ideas that prompt audiences to think about how they can reshape their destiny by warning what happens if they don’t change. This has rarely been executed better than in a classic print ad of 2004: “Once upon a time, there was an ambitious young man who didn’t read The Economist. The End.”
Journey and Return
It’s all about the journey home for stories from The Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz to Journey to the Centre of the Earth to Apollo 13 – but it’s also about the richer life that results from the expedition. Expedia and Airbnb have both built powerful travel-related brands around these types of stories. In the B2B space, it’s an inherent part of the proposition for successful conferences and thought-leadership events. The Cannes International Festival of Creativity isn’t just selling marketers Rosé on the Croisette. It’s promising that they will return a richer and more inspired person.
Rebirth is in many ways the simplest of the seven basic stories – yet it’s also the most energising and emotionally charged. A flawed character faces a reckoning that forces them to change their ways, renewing themselves and (often) those around them. It’s the story of A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, As Good As it Gets and Casablanca. Its power comes through transformations that seem wholly impossible immediately beforehand, given the state that those about to be reborn have reached. And that’s the challenge for brands with these tales of redemption: if you want to tap into the uplifting power of the rebirth story, you have to acknowledge why the rebirth is needed.
That’s why the brand that perhaps best epitomises Rebirth is Chrysler: an auto marque that was a byword for luxury, then became generic, forgotten and almost bankrupt before rising again in a turnaround told with a thumping Eminem soundtrack. It’s a brand urging a city to rediscover what makes it great – and inspiring audiences to be a part of that story. Samsung’s Do What You Can’t campaign taps the same power while positioning technology as a tool to trigger rebirth in those it touches. Both brands share a conviction that people and places can renew themselves – but also the courage to show why renewal is needed.
The storytelling test
That’s the common theme in all successful applications of storytelling in marketing: a willingness to tell the entire story rather than just the easy bits. A story isn’t just something that happened – it’s something that follows one of the seven story arcs that mean most to us as human beings. It’s the tensions between success and failure, between fulfilling potential and the danger of passing it up, between frustrations and success, that give stories their power.
Stories aren’t the only way to engage audiences. Content and advertising can engage because it’s funny, because it’s true, because it’s entertaining or because it’s useful – and it can do this whether it takes the form of a story or not. However, genuine brand stories lock onto our memories and our imagination like few other things can. It’s worth any B2B or B2C brand aspiring to tell them. Checking your message and your content against the seven basic plots is a great way of testing whether that’s what you’re really doing.
To learn how to tell more engaging stories, download Once Upon a Digital Time and begin your journey.