Snapshot : Storytellers use different story types to create familiar shapes to their stories. Marketers can use these as creative inspiration for brand stories. This week, we explore the seven most common story types with examples of brands that use them, and marketing situations where they’d be relevant. Read this for ideas on how to tell your own brand story.
Christmas is a good time to catch up on stories.
You re-connect with family and friends, and talk about what’s happened over the year.
The good, the bad, and whatever the hell you’d call the events of 2021.
Christmas is a time for reflection and sharing.
For brands, it’s also a good time to think about their story. To reflect on what matters to them.
But these brand stories are harder work to create than your personal stories. There’s more people involved. There’s more pressure to get it right. Tell a great story, and you win over customers because everyone loves a great story. (see for example our articles on the value of storytelling and storytelling and marketing).
But not all stories are the same. Looking at different story types can help you build a better story.
Story types influence your story structure
Building a story starts with structure. At its simplest, it’s the start, the middle and the end.
But go beyond that, and most story structures break down into :-
- A hero / heroine …
- … faces a problem.
- They meet a guide, and …
- come up with a plan.
- They follow a call to action …
- … that leads them to the goal with successes and failures along the way.
This framework helps you check you’ve got all the story elements you need, and that they’re in an order that makes sense. You can tell a story without all of these elements and in a different order, but this basic structure is a reliable starting point.
You then fill your structure with characters, action, plot and dialogue. Those make your story different.
In a brand story, the customer’s the hero. They have a problem. Your brand guides them towards a resolution by helping them come up with a plan.
But how you guide them, and what that means for your story is unique to that customer and your brand. To shape that story, you can look at classic story types for ideas and inspiration.
Story types and what they mean for marketing
In Christopher Booker’s book, the 7 Basic Plots, he suggests all stories fit into one of seven story types. These story types are thousands of years old. They still exist in many different formats today – films, TV shows and books, for example.
Though it’s not a marketing book, you can apply the principles of these story types to brands.
Because everyone is familiar with them, if your brand story fits one of these story types, your brand story feels more “right” to your audience.
They “get” the story easier, because it’s a familiar story type.
That’s a good thing, obviously.
Overcome the monster
In overcoming the monster stories, the hero (or heroine) faces a challenge.
They take on an individual, object or force that represents the opposite of what the hero stand for. They fix their problem by beating the monster.
Little David takes on large Goliath. Hero Bond takes on villain Blofeld. Good Harry takes on evil Voldemort.
The story’s in the hero’s struggle to achieve victory over the “monster”.
Challengers are smaller brands who take on a bigger player in the market, usually the market leader.
They have less resources than the market leader, so they can’t outspend them. But they can outthink them to gain market share.
The book shares strategies and actions challenger brands can use to take on the market leader.
These actions mean disrupting the category. Challenger brands in general use their small size to their advantage, by moving faster and taking more risks. They have less to lose.
Customers like the story of bringing down the big (and implied monstrous) market leader.
Apple was the challenger brand at the time. It played on the size of Microsoft to imply it was the “monster”.
Apple used its rebellious and creative brand identity as the hero to take on the more corporate and mainstream Microsoft identity.
It encouraged customers to join them (by buying Apple) to overcome the monster (Microsoft) that dominated the computer category.
The monster can be a category truth
The “monster” can be anything that’s relevant. It could be a generic category truth the challenger brand wants to change.
Check out this advert from British beer company Brewdog, for example. The “story” talks about a rebellion against bland and tasteless beer.
Bland and tasteless beer is the monster Brewdog want to overcome.
The “hero” is interesting and tasty, positive values that customers can relate to. They feel part of Brewdog’s story to overcome the bland, tasteless beer monster.
How to use overcome the monster
If you’re not the market leader, think about who the “monster” in your category is. Build your brand story around your advantages over them. You go faster. You take more risks. You’re more for the customer.
Make your story better than theirs.
For example, let’s say you run a restaurant and offer a delivery service.
Your monster could be the global food delivery companies (see our article on the last mile delivery). Many say they’re too dominant, and don’t treat delivery drivers well.
You could overcome that “monster” by telling stories about how you support local business, and how well you treat your drivers.
Rags to riches
The next story type, rags to riches, comes from situations where the hero battles their way out of terrible circumstances to reach eventual success. The hero is again the underdog, but they’re battling their situation, rather a specific monster.
In classic storytelling, it’s the Cinderella story.
For example, watch this advert on the value of education from the University of Western Sydney.
It tells the story of how Deng Thiak Adut had to flee terrible situation in Sudan, and how his life changed when he started to study in Australia.
With education, hard work and determination, he changed his life. His ‘riches’ are a fulfilled life as a leading human rights lawyer.
This story type works well for brands who start with little or nothing. Brands who fought against the odds to get to where they are today. It works well with brands who’ve stuck to their principles, no matter what.
You see this story type used by many heritage brands with strong founder stories. Johnnie Walker, or Jack Daniels in alcohol for example. Levi Strauss or Lee Cooper in fashion.
These brands tell stories about their journey from humble origins.
They tell stories about what they’ve done, and how they did it.
How to use rags to riches stories
Use rags to riches for brand stories where the brand has humble beginnings. Talk through what the brand did to get to where it is today. Make the story feel real by highlighting the brand’s purpose and values.
Customers appreciate the effort it takes to “make it” in business. If you’re a brand that’s stuck to its founding principles, customers respect that. They’ll find your rags to riches story engaging and inspiring.
The next story type is the quest. In the quest, the hero has a more active goal or purpose. They usually need to go somewhere, find an object or do something.
Indiana Jones goes to Egypt to seek the Ark of the Covenant. Frodo goes to Mordor to destroy the ring. Marty McFly travels back in time to save his family. Classic quest story types with an active goal for the hero.
The purpose of the brand’s quest
The quest story types works well with brands who have a higher brand purpose. They want to invent something that improves people’s lives. It’s a journey to get there, but when they do, they fix a problem.
Cure cancer. Prevent food waste. Protect the environment. Many business purposes translate well to quest story types.
Brand quest stories inspire and motivate customers. They bring to life brand values by showing people why the brand does what it does. Customers find these values relevant to their own values, and that helps them buy into the story.
In this example, from a Thai insurance company, the kindness and generosity of the hero pays off through his positive impact on those around him.
His quest was to bring kindness and generosity to the world. The brand wants to be associated with those positive values.
They want their target audience to think of those values when they think of the brand.
As another example, the brand quest could be to improve the environment. You could tell a story about the things you do to reduce your environmental footprint and be more sustainable.
For example, Coca-Cola uses a quest story type in this advert.
Their quest is to take on the environmental challenge from packaging, and make the world better through more sustainable packaging.
They know customers feel strongly about environmental issues and want to show the story of what they do to improve the environment.
How to use quest stories
Think about your brand’s purpose. Can you turn what your brand does to achieve that purpose into a compelling quest story?
There has to be some sort of challenge to make a quest story. For your brand to be on a quest, means you struggle and persist against challenges. You make an effort to overcome the forces against you.
The harder the quest, the more interesting the story. Too easy, and it’s a dull story.
The brand quest story type works best when you can show how you do something extraordinary and different to achieve your purpose.
Voyage and return
Voyage and return stories are like an extended quest. The hero reaches their goal (the voyage), but the story continues with consequences of reaching that goal (the return). The return part of the story shows how the hero’s changed by achieving their goal.
In classic stories of Voyage and Return, the hero goes to a strange land and overcomes a problem before coming back wiser and more experienced. It’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s Back to the Future. The hero comes back changed by their experience.
Changed by experience
These story types work well when your brand has changed because of the journey it’s been on. You need to show the difference what your brand was like and what it is like now because of what’s happened.
It’s a tough story to tell in an advert. It takes time to tell a story about change, and you don’t often have much time in advertising.
The story type works better in longer formats. It can be a great fit for a brand origin story on a website for example. Or in a company brochure or in a presentation. Any format where you’ve got more time.
Check out this example from Google for example. It takes almost two and a half minutes to tell the story. And even then, it’s only the return part of the story.
The voyage part is implied. It’s clearly their move from India to the US.
We see their return home to their family. But what really matters is what’s in the envelope. That reveal shows what’s “changed” after their voyage. The change drives the return home.
You can see another example in this Coca-Cola Christmas advertising.
In this story, the hero (the dad) starts by forgetting to post his daughter’s letter. Not very heroic.
But through his voyage to the North Pole and eventual return home, he shows he’s become a better dad. A hero to his daughter. He’s changed from forgetful dad into caring dad.
How to use voyage and return stories
These types of stories need time to tell them. An About Us page on your website for example. In your printed annual report. Told in an interview with a journalist as part of your public relations.
If you’re a service brand, maybe what you do takes customers on a voyage and return? These can turn into powerful client testimonials. Customers who’ve gone through life-changing experiences because of what you do for them.
The client who got healthier after your fitness coaching. The client who sorted out their bank balance after your financial planning advice.
Use voyage and return story types to inspire customers to think about the change that could happen in their own story.
In rebirth stories, events force the main character to change their ways. A Christmas Carol. Groundhog Day. Classic rebirth stories.
A brand rebirth story often reflects a change in the wider world. Something that was previously acceptable, but now isn’t.
For example this advert from Gillette highlights issues around male behaviour. It suggests men need to be “reborn” to be less aggressive and misogynistic.
How to use rebirth stories
Rebirth stories are tricky for brands. A bad “event” needs to trigger the need for the rebirth. But companies don’t like to talk about bad events. They worry this puts customers off. They worry customers will focus on the bad, and not the rebirth.
Where you could use the rebirth format is where you know customers already have a negative perception, but you’ve done something positive since then.
So, for example, we know Nestle still suffer boycotts from stories about promoting infant formula to breastfeeding mums in the 1970s. A bad event.
But, they’re also one of the first companies to move to full renewable energy in their factories. They’ve done something positive which could be a a rebirth story – from corporate villains to corporate heroes.
Comedy is a classic story type.
The comedy story uses humour, is light in tone and there’s a happy, funny ending.
It’s frequently used in advertising as you can see from this compilation of examples.
These humorous situations create an emotional connection, as the audience laughs along.
This makes brand comedy story types easy to engage with and share. Customers like to share stories that make others laugh.
How to use comedy stories
To use the comedy story type, you need stories that are funny, obviously. But humour can be tricky. It’s very subjective. What’s funny to you could be horribly offensive to others.
Brand comedy stories works best when you can relate them to your customers and your insights about them. This make the humour more relatable.
If your target audience is sarcastic and edgy, use that sort of humour. Push the boundaries, because it’s relatable for them.
But if your audience is more mainstream, soften the humour. Make it more inclusive, less offensive.
Base your comedy story on observations about the challenges customers face. There’s a lot of humour in stories around getting married, having children and entering old age for example. You can use these insights to build great brand comedy stories.
Tragedy is the flip side of comedy. The tone is dark, and there’s a sad, serious ending.
It’s a harder brand story to tell. Tragedy feels negative, and customers don’t like negative stories.
But you also find more positive emotions like hope, empathy and resilience in tragedy. These comes as people pull together to deal with tragedy.
For example, charities can use tragedy to show the terrible situations people end up in, such as in this Unicef example.
Tragedy stories create emotional connections. We empathise with the situation. It makes us want to help.
But you can also use tragedy in a more disruptive and clever way such as in this advert from the Pillion Trust in the UK.
Here, the “tragedy” is the way most people walk past appeals for help. It takes an extreme way to make people stop and take notice.
It’s a great way to use a tragedy story to highlight a problem we all recognise, but which many ignore.
How to use tragedy stories
The tragedy story type works best when there’s a genuine tragedy to talk about. But the story focus needs to be on what the brand does to help. How they deal with it, or help others deal with it.
The tragedy story needs to create a positive reaction. It need to engage customers, so they know what to do to help, or prevent the same thing happening to them.
Choosing a story types
The type of story you choose comes down to your brand’s context.
To define that, ask yourself :-
- Who’s the story for? –Picture your target audience. What sort of stories do they usually like? Which story type will they most want to hear?
- What’s the goal? –What do you want the story to make the reader think, feel or do? The story should end with a clear call to action that moves the reader towards the goal.
- Where and when will they read it? – Stories slot into your media, public relations and website plans. Check those and fit in a relevant story type. Will the customer read it on a printed page or see it on a screen for example? What about timing? Will the time of day, day of the week, or week of the year change how customers read the story?
- What will make it credible, relevant and interesting? –There’s a fine balance when it comes to telling stories. Too far fetched and customers won’t believe it. But too everyday, and it’s dull. It needs enough detail and drama to make the story credible, relevant and interesting.
- How do you build in an emotional connection? – The best stories trigger emotions. The reader feels things. Happy, sad, afraid, angry, proud, confident, inspired. Look at the emotions in your story and make them very visible. You don’t need a Hollywood style tear-jerker, simple emotions work well too. Small everyday events that make people smile in recognition, or feel better about themselves.
Conclusion - story types
Stories connect people. Brands that tell a great story build strong connections with their customers. You can use the the seven story types from Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots to spark inspiration about what your brand story could be.
These seven story types – overcome the monster, rags to riches, the question, voyage and return, rebirth, comedy and tragedy – have deep and rich roots in our culture. They feel familiar to customers.
Familiarity is good. Customers are more likely to listen to, like and be inspired by familiar story types. You want your brand story to be listened to, liked and to inspire your customers. That’d make a happy ending for any brand story.