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Harnessing the power of brand storytelling

Al MacCuish looks at how the seven plot types can be applied to brands. How can a narrative help communicate what a brand wants to say about the world
Where storytelling formats have been evolving over the centuries, so too have advertising formats. Mass communication in one form or another has been around for pretty much as long as story has. In ancient Rome, mass entertainment events at the Colosseum, with numbers that would easily rival anything at Glastonbury, were sponsored by people with agendas looking to influence public opinion and win favour. That tradition is how the Olympics, the World Cup, and just about every other mass sporting event anywhere in the world is still financed today. Today, however, it’s Adidas, Coke, and Samsung looking to influence public opinion and win favour, rather than Decimus, Lucretius, and Valens. But the technique is exactly the same.
And although story is suddenly the most popular word in the communications industry right now, it’s been regularly used by brands to great effect for decades.
From Apple’s iconic 1984 TV commercial, to Chipotle’s Emmy-award-winning animated Scarecrow film, it’s the application of basic timeless story principles that have made the best brand communication over the last few decades so effective. Christopher Booker argues in his 2004 book The Seven Basic Plots, that pretty much every story ever written in any format, can be boiled down
into one of seven basic plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth. And when you look at all the films, books, songs, plays, musicals, and computer games that you love, every single one of them will, I bet my hat, very comfortably fit into one of Booker’s seven plots. They are the stories that essentially define human existence. And if you do the same thing with the great brand stories, and by stories that could mean what the brand wants to say about the world in general, they will also, I bet my other hat, conform to one of Booker’s seven plots.
Hard to imagine that Apple were once the little guy, but the 1984 commercial is very personal to the founders; it’s their story. It reflects how they saw themselves in the market. And in their case, their monster was conformity in the faceless corporate world of computers. Apple, the hero, is David to IBM’s Goliath. That theme was, and still is, massive in contemporary culture.
It tapped straight into identity: how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. It’s our innate desire to be recognised as individuals in charge of our own destiny. In fact, being very philosophical about it, it’s actually about freedom. Who doesn’t want to think different? Who doesn’t want to own a product that reflects that? What Apple have done better than almost any corporation in history is to make their interpretation of Booker’s Overcoming the Monster plot drive their entire business; not just their brand. And that makes it a true story; and that means something to billions of us. “Greatness is no more unique to us than breathing.
We’re all capable of it.” The Overcoming the Monster plot can be applied to everything Nike has ever done, with Just Do It. The monster in their case is the negative force in all of us that says, “it’s way too cold to get up and go to the gym today, I think I’ll just have a chocolate croissant.” I’m trying to get out to a gym and just being a single Mum of three of them. I just don’t have any time. Just this year actually, two of D&AD’s biggest winners built their campaigns on the monster plot. “This Girl Can” and “Like a Girl”. Show me what it looks like to run like a girl.
Two identical monsters in the form of prejudice and misconceptions about the potential of girls.
My name is Dakota and I’m ten years old. Show me what it looks like to run like a girl. And the list goes on. Anti-smoking campaigns and road safety campaigns for decades have drawn on the tragedy plot. Beer campaigns prefer comedy.
Axe has built an entire global brand drawing on the quest plot; in their case boys’ pursuit of girls, their products as the magic potion helping the heroes overcome the obstacles of awkwardness, insecurity, bad hair, and plain old BO. However, story in the end has its own story. Getting to know the basic themes and principles that are essential to constructing them is a journey. When I personally became interested in story a few years ago, I read four books on recommendation that completely changed my life. They didn’t just make me a better storyteller; they made me a better reader, viewer, and fan.
They were Story, by Robert McKee, Into the Woods, by John Yorke, How to Tell Your Story and Have the World Listen, by Bobette Buster, and finally, The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker. They are the best 50 quid you will ever spend. You already know how to consume a story and you’re probably already very good at telling them, but these four books will give you a really strong understanding of the principles that lie at the heart of all stories. And once you’ve internalised them, once they’re in your heart, you’d be amazed how quickly they start to influence how you think about how brands should be connecting with audiences. Stories are, to a great extent, personal.
Whether you’re an author or copywriter, there’s a part of you in your work. You have a style and a tone of voice and a point of view in the world. Advertising doesn’t often give us much time to get our stories across, and to add to the difficulty, audiences very often have short attention spans and lots and lots of people competing for their time. And that’s why I personally think that children’s books have a lot more in common with advertising than we might think. And that’s what I’d like to explore in the next module.
It might seem that ‘story’ is a buzzword in the communication industry right now, but it’s a technique that brands have been using to great effect for decades.
Al MacCuish recaps the Seven Basic Plots, and looks at how brands use these plots to communicate what they are trying to say about the world, and their place in it.
See below for links to the books and ads which Al references in the video.
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Storytelling in Advertising

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