By Robert Rose published March 1, 2013

Brand Storytelling: 10 Steps to Start Your Content Marketing Hero’s Journey

brand storytelling journeyAs a content marketer, you have probably heard the call for us all to become brand storytellers. While this sounds great in theory, the tricky part for many companies is determining how to develop these stories in the first place. 

There are no hard-and-fast rules for developing your brand’s stories, but you can go back and look at classic storytelling and structure as a helpful map to guide you. For example, the classic “hero’s journey” from Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Facesoutlines what he calls the “monomyth” — which is a pattern that many believe can be found in almost every narrative around the world. 

Campbell’s point is that storytelling across time shares a fundamental structure and can be summarized into this journey. Later, in 1992, screenwriter and story consultant Christopher Vogler took Campbell’s structure, modernized it for today’s audiences, and reduced it to 12 stages in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers. This made the stages much more approachable for today’s writers — and is now mandatory reading for any novel or screenwriter. Vogler’s hero’s journey is this: 

the hero's journey

There are ways to use this hero’s journey to develop your own pillars of content — your own stories. In Managing Content Marketing, Joe and I reduced Vogler’s stages to 10 steps for developing your content marketing brand journey. But before I jump in to explain those 10 steps, know that this is just a framework, not a “to-do” list or a template. The structure is meant to provide a platform to help you to develop a way to tell your story, or maybe to discover what’s missing from your existing story. It’s not a template for the story — this is an important distinction, because your story will be unique to you, your brand, and the experience you are trying to create.

brand storytelling jouney 

Step 1: The conventional market

This is your brand’s world — and as you brainstorm your pillars of content, you should know and be able to define the conventional:

  • What does your market look like?
  • Where are your competitors situated?
  • Why do they currently identify with your brand?

Step 2: The challenge

This is your big “What if?“:

  • What if XYZ were actually true?
  • What would the world look like if you could actually realize that “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG) that you’ve set out for your brand?
  • What is the call to adventure for your product?
  • What’s the big promise?
  • Why hasn’t this been done?
  • Why haven’t you done it yet?
  • What’s the pain that the conventional market feels now?
  • What will you need to add to your story to let your audience know what will be left behind?
  • Are you conflicted about this?
  • What will be the effect of this change on your existing brand?
  • Who in your company (or outside of it) can help you take this adventure?
  • Who will provide guidance for your brand as it makes this journey? Is it you? Is it your CEO? Or, do you even have that person? Is it more than one person? Can you get someone external for this?
  • Will you need to conjure an imaginary character to act as your sage or mentor?
  • Who can stand in front of the world and credibly tell your audience that you are going on this journey together?

Step 3: The rejection of the challenge

Step 4: Appointment of the sage

Step 5: Crossing into the unfamiliar

This is where you burn the ships so that you can’t go back. Ultimately, in your content marketing, your brand must take a definitive point of view that is differentiated — and it will cross into your new “what if?” idea. This is the unknown — and it’s what you are exploring:

  • How will you communicate this crossing into this new idea — this new adventure?
  • How will you lead your audience into this new unknown with you?

Step 6: Map the road of challenges

Part of this step is unknown to you as an author, but you can use it to determine how you’ll gather friends. Or maybe you’ll take a strong point of view that may actually create enemies, or controversy:

  • Who will your brand align with?
  • How can they help you move forward?
  • What tests to your brand’s legitimacy will it face in the unknown?
  • Who will be the naysayers?
  • What tests and challenges can you plan for?
  • What skills will your brand need to address?

Step 7: The final challenge

As your brand faces these challenges, attracts and aligns with friends, and establishes a differentiated point of view, it should establish itself as differentiated — as a leader:

  • What will it ultimately achieve?
  • What learned skills (or attributes) will your organization take into the final challenge?
  • What will that final challenge be?

This is the culmination of your brand story. In the larger sense, you may never want your brand’s (your hero’s) story to end. And this content marketing campaign may be but one episode in your story. But this final challenge is what you have to overcome to get to the possibility of the “what if?“…

Step 8: Looking back

Take a look back at the ordinary world. Your brand is different now. How do you show that differentiation?

Step 9: The final renewal

Your brand’s story is never going to end, and you are now ready to continue on your journey. But you may encounter new, formidable challenges now that you are a changed entity: 

  • What ambush could — or will — your brand face now that it is different?
  • What will the competition say about you now — and how do you continue?


Step 10: The celebration

This is you realizing the dream. Celebrating. It’s the final part of your story. 

There you have it — the structure. It can be used across one small content marketing initiative — or across an entire strategy of content marketing across the enterprise. Changing the level of hero from product, to brand, to service can make it more interesting, and enables you to explore ever more creative “webs” of stories among them.

This story structure — which is inherently linear — can also help you structure your content into a story map. The story map helps to organize your pieces of content across a timeline. It compels you to think of your content pieces as “chapters” or “scenes,” and can help reveal the gaps. It may resemble a high-level editorial calendar — but is structured with a focus on telling your complete brand story as you continue along your content development process.

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. 

This piece was excerpted and edited from “Managing Content Marketing by Robert Rose and Joe Pulizzi.

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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  • Aasma

    Hey Robert,

    Really brief article, I must say content marketing starts with proper planning. If your planning is lacking then you won’t be able to see desired results.

    • Robert Rose

      Aasma, no doubt about it. In fact this piece is Chapter 3 in the book… The first two are all about building business cases and building your plan…

  • Muhiiga Katashaya

    This is awesome. When I read it I think of a hollywood flick…

  • Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

    I love the infographic you’ve created (along with the explanations) of how to utilize the hero’s journey framework. It’s something I’ve been teaching my branding clients for awhile now, and wholeheartedly agree on its helpfulness. A second infographic/article on putting your brand in the position of sage/mentor (and THEIR client as the hero) would also be great.

    • Robert Rose

      Tea… Thanks for that… And a wonderful idea. I may take you up on that.

  • Chris Olson

    This is absurd and pretentious. The heavy apparatus of Joseph Campbell hardly suits brand stories, which must fit a space the size of a post-it note and can hardly accommodate the narrative structures that Campbell was contemplating. This article’s intellectual pretense has the same weight as the mythic emperor’s clothes.

    • Robert Rose

      Chris…. Sorry you feel that way. It’s not meant to be so. I would hardly call Campbell “heavy apparatus” – and I’ve actually found using the framework helpful in my work. But, hey – if it doesn’t work for you please disregard it.

      • Chris Olson

        Have you actually read Campbell? You don’t call Jungian archetypes, the collective psyche, comparative religion and comparative mythology East and West heavy apparatus?
        You are snatching a dry twig from the ground next to a large branching tree but you want to claim the tree for yourself. Why don’t you give an example of how you have found Campbell helpful in a brand story? I suspect a few plain principles from story structure — voice, character, rising action, conflict, resolution — would be adequate to explain the usefulness you claim.

        • Robert Rose

          Well now who’s being pretentious? Yes, of course I’ve read Campbell. I’m a fan. But I reject the premise of your comparison. I’ve never suggested – nor do I in this post – that the sum of Campbell’s writing is the basis of this. That’s like saying I can’t communicate the value of arithmetic without the audience understanding algebra.

          Do I think that *everyone* could benefit from reading The Mythic Image, or The Masks of God – which detail what you’re talking about? Sure. It’s great stuff for English Lit nerds like me (and perhaps you).

          But if you’d read the post (which I’m suspecting now you didn’t) you’d see that I’m suggesting Christopher Vogler’s work in The Writer’s Journey as the helpful basic structure here. That, in itself, is derivative (or your dry twig if you will). So, yes – in your words *simply* the Hero’s Journey (story, structure, rising conflict, character archetypes) is the suggestion for helping to structure more meaningful brand stories.

          And, yes, it’s been helpful in *real* client examples. I’d invite you to check out our client list – and even some of the comments in this post for *actual* companies that we’ve worked with…

          You may be right… This, indeed, may be only a dry twig next to a large, branching tree… But if you light that twig on fire – you get a decent amount of heat.

          • Chris Olson

            Not being pretentious at all. I asked you if you had read Campbell only because I was incredulous that you did not find him “heavy apparatus” for brand story telling. Rather than simply supply an example of the connection, as I suggested, you referred me to your client list and to cheering acolytes in the comments section. Is the cachet of red herring in the air?

            Your comparison to arithmetic and algebra is on point. YOU don’t need algebra (Campbell) to explain arithmetic (brand story telling). I am not suggesting that anyone read Campbell. I have not read Vogler. As you point out, he is derivative. That makes your use third-hand.

  • Doug Kessler

    Love this.
    The Campbell Myth may not map exactly to marketing stories but you’ve shown the relevance here and really made me think about our own stories. Nice one!

    • Robert Rose

      Thank you Doug… As always… Indeed… As Vogler says (much more elegantly than I ever will) it’s not exactly a map – but can govern storytelling in the same way that the practice of physics governs the physical. So – a framework where we can self-discover the strengths and weaknesses of whatever narrative we’re trying to create.

  • Offpiste_man

    This is really interesting, but my brand has reached about step 7 – any advice ?

  • Sasha Zinevych

    This is a great article! Do you think it is important to create a particular character associated with your content marketing? If yes, when should a company do it?

    • Robert Rose

      Only to the extent that it serves what you’re trying to do… Some companies do VERY well at that… The “Most Interesting Man In The World” comes leaping to mind… Others create multiple characters that serve a larger story in a more episodic way (e.g. Red Bull does this well)… And others leave it to the brand itself to almost always be the central piece… (a la Apple). There’s definitely no *one* right way. It’s up to you.

  • tammy vitale

    This is AWESOME! another great story outline is Neil Gaiman’s poem, Instructions – the absolute distillation of fairytale motif.

    • Robert Rose

      Tammy… YES! I love Neil Gaiman… And that’s a wonderful suggestion. Definitely more metaphorical – but a lovely read… Including a link to the poem here:

  • Kelly LeVoyer

    Hi Robert — I can attest to the usefuleness of thinking in terms of heroes and story maps, we’re implementing it as we speak at SAS. It’s a great tool to use with the marketers to lift us all out of product-speak and into the mindset of telling a good story. We’ve applied the story map concept to 2 initiatives now, and people are adopting it like crazy. It works!

  • largo

    I had no idea there was a content marketing institute. Does there need to be one then?

  • Kevin Dam

    Nice piece Robert.

    I’ve known about Campbell’s story telling method for a while and I try to explain it to my clients all the time, and further try to incorporate it into their brands “Start With Why”.

    Have you had much success in creating a story from start to finish, and also getting buy in from your clients? Your graphic will definitely help me on my quest so to speak, kudos to you.

  • Table for 1, Please!

    Excellent translation for content marketers. I will use to help other authors as they write to brand themselves and leverage for my marketing consultant work.

  • Shaman Kothari

    Awesome piece! This article was so interesting that I decided to buy Campbell’s book. Thanks again!

  • Matt

    I very much agree, I think storytelling is vital in today’s society, with that brands need to ensure they are able to effectively create a brand story.

    Could you give me your views on this;

    Do you think brand storytelling is enough to create marketing communication effectiveness?

  • Andreas Wieland

    The essence of the so-called stories is always the benefit for customers or stakeholders of the product or the service the story is centered around. As CM is a multimedia thing, also a photograph can tell a story. In this case symbols or the quality of the photo is essential to transport the message.

  • Sharyn Sears

    The hero’s journey strikes me as an applicable team building tool — engaging internal teams to discover what is the narrative driving us forward? What would returning like a hero look like? This could be used a tool to investigate the real strengths of a company and create the story you’d like it to look back on after a launch. Finally, it’s a great tool for understanding the customer’s own journey as well, they too face peril out there on the high seas!

  • David Hoo

    Should your product be the hero, or should your customer be the hero?

    • Bruce W. Spurr

      Hero is ALWAYS the customer.
      The sage/mentor is generally you/your company.

      The brand hero story is about your customers journey from known to unknown, or put it another way…
      without in their lives to with you in their lives.

      And how with you in their lives they’ll gain a new experience.

      Simple example — Pepsi young forever campaign.
      Customer -> aging consumer or young consumer w/o a cola brand loyalty
      Mentor -> Pepsi comes along and says here is a can of pepsi, feel young forever
      Challenge -> responsibility, stress, anxiety of future

      The hero branded story doesn’t have to be complex, it just has to be consistent in all it’s tell tales.

  • Tugboat Group

    Joseph Campbell is a legendary genius, with this roadmap and continual stream of quality insights, you and Joe are paving your way towards your own unique path of greatness. Long live the storytellers.