By Robert Rose published January 3, 2012

Content Marketing Storytelling: Secrets from the Big Screen

This past September, I was honored to speak at Content Marketing World. My talk was called “Storytelling Secrets From Hollywood.” Since that time, I’ve had a few people ask me for the slides. Inspired by these requests, I’ve been having some fun learning about video-editing programs. So here, I thought I’d go one step further and develop a little video for CMI readers.

The video embedded below is the basis of my presentation at Content Marketing World 2011.  I’ve since added some more visual elements to the storytelling — including clips from some of the movies I reference. (Hopefully, I’ve made them a little more fun to watch). Of course, if you’re interested in viewing the on-demand version of my talk, it’s available here.

Creating Your Brand Journey

If there’s one question about content marketing that gets asked almost as much as “What’s the business case?” it is simply this: “What should we talk about?”

Chris Brogan and some others have recently written that the customer is your story, and as much as I love Chris and appreciate his work, I disagree with him here.

The Customer is Your Audience for Your Brand’s Story

The customer is not your hero. The customer is the one you want to take on the journey — the one who, at the end, identifies with, is inspired by and/ or is influenced by the hero. Should your audience be placed in the middle of your story? Well that’s for you to decide as the creator of the content marketing effort.

Your brand should always be the hero that will be transformed. Joe Pulizzi and I talk about this in Chapter 3 of our book, Managing Content Marketing. At its heart, the answer is to weave a compelling, emotionally connected story around your brand.  

In 2012 and beyond, the main reason you will be successful is because you have a specialized expertiseand because you can create a differentiated experience for your customers with that expertise. You (ideally) have a passion for the BIG idea that this expertise represents, and you’ve asked the question, “What business are we really in?”

So, in this presentation (and in the book, with much more detail), we go through the stages of what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey,” translating it into what we call “The Brand Hero’s Journey.”

This is a construction (certainly not a template) that you can use to help brainstorm and create an emotionally engaging story for your own content marketing programs.

It’s Your Story: Make it Remarkable!

Image courtesy of Flickr/Graham Smith

Your unique brand story is one of the five core elements for running successful, scalable content marketing operations. Read our 2016 Content Marketing Framework: 5 Building Blocks for Profitable, Scalable Operations for an overview of the full strategic blueprint. 

Author: Robert Rose

Robert Rose is the Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory - the education and advisory group of The Content Marketing Institute. As a strategist, Robert has worked with more than 500 companies including global brands such as Capital One, Dell, Ernst & Young, Hewlett Packard, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Robert is the author of three books. His latest, Killing Marketing, with co-author Joe Pulizzi has just been released. His last book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing, was called a “treatise, and a call to arms for marketers to lead business innovation in the 21st century.” You can hear Robert on his weekly podcast with co-host Joe Pulizzi, "This Old Marketing”. Robert is also an early-stage investor and advisor to a number of technology startups, serving on the advisory boards for a number of companies, such as Akoonu, DivvyHQ and Tint. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_Rose.

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  • Anonymous

    Your brand is the hero of your story. I could not agree more. We don’t want our customers to be the heroes. We want them to identify with the heroes. Funny you should write this post now. I’m reading “Story” by Robert McKee. At the beginning of the book, Mr. McKee says that story is a vehicle through which we understand reality. I think it’s the same way with branding in business. We want our brands to be the basis on which customers find meaning in their lives. Succesful brands connet with customers in this way. Succssful brands tell stories that customers internalize and adapt as their own.

  • Robert Rose

    Thanks so much for the kind words…. And – Bingo!  You and I are thinking similarly… I actually took the McKee class here in Los Angeles twice in the 90’s….I actually got to experience first hand the classic scene that you see in the movie Adaptation (here’s the scene:  Note: some NSFW language).  I think his book “Story” I think should be required reading for any student of marketing.

  • Stephanie Diamond

    Robert, this video is phenomenal.  It should be required viewing for every marketer. Congratulations on creating a classic of your own.

    • Robert Rose

      wow.. thanks so much for the kind words…I so appreciate it.

  • Brian Clark

    Hi Robert. I see what you’re saying, but I worry that this leads most marketers back into the trap of brand-centric marketing, which is usually ineffective, often bad.

    Using Campbell’s Hero’s Journey paradigm, I like to think of the hero as someone the customer can easily identify with. Let’s not forget that they’re the ones going on the journey in order to solve a problem of satisfy a desire, not the brand.

    The brand plays the role of the wise mentor who helps accomplish the goal. So, the customer is Skywalker, the brand is Obi-Wan.

    This is another way to look at brand stories that manages to celebrate a prospect’s favorite person (themselves) while still placing the brand in a highly desirable position in the all important mind of the prospective customer or client. Not the hero, but still indispensable.

    When you prompt brands to ask “What business are we really in?” you’re really asking them to identify what they’re really selling. That’s another way of asking, what core emotion am I satisfying for my customer?

    There are times when a brand-centric story works, but that just means that the story managed to do the trick of satisfying the the core emotion. That’s much easier said than done, as has been demonstrated constantly by scores of brand-centric campaigns that forget what they’re actually selling and fail badly.

    My 2 cents. 😉

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you so much for the alternative point of view…  These are excellent points…

      I don’t disagree with having the Customer at the “center” of the story… In fact, I say as much in the piece.  I think the customer (in many cases) does need someone to identify with – but in the case of the Hero’s Journey – I would advocate that it’s the Brand we want the customer to identify with – not themselves.

      At the end of the day – we are the author of the brand’s story – not the customer’s. 

      And, yes, I’d agree to your “what business are we really in” point…. It is that core emotion… I’d quibble slightly to the “what we’re really selling” – and phrase it as “what we really stand for”… Or, you put it even better – with “what core emotion am I satisfying”… Basically – what’s the bigger story we’re trying to tell…  

      So – yeah coming back to your first point – as much as there are different story structures (hero’s journey, save the cat, 5 act, 3 act etc..) I’d agree with you that sometimes the brand-centric story doesn’t work.  But as you point out at the end – much of it’s in the execution and not in the validity of the idea itself. 

      • Andy Kaiser

        I liked and used the idea of making the costumer de hero of the story. The customer as Jason, and the brand the Argonauts. But now I think I will change the hero of the story. The brand is my new hero 🙂

  • Karla Williams

    This post is very timely with what I have been struggling with.  I am a writer of proposals, white papers and other content in the government contracting space.  A dry and boring space by definition, but it longs for story.  I have a new client with an exciting new product that cries out to be the hero in the story where the customer’s problems are solved.  I’m still trying to sell them on content, but hopefully thhe references in this piece will give me some new ideas.  Thanks for this informative piece which I hope to incorporate on my blog in the days to come!

  • Laura Lear

    The brands who get storytelling down are the ones who win in 2012!  We are continually working to evolve the NCM Fathom story and it’s much more difficult than one would think at first glance.  I think there is fear out there that if you put your story forward but you’ve picked the wrong storyline to start with, what do you do then?  I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on course correcting and/or evolving a story.  

    Also, as audiences connect with you and engage, they add insight into what may be your REAL storyline, which does, as Brian discusses below, put the customer back into the center of your story.  Fascinating topic and one that I am committed to mastering going forward.  Thank you for great insight into this topic.

    • Robert Rose

      Thanks… Yeah, it’s a great question.  And I think Brian Clark below makes some great alternative points of view on the risks of going “all in” (as it were) on a brand-centric strategy.

      It IS difficult.  Good execution IS hard for sure.  Quick story (just to keep the metaphor going here).  More than 30,000 screenplays are submitted to the Writer’s guild each year.   Consider that there are about 15 releases per Studio every year… With six major studios left that means that there’s roughly 90-100 movies per year…  Writing a good, emotionally connected story that also engages a large audience is hard and good writers are rare….   But then.. that’s why you get the big bucks right?

      But to answer your question directly – you’re always course correcting.  I don’t want to drive the metaphor into the ground here (for fear of abusing it) but a little unlike movies – Brand Stories are a little more like Broadway Plays (or even TV Series)…. You have the ability to test them out on audiences – and make subtle changes even after you’ve gone live…  This where good measurement comes in – and a plan to map those stories against goals… When you have content that’s not resonating with your personas – you make changes.   Hopefully these changes are feeding into a successful larger story – but if not you make a larger correction (it still might be called a re-branding, or re-messaging the core value proposition).      

      And to Brian’s point on putting the customer central to your story – yeah, that’s a story too…. Definitely your customer is contributing, and may even be a central part of one or multiple parts of your larger story.  I think of the Zappos story as a great example of that….

      I guess the key – and this is something that I’m taking away as learning for me in this process (a course-correction if you will) is that I should make the point more clearly that there’s not just ONE brand story.  There may be many.  But they feed into a larger idea.   There was an entire universe built upon the Star Wars Story.  Certainly multiple stories there that transcended three simple movies… 

      I’m hoping some of that’s helpful.  Thanks for the great comment.

  • J Geibel

    This is really trying to shoehorn the Solution Selling[r] process into scriptwriting. ACT I, II and II are simply classic Solution Selling (Mike Bosworth’s consultative selling process). Also – any discussion of script doctors should include Robert McKee’s definitive text “Story”.

    • Robert Rose

      I’m a fan of Solution Selling – and know the methodology well – and am afraid I don’t really see the connection… Other than the “problem solving” aspects of both storytelling and solution selling… But, then again that might just be me…… And, yes – I’ve taken the McKee Story structure class twice… His book is great – but of course VERY focused on Screenwriting… You might get a kick out of checking out the comment exchange I had with Doug (below) where we talk about McKee…

  • Anonymous

    Loving the Homer’s Odyssey Brand approach here. 🙂 Curious to how much you think the audience or customer should feel like they have an active stake in the success of the brand they’re following via these epic tales. Does that take too much emphasis away from the brand or does it just include the audience more?

    • Robert Rose

      Ha… Yes… The Odyssey… Let’s just hope we don’t have to face what Odysseus in our marketing…..  I think that the audience’s active participation in the story is completely up to you as the author of it.  Their involvement is really part of the overall experience and the tale you are telling… I don’t think either is a better choice – they’re just different experiences.

  • 45SURF

    Cool work! You’ll also love the words and videos here regarding Hero’s Journey Mythology: :

    The same classical values guiding the rising artistic renaissance will protect the artists’ intellectual property. The immortal ideals which guide the story of blockbuster books and movies such asThe Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Braveheart,The Chronicles of Narnia, and Star Wars, are the very same ideals underlying the United States Constitution. These classic ideals–which pervade Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, and the Bible–are the source of both epic story and property rights, of law andbusiness, of academia and civilization.
    It is great to witness classical ideals performed in Middle Earth, upon the Scottish Highlands, long ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, and in Narnia, but too, such ideals must be perpetually performed in the contemporary context and living language.