A prospective client, an entrepreneur, was explaining why his company was looking for a PR firm. The meeting was pretty routine until he mentioned that his new tech product was born of his great personal frustration with current software. Now, business software isn’t a sexy category, but never mind. The words that stayed with me were “born of frustration.” It was an emotional trigger.
In some ways, good storytelling is like fine art or even obscenity. People struggle to define it, but they insist, “I’ll know it when I see it.”
For me that day, the entrepreneur’s frustration caught my interest because it’s familiar. That simple beginning signaled a good story to come, because an emotional penny dropped and I wanted to hear more. The rest of the conversation made me think of the ways that traditional storytelling techniques and myths offer opportunities for communicators, especially in public relations.
Most of the stories PR and marketing campaigns craft for brands are familiar to students of Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero’s Journey, or Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. The Hero’s Journey has endured for a reason; we can all identify. The same goes for the classic David vs. Goliath tale and the rags-to-riches myth. We’ve heard those stories since childhood.
Those of us in PR and media relations have typically focused on identifying stories for someone else to tell – usually a reporter. But with the growth of branded content, our role has expanded. We’ve moved from targeting storytellers to telling the stories ourselves. So, like the hero of old who sets off on a quest that will test his abilities, we must rise to the occasion.
The good news is that the classic storytelling archetypes never go out of style. Here’s how they can help.
Look at any superhero film to grasp this one. It goes back to ancient Greece but is still powerful. But how to translate it into business terms? At its center is conflict. A startup is looking to take on a behemoth. A business leader is challenged by a personal disability or a lack of resources. Or, an everyman bucks a company or industry. It can be an ordinary Joe or the brilliant misfit who struggles to carve his own path. Examples are everywhere. Thomas Edison failed 1000 times before succeeding. Beset by the demise of the DVD, Netflix cofounder Reed Hastings realized his model had to transform or die, and transform it did.
The “frustration” line that triggered my thought is what Kevin Rogers calls the “rebel yell” statement. It can be mild or strong, but it’s about being fed up and wanting to make a better product/company/workplace/world. This works into the “monster” archetype as well as the quest, below.
This one is the quintessential myth and has many variants. It can be the classic entrepreneur’s quest for funding, for traction, or even for survival. We see it in the stories told by many high-growth technology businesses. It pays dividends because there’s some kind of quest at any and every stage. An entrepreneur might find early success in reaching growth milestones, only to see his business stall. Or, an established company (like IBM) seeks to reconnect with its heritage and adapt to a changing marketplace. Nvidia cofunder Jensen Huang, having weathered supply-chain shocks and market volatility brought about by the COVID pandemic, recently reflected on his personal journey. “Nobody would have believed it. First, you have to believe it, and then you have to help other people believe it. It could be a very long journey, but that’s okay.”
Students of the Odyssey will recognize this one. It’s a little distinct from the quest because the hero undergoes a harrowing adventure but finds his way home and — most importantly — is changed by the experience. Think Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. The protagonist is left with a changed value system or a new outlook. The most famous business example? After Steve Jobs was fired from his own company, he bought a graphics division from Lucasfilm that became Pixar before returning to Apple with a new view of the market and a fresh determination to transform it.
This overlaps with “the quest” but is typically about the fruits of success and the reinvention that follows. Serial entrepreneurs like Elon Musk fall into this category. So do socially minded CEOs like Howard Schultz or Marc Benioff, who leverage unimaginable success to write new chapters for their business or to create wholly new ventures.
Sallie Krawcheck has been called the most powerful woman on Wall Street. But when the former Citigroup and Bank of America executive launched Ellevest, a digital financial advisor for women, she tapped into her own investing mistakes. Krawcheck wove a narrative around her failure to sell her considerable Citibank stock when she knew she should have, resulting in headlines like, “How Sallie Krawcheck lost 80 Percent of Her Net Worth.” It’s a compelling story and a perfect platform for her new company.
Comedy can translate into an irreverent company culture or an upstart attitude of irony. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that can have strong appeal. Brands who’ve embraced this archetype range from the friendly, yet sophisticated Warby Parker, to insurance providers like Geico and Allstate, who are willing to poke fun at their own industries.
A true tragedy is tough unless it has an upbeat or transformative ending. But stories with a tragic turn are powerful, especially if they morph into a call-to-action. We represent a tech company whose founder started the company after narrowly escaping a fatal terrorist bombing while vacationing in Israel. He rarely spoke about the incident but when he did, it was part of the transformation tale that pushed him to change his life and career.
This is every business or individual that has weathered a reputation crisis, economic downturn or other near-death experience. It can be self-inflicted or driven by external forces, but it’s usually some of both. The most famous example, again, may be that of Apple and the professional and personal rebound of Steve Jobs. But history has plenty of other examples, from Marvel, which weathered bankruptcy only to hit pay dirt with the Spider Man franchise, to Best Buy, which created an omnichannel strategy out of the retail apocalypse of the last decade. Then there are the stories of resilience and adroitness through the COVID pandemic — Kroger and competitors pivoted to home delivery of groceries; fitness chains jumped into livestreaming; and luxury hotels offered day passes to people working from home. Not all thrived, but most survived. And each now has a powerful narrative behind them.
After all, who doesn’t love a good comeback story?
Have a story to tell? Contact us to learn more about working with our B2B tech PR firm.