Some of the most popular stories of our time, like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, are popular not because they are the best-written books or best-filmed movies ever, but because they follow a very old and very human formula. This formula is the Hero’s Journey, popularly established by Joseph Campbell, and it’s a tale as old as time. This stereotypical framework is a great way to craft a story, and subverting it can result in even more interesting tales.
But usually, we don’t think about adapting it to a modern business setting. Can this story framework really be applied to business, the customer journey, and profits, even in an era when story marketing is more popular than ever. It can certainly be used and we’ll explain what this framework is and how to apply it to your brand. Cover photo by Igor Miske.
The Stages of the Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey has many stages. They are placed into three main categories that represent the beginning, middle, and end of the adventure.
The departure stage is when the hero begins their adventure. The journey begins when the hero is presented with an opportunity to go on their journey. However, they then refuse to do so. Once the hero has consciously or unconsciously made the decision to go through with the quest, their supernatural guide or helper will reveal themselves. At this point the hero takes the first step across the threshold out of their comfortable world. They accept that there is no going back to regular life.
The initiation stage is where the action begins to heat up. First, the hero must go through a series of challenges, or tests. They will face failure, and then eventually overcome them. As the hero goes along, they are given special items, are tempted away from their journey, and finally reach the center of the journey. This is when the hero faces a great source of power and reaches an understanding. After this realization, the hero is given additional resolve to continue the adventure. At the end of this stage, the hero achieves the goal of their quest, of which all of the previous steps prepared them for.
Having found power or enlightenment, the hero may initially refuse to return to the “ordinary” world. As the hero does return, they may have to make a daring escape with the boon of their quest, as they’re chased by its guardian. During this escape, they may be helped by external guides, perhaps because they were injured. The hero then crosses the threshold back into the regular world. The hero must retain what they’ve learned and integrate it into their life in the regular world and share it with the people who live there. Once they’ve done this, the hero can become the master of both worlds – their original life and the wild world that they adventured into. Finally, the hero no longer fears death and has the freedom to live. They don’t anticipate the future or regret the past, they just live in the moment having achieved their goals.
Criticisms of the Hero’s Journey
While this framework has some undeniable truth to it, there are flaws. Many have criticized the framework for being deeply flawed due to only selecting sources that fit the theory. Folklore experts also criticize Joseph Campbell for not being an expert in folklore or myth. Others criticize that the framework is so vague as to be completely meaningless. All of that being said, you can apply the hero’s journey to your business messaging.
Applying the Hero’s Journey to Business
The Hero’s Journey works well for traditional storytelling, but also for storytelling in business. Whether it’s a single ad, an overarching theme, or anything in between, you can use the framework and archetypes of the hero’s journey to craft a compelling narratives that move your customers.
Your impulse may be to place you or your company on the pedestal of the hero. After all, you’re saving the day, right? In fact, your customer is the hero. This is their story, and they need to feel like they’re the main character in their story. They are on their own quest and your product or service is what can help them achieve it. The role that your business must play is that of the mentor, or their supernatural guide. You are what enables them to go on their adventure and arms them with the magical tool that they need to succeed. You are the Obi-Wan Kenobi to their Luke Skywalker. The Gandalf to their Bilbo Baggins.
Your job as the business is to equip your customer with the knowledge and items they need to accomplish their goals. If they are a business in need of a CRM, then your CRM tool and the education that you share about it are what will enable them to successful run a CRM. It’s not exactly saving the entire galaxy from evil, but that doesn’t make it any less important to the hero of the story.
Filling out the entire framework of the hero’s journey is unnecessary. You can adopt certain parts of the framework to tell a better story that speaks to customer needs.
The Core Framework
The potential customer starts out with a problem in their life. It doesn’t have to be huge. But it will be some sort of problem that begins them down a path of consideration. They may have a moment of doubt in which they feel like their problem doesn’t matter and they don’t need a good solution to address it. But then you come swooping in. Whether it’s in the form of an SEO-optimized blog post that the customer found through search, a targeted ad, or some other form, you come in as the mentor to educate and guide the customer through their journey. Now the customer may begin their journey, through additional research. They will go through a variety of trials; consuming your educational content, looking around at other options, reading reviews, and working out what sort of budget they have.
Once they decide they want to go with your business as the solution for your problem, the journey isn’t over. Now there isn’t quite a magical escape from the adventure when it comes to business. But what there is, is an excitement and an anticipation as the customer hovers their mouse over the “Purchase Now” button or waits for the first meeting with a representative of your brand.
Even though they may falter during the final decision-making stages, they will ultimately buy from you. Once they experience your solution and find their problem solved, they will become an evangelist for your product or service. With this knowledge, they will educate other people who have their same problem. They also have the freedom to live their life free of their problem.
Where to Apply The Hero’s Journey
Okay, great, you have this framework. Now what? How do you actually use this in business?
It can be used in many ways from a single advertisement all the way up to continuous copy and imagery across your branding.
It’s easy to understand how a story could be translated to a single ad. You can show a character on their adventure of discovering your business as the solution to their problem.
In terms of utilizing it for the entirety of your brand, it gets a little more complex. But it doesn’t have to be necessarily telling the story. You incorporate elements into the customer experience.
Introduce Yourself into the Story
To start with, you need to design your website, landing pages, and social media posts so that they take into account where in this customer journey the customer should be when interacting with them. Many websites do this well in the first stages. Blogs that are written with SEO in mind to attract new readers are essential in the early stages of the customer journey and are quite common. Businesses also often have a page dedicated to comparing their product or service features to other competitors. This makes the research process easier.
Offer Assistance During the Hero’s Trials
Your hero will face many trials on their journey, which may take many forms. For your customer, this represents signing up for free demos, comparing options and pricing, reading reviews, and going back and forth between the available options. In this case, a brand with plenty of valuable resources has the biggest advantage. If you can be there, silently, to aid the customer through these trials, you may win in the end. You can do this by writing blog posts that educate on your product features, free demos with customer support, and targeted ads to keep your name top-of-mind.
Let the Hero be the Master of Your World
At the end of the hero’s journey, the hero becomes the “master of both worlds”. This means that their old life makes sense to them, and they also know how to operate in their new life. In this case, with your product or service. This means they can become a brand advocate. You should empower them to be that for your brand! This can be done through some sort of loyalty or rewards program, or even a referral or affiliate program. Give your most loyal customers the opportunity to share their positive experiences and empower others.
The most important part in terms of language and imagery is that you remember that your business is never the hero or the main character – the customer is! If you try to make it all about you, it will only serve to drive away the customer.
You may have noticed that the above advice on utilizing the hero’s journey in business is strikingly similar to the kind of content you would be using in a normal modern customer’s journey. That’s because it is. Ultimately using a story-driven framework doesn’t change how you operate the business. It’s just an overarching story reminding you how a customer can interact with your brand, and to always keep in mind that they are the true focus.