Your customers are your heroes, so market that way
If there is one thing people love more than rooting for a hero, it’s being the hero. It's inspiring when heroes set off to solve problems, face down obstacles, and finally achieve better lives. This is the essence of hero-centered dramatic storytelling and a fan-favorite way of viewing our own personal journeys.
Hollywood wrote the script on dramatic storytelling. In Star Wars Episode IV, for example, you have a hero (Luke Skywalker), an inciting event (a message from Princess Leia on R2-D2), obstacles to overcome (from saloon fights to trash compactors), and finally the resolution of evil defeated (goodbye, Death Star) and Luke recognizing his inner heroism.
For marketers, truly compelling campaigns for Main Street USA can be crafted by finding ways to apply dramatic storytelling to the plights of everyday consumers. This isn't some new-age angle on advertising. From ancient cave drawings to modern-day social media, storytelling has always been an effective and celebrated way to share information. The key to maximizing a campaign's success is to tell your marketing story using proven and fundamental principles.
Dramatic structure marketing in three acts
This is where the three dramatic acts come in: hero activation, obstacles presented, and finally, resolution and triumph. A two-year study of more than 100 Super Bowl commercials found that the closer the ads followed a dramatic story structure, the more successful they were. But how can this structure be practically applied in everyday marketing?
Dramatic structure marketing does not mean fabricating an over-the-top production. “Have you ever told yourself you couldn’t do something?” asks Activia in a 2017 video titled “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t.” The ad, in which women unpack their own self-doubt, is a mastery of hero-centered dramatic storytelling that resonates with Activia’s core audience but doesn’t make up a fantastical story.
Often with CRM campaigns, the sales or repeat-purchase process is a slower multitouch effort, which creates a great opportunity to think in terms of classic three-act structure. Focus on the following steps as you marry content and messaging that speaks to your audience:
Act I: Who is your hero, and what is his quest?
The first act is the awareness stage, in which you introduce a need and get consumers moving down the funnel toward a purchase. At the beginning of the journey, a brand should seek to ally itself with a consumer and present its offering as a solution to a problem.
Activia started by identifying a hero (women), then created a quest for them by pointing out a problem: Eighty percent of women doubt themselves, according to the ad, which holds them back. At its essence, dramatic storytelling utilizes a problem-solution formula in much the same way most marketing does.
Put your target audience in the hero role. Then figure out a quest or a problem they have that your offering can solve. The content you create for the awareness stage should be about exploring this problem and the need for the quest from your hero’s standpoint.
Act II: What obstacles stand in your hero’s way?
The second act is the bulk of your story, when the hero faces obstacle after obstacle (conflict) as he aims for his goal. Usually, he hits a point where it seems that all is lost and that the only way he can achieve the goal is to change something within himself. Obviously, brands don't want to put their consumers through the same wringer most protagonists endure, but they should focus more deeply on helping consumers address challenges.
Content and messaging should reinforce the value, utility, and emotional benefits of your offering until a purchase is made. Activia demonstrated all the ways that self-doubt makes it difficult to appreciate or reach achievements. The brand didn’t handle this in voiceover; it had real women express real emotions while discussing real problems.
Act II is also a great point in the narrative to share customer stories or testimonials that the hero relates to and add compelling reasons to continue and complete the quest. The goal is to steer the customer toward a mindset change that allows her to make the purchase — analogous to the internal maturation of a dramatic hero.
Act III: How does victory feel?
What does a better life look like when the hero achieves her goal? This is the ever-important post-purchase phase, in which buyers should be made to feel like the victorious heroes they are.
We don’t quite get to post-purchase with the Activia campaign. However, the campaign includes snippets of women talking about how much better life would be if they didn’t doubt themselves and points toward a resolution in which the brand and the lead character work together to combat this problem for future generations.
Content and messaging should focus on helping consumers get the most value from that product and meet expectations to ultimately move toward a repurchase or a cross-sell. Any added moments of surprise and delight will only maximize the potential to bolster that "heroic" feeling.
Finding dramatic journeys, not inventing them
Social media allows many consumer journeys to be publicly broadcast because customers can share so easily. If someone with a natural tendency to share has a great experience, she could potentially become an unpaid brand advocate. But this can’t be achieved without positive reinforcement at every step of the journey.
Understanding your narrative structure and the experience your customer is going through helps ensure your messaging and communications are on point, and it allows you to more easily align with real-user stories along the way. It’s not about creating nonexistent drama, but rather tapping into the dramatic journey your target market already experiences.
Shifting perspectives on storytelling
Many companies find success with this structure. Nike religiously plays on the drama of pursuit, and big events like the Olympics often see an uptick in dramatic storytelling ads from brands like Budweiser and Samsung. Subtler versions of dramatic structure are often employed by Adobe and Apple, which support people's creative pursuits in a "heroic" way. Similarly, car companies like Toyota and Jeep present their off-road vehicles in ways that elevate their drivers to "hero" status.
If your brand shifts its perspective and realizes that all consumers are on their own heroic journeys, you can be seen as their ally (or a sidekick, rather than a company that's just trying to sell something). This fundamental shift in perspective will help you turn customer journeys into three-act narratives, which remind, reassure, and reinforce a purchase decision.
In other words, helping Luke Skywalker vanquish stormtroopers can be profitable for your brand — as long as you understand who your Luke is and why he hates stormtroopers.
Hamish McCollester, SVP, Group Creative Director, RAPP LA, is best known for solving creative problems… and creatively solving problems. He started his ad adventure 25 years ago in a rogue New York agency, writing mind-...