Mad Max, Babe, The Witches of Eastwick… and the secret of a compelling brand story

If you think all brand stories have to sound the same – then you need to study the career of legendary writer and director George Miller

August 19, 2019

The secret of a compelling brand story

What do a cute talking piglet and a psychotic, near-silent road warrior have in common? Or a coven of bored witches and a father desperately seeking a cure for his sick son? Or a dancing penguin and a damaged former cop? On almost every level, these iconic movie characters couldn’t be more different. They certainly couldn’t have audiences that are more different, or deliver film experiences from different places on the emotional register. In the mind of the man who brought all of them to life on-screen though, they are fundamentally the same.

George Miller is a content hero of mine. He’s also one of the most original and most unpredictable people working in cinema today. He’s created Oscar-winning family films and utterly shocking, violent blockbusters. He’s never once slipped into a stereotyped style, or produced lazy, cliché’d work. And yet Miller regularly insists in interviews that all of his films follow the same core plot; the same journey.

As such, George Miller is a content creator with a vast amount to teach brand marketers. He shows how we can adopt the common structures of a powerful story while staying distinctive. He shows how style is often more important than substance when it comes to bringing meaning to life. He’s a living demonstration of differentiation in action. And he should be an inspiration for any marketer worried about how to tell a compelling story around their brand.

Stumbling on the mythic power of stories

Miller started life as a trainee surgeon, working on short, experimental films in his spare time – and his first attempt at a full-length movie hit the jackpot in spectacular style. Miller co-wrote and directed Mad Max, a brutal, nihilistic thriller in which society breaks down, the bad guys take over and an unhinged policeman loses everything to become a highly unlikely figure of hope. The film was a global sensation, breaking all records for profitability. In true scientific style though, Miller wasn’t content to know that his film was a blockbuster. He wanted to know why it was so successful – and that was when he found the insight that would shape the rest of his career.

Written three decades earlier, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell was little known outside of academic circles at the time. However, it gave Miller the explanation as to why a bad-ass Australian B-movie had resonated so strongly across different countries and cultures. Campbell had studied the nature of ancient myths and religions, and by analysing the parallels, he’d developed the theory of the Monomyth: a common sequence of events that underpins all epic tales.

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, 1949

Along the universal hero’s journey that Campbell describes, there are common pitfalls, allies and openings: the hero starts by ignoring or refusing the call to adventure, then meets a mentor figure, who helps them cross a threshold to the region where normal rules are suspended. The hero faces challenges and temptations, and must undergo an abyss or nadir when everything appears lost before being reborn, coming to terms with something close to a father figure, being transformed and returning to the ordinary world.

Completing the Journey

In creating the character of Max, Miller realised had unwittingly tapped into the mythic power of this ancient narrative. He also realised though, that he’d only tapped into part of it. When he came to create the sequel to his hit film, he did so by putting Max through a greater portion of Campbell’s journey. In Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, he had his brutalised hero answer the call to protect a group of settlers and rediscover his humanity in the process. The result was one of the most critically acclaimed action films of all time – and another worldwide commercial smash. He repeated the trick for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, adding in yet more layers of Campbell: Max reaching rock bottom, abandoned in the desert, before coming to terms with his main antagonist through the process of saving others.

One plot: many, many different stories

Now, put yourself in Miller’s shoes as a storyteller – and as a marketer. He’s discovered a formula for compelling filmmaking that seems to work time and time again. He’s created a franchise and a brand, and it looks like he could just keep rolling these things out and writing the cheques. So what does he do next? Mad Max 4? Another post-apocalyptic film or Sci-fi movie with the same basic plot? No. He directs a film centred on three frustrated single women living in small-town America, then follows it up with a true-life tearjerker about a sick child and his family’s search for a cure, then adapts and directs a cute story of a pig who herds sheep.

You see, George Miller isn’t a great storyteller because he discovered one type of story and kept repeating it in the same way. He’s a great storyteller, because he realised that there is far, far more to a story than just the plot. Campbell’s journey may give a story its mythic resonance and power, but it doesn’t have to limit the form that story takes, who you tell it for, and what meaning you take from it.

When you discover a formula that works, it’s easy to use it to constrain creativity – and find yourself producing work that’s undifferentiated and unmemorable. We see this in marketing all the time: brands dressing up their story in the same way as all other competing brands in their category, because they’re convinced that’s the only story audiences want to hear.

Miller’s career shows that the opposite is true. Armed with an understanding of what resonated with audiences, he used that understanding as a creative challenge. How far could he push, subvert and vary the hero’s journey, while still tapping into the themes that resonate with people? Rather than a blueprint for creating the same film time and time again, he wanted a blueprint for creating hugely different films that could all succeed because of common, hidden themes.

Finding the Hero’s Journey, wherever it hides

When he directed The Witches of Eastwick, an adaptation of a John Updike novel starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher, Miller saw the potential for a very different take on the traditional Campbell journey. In this story, it’s three female characters that take on the traditionally macho hero role, called out of normality by a devilish figure who transforms them and equips them with powers, but who they must then overcome to return to the lives they really value. In this version of the journey, the mentor was also the antagonist; the destination was ultimately home; but the powerful sense of journeying and returning remained intact.

For his next film, Miller found a true-life story that he believed he could tell in the most compelling possible way by highlighting the parallels with ancient myths. Looking purely at the facts, Lorenzo’s Oil is a medical drama about a boy suffering from a rare condition. Miller saw it as a heroic quest, with a call to answer, doubts and naysayers to overcome, and a magical, spiritual revelation at the end of it. It turned out to be one of his least commercially successful films – but also one of the most critically appreciated and enduringly popular.

Miller found an even less likely protagonist for the hero’s journey in the form of Babe: the pig that avoids becoming dinner by learning to herd sheep. It’s hard to imagine that this Oscar-nominated blockbuster of a family film comes from the same creative mind as Mad Max – and yet Babe actually follows the hero’s journey more closely than any of Miller’s other work. All the elements are there, from an initial disbelief and reluctance to mentors, antagonists to be persuaded, moments of tragedy and despair, and the ultimate atonement with a father figure: “That’ll do Pig” as the saying goes.

Audiences don’t have to recognise a story to respond to it

In his two Babe films, and again in the Oscar-winning Happy Feet about a dancing penguin chick, Miller proved that stories don’t have to look, feel and sound the same to have the same strength and power. These are films that parents happily watch with their children, confident that they will feel uplifted rather than terrified or sad. They’re funny, charming, with great tunes and dance sequences. They’re aligned with issues in the headlines (Babe inspired a vegetarian movement while Happy Feet takes on over-fishing). And yet, these films have all of the elements of the Campbell-Miller formula: reluctant heroes, departure from home, nadirs, strange new worlds, and a return with a solution. They are just applied in ways that are so imaginative as to be unrecognisable.

Today, any marketer interested in storytelling has heard of Campbell’s work and the hero’s journey. If you’ve been seeking creative inspiration for brand marketing, you might also have read Christopher Vogler’s take on a similar theme, The Writer’s Journey , which breaks it down into a formula for screenwriting – and is based on a memo he wrote while an executive at Disney. You’ve probably also encountered Christopher Booker’s bestseller, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, which expands on the idea of a mono-myth to argue that all stories ever told involve one of seven basic plots that emphasise different aspects of the journey.

It’s easy to read these theories and conclude that brand storytelling has a formula that it must conform to; that all brands need to tell audiences the same tale; that we must be selective in what we put forward in order to fit it into that framework. If we’re not careful, brand stories can start to feel very formulaic as a result. Everyone sets themselves up as the same type of hero, overcoming the same antagonists, and delivering benefits to their customers as a result. George Miller’s career shows that this is a creative cop-out. We need to be far more imaginative in identifying the distinct aspects of each brand that resonate on a mythic level. 

Audiences love stories – but they don’t just love one story. They deserve storytellers to find new levels of meaning – and deliver new messages – through how they treat the different elements that human beings instinctively respond to. In the case of brands, they expect stories that are distinct and authentic; that feel fundamentally different to one another – and which reflect their particular experiences. The skill is bringing together these unique elements in a way that resonates on an instinctive, storytelling level. 

When your audience faces frustrations and a sense of failure, you can help them to find the heroic and the hopeful in their view of themselves, in a similar way to how Miller did with Lorenzo’s Oil. You can turn everyday lives into magical journeys of meaning – but you must do so in your own distinct way. If your brand is a cute, eager-to-please Babe, then you don’t have to pretend to be a Road Warrior. You have your own version of the story to tell – and your own creative and distinct way to tell it.