Four Ways to Use the Hero Story in Corporate Communications

is in the business.

Especially in the technology business, the archetype of the hero is a powerful tool in making the world aware of the brand and the power of the product.

The renowned scholar Joseph Campbell is responsible for bringing a highly structured view of the hero’s journey to wider attention. This graphic shows a distillation of Campbell’s model by Reg Harris:

The hero’s journey is never an easy one. As the stages in Campbell’s archetype indicate, part of being a hero is undergoing a , as well as overcoming obstacles. That is in part what differentiates the hero from normal people: the ability to move past the challenges that would stymie the rest of us.

Campbell’s model pervades almost every aspect of the narratives we use in our culture — and that applies even to the corporate marketing and advertising world. While Campbell’s model has been used to examine almost everything from The Odyssey to Star Wars, there are four main ways that corporate communications professionals have put it to work:

  • Brand/Product as Hero
  • Customer as Hero
  • Executive as Hero
  • Employee as Hero

Here are some examples of how the hero story works in each of these ways and some suggestions for making the hero story approach work for your technology company.

Brand/Product as Hero

The Brand/Product as hero is the most common way that technology companies make use of the hero story.

The play here is that the product — and, eventually when there are enough products in a portfolio, the brand — is on a mission to vanquish evil and change things for the better. That’s the transformation that is taking place.

The Apple 1984 commercial attacking IBM is perhaps the canonical example of this technique. The ad, directed by Ridley Scott and aired during the Super Bowl, became iconic for the way Apple was able to position itself as a hero brand without ever showing the actual product. The key was how it juxtaposed IBM as a faceless, soul-crushing brand akin to technology fit for Orwell’s 1984, while Apple could save customers from this reality. It’s perhaps the most classic example of giant-killer marketing, in which a smaller company takes on a Goliath.

The goal of the Brand/Product as hero approach is to recruit the buyer into the heroic mission. By engaging with our company, they will help the hero succeed. And by affiliating with the product, the customer might also save themselves, becoming part of a select few wise enough to recognize the value of the brand. It’s a way to subtly flatter consumers and also make them feel like they’re part of an elite group savvy enough to recognize the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the brand.

Apple has used this approach in much of its marketing over the years. Other prime examples of this include hybrid car brands like the Toyota Prius and Tesla (in which the car is literally pitched as helping to save the world) and Nike and Air Jordan, which portrayed their shoes as a way for customers to be different and implicitly become better at their sport when compared to using other brands.

Here are some key things to consider to determine whether to use this approach:

  • If you have a clearly defined enemy or competing brand: Again, think of Apple railing against IBM and later Microsoft as the way the brand or product can help the customer break away from the conformity of the more mainstream product.
  • If there is a distinct transformation the product can help the customer achieve: Domino’s rebranding strategy of this decade in which they’ve tried to showcase better ingredients and a higher quality product than their pizza has had in the past, and than their prime competitor of Pizza Hut, is a good example of this.
  • If there is any secret knowledge that can be obtained from using the brand: The Nike example works here, as much of its advertising with athletes is based on the implicit idea that if you use the shoe, you will become as talented as the athletes featured in the ads.
  • If there is a big personality who can endorse this: Celebrity endorsements always can help a brand, whether that’s Michael Jordan with Nike, Danica Patrick with GoDaddy.com, Matthew McConaughey with Lincoln, or Jennifer Garner with Capital One. These endorsements help to add prestige to the brand and imply to the viewer that you too can be as hip and cool as the celebrity featured by using the brand.

Overall, this type of hero’s journey is more successful to promote a brand than a single product, as most of the cited examples above illustrate. The right type of journey in this case helps to paint the brand as not just a thing people use, but part of a larger lifestyle choice that helps to define who the customer is. 

However, when using this approach, it is important to consider whether the product can really deliver on that promise of cool. If there’s no hero’s journey that actually occurs through using the product, and the customer won’t actually experience a change by adopting the brand, that can lead to a backlash. And the journey also has to be culturally appropriate. An example from this year is a KFC ad in Australia that was derided as being sexist and misogynist. Companies must be aware of social trends to understand if the type of deliverance the product is offering fits into the cultural norms of the time — and at this point, doing something like hinting your product will help men attract scantily clad women is just not going to fly.

Customer as Hero

Another approach is to more overtly flatter the customer and make them the hero of the journey in their adoption of the product or brand. In this approach, the goal is to make the customer believe that by using this product, they are helping to have a positive impact, whether that is on themselves, their families, their communities, or the world at large. The journey that occurs is that the customer is improving themselves and becoming the hero by using or being affiliated with the brand/product. The Tesla and Prius car commercials referred to earlier are examples of this, but other examples abound. For instance, Amazon has rolled out a series of ads this year featuring its commitment to sustainability. The goal is to not only showcase its environmental friendliness but also to make the customer understand that they will be helping the world by using Amazon. Ads of this kind have been especially prevalent this year, during the COVID pandemic, in which ads showcase customers as heroes for staying at home or doing their jobs, while only obliquely referring to their brands. American Airlines and Facebook are notable examples of this.

This approach works because flattery is effective, as this Harvard Business Review article points out. Customers like being told that their decisions are smart ones and that rather than hurting the world through their consumerist decisions, they’re actually helping it. 

But another beneficial aspect about the customer as hero approach is that it allows companies to focus on specific product features rather than just the overall brand. For instance, much of the beer advertising done by Budweiser and Coors focuses on the ingredients in the beer (think hops, barley, malt, water), and the simplicity of the production process, meaning that customers who choose to drink these beers can view themselves as having commonsense and don’t need to worry about frills. Or think of Southwest’s “Bags Fly Free” policy ads in which the airline is pointing out a differentiating feature of its product (not charging for luggage) but doing so in a way that focuses on how this policy makes it easier for customers to travel to maintain the important personal connections in their lives. They are heroes for flying Southwest because they’re committed to seeing the people that are most important to them.

Ultimately then, the customer as a hero approach is a highly effective way to do marketing, as you’re suggesting your company cares more about its customers than anything else. 

Executive as Hero

Another way to use the hero mythology is to position the company’s executive as the hero. This is not as common now as the two approaches previously covered in this piece, due to the growing general societal skepticism about executives really being saviors. But in some cases it can still be effective. 

Perhaps the most notable executive as hero in recent years was Steve Jobs. Apple’s use of Jobs exemplifies a key part of this approach — the executive must not be like other CEOs. They must be an iconoclast who is able to throw off the corporate shackles other CEOs abide by to forge an innovative product. 

One of the benefits of using the executive as the hero is that they can showcase their personal success as the journey that made the brand into what it is today. A good use of this was with Sam Adams and the Boston Beer Company, and how founder Jim Koch was able to create a microbrew that was exceptional and ultimately came to rival the bigger beer companies. Virgin has also used the worldliness and supposed sophistication of its executive Richard Branson to great effect over the years. And some research shows that this approach can actually be more effective than when companies use celebrities in their ads. What all these approaches have in common is that the executive went through a trial, and overcame it because of some unique set of skills they possess. It’s an inspirational approach, but also one that helps to add prestige to a brand through its leaders.

Companies have to be careful using their CEOs in the current environment however, as public dislike for the wealthy is very high. Additionally, public dislike for corporate executives can develop rapidly, even when the leaders were liked at one point — think of how quickly Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg went from tech icons to villains after their role in allowing disinformation campaigns to thrive on Facebook in the run-up to the 2016 election. Or the way Papa John’s entire was bound up with its founder and how problematic that became when he was revealed to be a racist

Executive as hero is therefore a double-edged sword and companies should go into using the hero model in this way with their eyes wide open. They should assess whether the CEO is actually a good face for the business and not just someone interested in a vanity project and who could receive blowback in the long term.

Employee as Hero

One final way that the hero myth is commonly used in marketing is by positioning employees as the heroes. If you’ve turned your TV on at any point during the pandemic, you’ve seen countless examples of companies using the hero myth in this way. Walmart and Uber are two examples of this, praising their frontline employees for working despite the threats COVID poses to them. Some healthcare companies like Blue Shield have also taken similar approaches. Microsoft’s recent campaign featuring “The Power of Teams” has also taken this approach, showing employees from other companies, universities, and nonprofits from around the world who have used Microsoft’s cloud platform to stay connected and work during the pandemic. 

The intelligence of this approach is twofold: not only are companies featuring employees who seem to believe strongly in their employer, but they’re also able to portray themselves as businesses who care passionately about their employees. This enables them to recruit future employees and tell regular customers that they can feel good using the brand because of the way workers are treated. You can also see employees as heroes in any ads that feature employee activism, such as after a natural disaster when companies band together to rebuild houses or distribute supplies. Other ads often show employees working tirelessly to ensure customers can get the products they need.

What’s highlighted in this type of approach is the transformation of employees from normal people to heroes by just doing their jobs. Someone might be a greeter at Walmart, but by going to work every day during a pandemic, they become a hero. In this era when brands must be careful to be perceived as caring about their employees, using the hero myth in this way can be effective.

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