If you ask most companies who the hero of their brand story is, an alarming number will point to themselves, the brand. They are, sadly, mistaken. More importantly, they could be losing customers, if not in sheer numbers then certainly in emotional buy-in. When brands focus on themselves and how great their story is, customers lose interest, wondering what’s in it for them. To build engagement beyond a transaction, the brand must step out of the spotlight and turn its focus on the customer’s personal quest.
Among creative writers and literary theorists, there’s a well-known concept called the "Hero’s Journey." Also known as the monomyth, it was introduced by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces. The Hero’s Journey is a story structure that underpins nearly every narrative you know and love, from ancient myths to modern blockbusters. The construct survived throughout the history of storytelling because it focuses on a character.
In other words, it’s about people, not product.
Turning this lens on consumers, we start to see how each individual who interacts with a brand is on a personal quest to make his/her life the best it can be. This could mean purchasing a car that will get them where they need to go while protecting their family and saving money on gas. Or it could be picking the perfect outfit to make them feel like their best self. The car or piece of clothing in itself doesn’t matter. What matters is the person using them and how each product fits into the puzzle of their lives.
What great brands understand is that while they may be the hero of their own story, they’re only a sidekick at best in their consumers’ lives. They are Obi Wan teaching Luke Skywalker about The Force or Q handing James Bond the exact gadget he’ll need to complete his mission. In terms of the Hero’s Journey, the brand is the mentor that provides the hero customer with the tools and guidance they’ll need to achieve their goals.
The prime example of this is, of course, Apple, that monolith of a brand that is often held up by strategists as a company who gets it and one that inspires rabid loyalty in its fans. Simon Sinek has attributed Apple’s success to its focus on why instead of what, but I would take it a step further. It is not simply that Apple knows why they do what they do (and equally important, why they don’t do things that other companies do). They focus on why that matters to the individual, the customer.
Watch an Apple commercial and you’ll see…people. People taking pictures of their loved ones in portrait mode, people strolling and dancing down the street thanks to wireless Air Pods, people tracking their real movements on the Apple Watch. And now, in their newest campaign, people tweeting their problems which are solved by the iPad Pro. And here, Apple has reached peak Obi Wan: “Here, Luke is your lightsaber, your Force. Take it and make your life better. We’ll be over here, building something new to solve a problem you didn’t even know you had.”