The Seven Basic Plots Applied to Branding

Introduction

Stories are hugely important to us, they are everywhere and will continue to be. So, how to help make yours stand out?


Whether we are talking about films, getting to know a friend through their stories or telling your own story in a job interview (this is always a good idea). We retain information more effectively when we have an emotional connection to it. The foundations of all great and effective content in any form has story at its heart.

You need to know which story you are telling

Why?

We are social creatures that are dependent on each other for survival and to pool experience for a clearer perspective on how to navigate the world, as well as being able to trust those we don’t know, who believe in or have the same views and values as us and when applying to marketing who does not hold these as strong foundations of a successful brand?

When mentioning the word ‘storytelling’ we may get this image of an ancient people around a campfire passing on myths down the generations and yes this seems removed from our lives, but we still do the same thing, in one perhaps poetic example; the phone is our new campfire. On all social media channels we tell our story hoping that it strikes a chord with a larger story that people will empathise with and follow or like. This is based on story patterns that are inherently understood in us and in the world we live in.

Providing some evidence for this theory, brain scans have shown that reading or hearing stories activates various areas of the cortex that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing, and the more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathise with other people!

BBC Article
Our Fiction Addiction, Why Humans need Stories

Psychologically, we need stories to comprehend vastly complex patterns of personal and collective consciousness and unconsciousness, which can be presented to us on emotional and immediate levels that we can understand even without analysis.

In these short explanations we have the basic elements of purpose and meaning of why stories have continued to have such profound effect and importance. Now, without tumbling into too deep an existential hole hopefully we can agree on these foundations.

Painting by Hermann Werner (circa 19th century). Vintage etching circa late 19th century.

Three Act Structure

 

As a general rule of thumb we can look at all stories to have a three act structure: Exposition, complication, resolution. 

 

Or what I find more useful in short form: Motivation, obstacle, reward.

 

Though depending on context and trajectory what do these mean? Complication, resolution for who? For what? And what are the circumstances that this takes place in?

The Seven Basic Plots 

This is where we have the 7 basic plots. The 7 basic plots is a summary developed by Christopher Booker, based on a Jugian influenced analysis of the archetypes as mentioned previously, pre-existing patterns in our psyche. After 34 years of analysis Booker discovered all stories can be categorised into 7 basic plots, which are:

1. Overcoming the Monster

There is an evil force threatening our hero/their world/mankind. 

The hero must fight and slay this monster, which often isn’t easy, but they come out triumphant, and receive a great reward. 

The hero must fight and slay this monster, which often isn’t easy, but they come out triumphant, and receive a great reward. 

Think Beowulf, Dracula and King Kong. We see this plot popping up over and over again in the advertising world.

Applied to branding:

Think of the ‘monster’ as an obstacle, which the hero has to fight to overcome, usually with the help of a brand. 

Your target demographic will more than likely be the hero in this plot.

 

Example from FreeView Play:

Here we have not only literal monsters but also the monster is the idea and the oppression of a right to have things the way you want as an individual and this is threatening the world of the hero.

The product/service is the catalyst that turns the tables for our hero.

2. Rags to Riches

This one is fairly self-explanatory: at the beginning, our hero is insignificant and dismissed by others, but something happens to elevate them, revealing them to be exceptional. 

Think The Ugly Duckling, Aladdin and Superman. 

Applied to branding:

In marketing, how could discovering a product/ brand/ service that you provide be seen to elevate someone, transforming his or her life? Used often in charity, fitness and sports brands, relocation, property, retirement home advertising.

Example from Nike:

Here we have an aspirational story where both the heroes are good at what they do, but are still reaching further. Our two heroes here are surrounded by and wearing symbols of the brand and therefore are being helped by the brand to aspire and achieve.

 

Here is a more classic longer form example:

3. The Quest

In the quest, our hero must set out on a long, hazardous journey to acquire and object or get to a specific place and will battle all obstacles until they are triumphant.

Think The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter.

Applied to branding:

In advertising, we might see our hero/brand channelling the values of the current status quo or zeitgeist as they forge to do good and achieve its goals.

Example from Mercedes:

 

Here we have a clever example of a well-known type of scene in heist films to show off the products of the brand in a situation where you cannot compromise on performance or practicality.

 

4. Voyage and Return

 

While also based on a journey, the Voyage and Return is very different from The Quest.

Here, the hero travels out of their ‘normal world’ into the overwhelming and unknown, before escaping back to the safety of their home. 

Think Alice in Wonderland, Finding Nemo and Gulliver’s Travels.

 

Applied to branding:

How could a brand take you to another world? Can you represent the experience of a product through a journey? 

Example from Apple:

Here we have our hero having been on her daily journey that tries and tests her to where she returns to the magical world of her own home where she can be herself and experience joy (with the help of the brands products)

4. Comedy

A story made up of comedic events, normally involving mistaken identity, misunderstanding or confusion, tending to result in hilarious chaos. 

Think A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Some Like It Hot.

Applied to branding:

Comedy in advertising is often used to show the unfortunate alternative situation that your customer might find himself or herself in if they don’t use your brand/product or even with satire to challenge outdated stereotypes of the old branding or assumptions of the brand. This can show change and that the brand is current as well as ‘siding’ with the customer/audience.

It is important to note here that the plots are about structure and although we are all familiar with comedies, any of the plots can be funny and just because something is funny does not automatically make it ‘the comedy’ it is about misunderstanding or confusion which results in chaos.

Example from SpecSavers:

Here we have a great example of mistaken identity that shows the alternative situation if the service/product of the brand is not in the heroes life.

4. Tragedy

This is a story without a happy ending.

While our other archetypes have seen triumphant heroes and slain monsters, this plot takes a different turn, and ends in loss or death. 

Think Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Breaking Bad.

Applied to branding:

Used with caution, we tend to see tragedy most frequently used hand-in-hand with shock tactics in charity advertising, where the customer is called to action to help change the circumstances.

Example from Hinge:

One of the rare positive twists on this plot. Here the brands selling point is that you need them to not need them anymore. I.e. they will get you what you want and it will be the most important acquisition in your life, so the brand ‘suffers’ a death.

4. Rebirth

Our final plot type, rebirth, sees our hero ‘falling under a dark spell’ –whether this is sleep, sickness or enchantment – before breaking free and being redeemed. 

Think Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and The Secret Garden.

 

Applied to branding:

When applying rebirth to advertising, you might think of ‘the dark spell’ as time away from your brand/product, or maybe your brand can reconnect or re-inspire people?

Example from Dove:

In this example the hero (the customer) sees themselves in a way that the brand disagrees with, they are under the ‘dark spell’ of believing they are average, when the brand sees them as beautiful, saying they are worth more than they believe they are. Here the customer appreciates the values of the brand and then the products associated with it.

What use would this article be if I didn’t at least tell a little story:


Truth approached the gods with a heavy heart. “I don’t know what to do,” Truth said. “Falsehood is far more seductive to the people, and I find myself in trouble. No one wants to listen to me anymore.”

The gods discussed the situation and returned to Truth with a proposal. “For you to be heard again,” they said, “you must present yourself in a new way. People are frightened of you, you have such a solemn demeanour. Falsehood seems more fun, so you must beat it at its own game.”

And so following the idea of the Gods, Truth put on a disguise. It dressed itself up in fiction, making itself more attractive to the people. On its return, people were drawn to it. They were enthralled by its new appearance and listened eagerly to its words and so it was able to reach people.

 

Which of the seven plots is this short story?

 

 

In summary, your story is your message and your message will be far more memorable and connect far better with your intended audience if you are aware of which story you are telling and how to tell it in the best way.

 

Are you looking for help with telling your brand's story?

At h10 agency, we specialise in creating video content for higher education marketing. This ranges from higher end promo videos, through to user-gen and social.

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