Brand storytelling
Marketing Content Strategy

How Emotional Arcs Can Help Brand Storytelling, as Revealed by AI


Emotion plays a crucial role in effective storytelling—including brand storytelling. Whether it’s love, humor, nostalgia, suspense, or even sadness, emotion gives content meaning. A powerful, emotional story reveals the heart and soul of a brand, helping the audience connect on a more fundamental level.

Such stories, of course, are as unique and varied as their storytellers. But taken as a whole, the emotional trajectories underlying stories are surprisingly similar. Computer-based research has shown that the emotional journeys in stories tend to follow just six trajectories. Curiously, the archetypes storytellers tend to favor are not the archetypes readers like the best, researchers from the University of Vermont and University of Adelaide found.

The Research

Researchers utilized a machine to examine about 2,000 works of fiction. Instead of focusing on plot, the program detected the emotional trajectory of each work, based on what happens to the protagonist. The data revealed that each work of fiction tended to fall into one of six computer-generated story arcs, as reported by The Atlantic‘s Adrienne LaFrance:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

The idea that stories share common shapes or archetypes isn’t new; after all, the themes of overcoming obstacles, rebirth, and quests are quite common. What’s unique about this machine-driven analysis is its focus on the overall emotional trajectories—the highs and lows—of stories, not just their plot devices. In order to get at the emotional journey of a story, researchers trained the machine to review all the words in a book in sections, then evaluate the average happiness of a section based on the happiness level of the words. (Words like laughter, happiness, and love were ranked as the happiest words; least happiest words included terrorist, suicide, and rape, among others.)

This analysis revealed the six most common emotional arcs, which the researchers could then connect with common story archetypes.

One of the most common story arcs should be identifiable to most readers: Rags to Riches. Even the concept of the American dream tracks with the Rags to Riches storytelling archetype. Hope and optimism embody these stories—which perhaps explain why they represented 20 percent of all the works of fiction analyzed. In the researchers’ paper, the trajectory of 20 Rags to Riches stories looked like this:

Rags to Riches archetype

Interestingly, even though Rags to Riches is a popular emotional trajectory, it isn’t a reader favorite. Stories that followed the trajectories of Oedipus, Man in a Hole, and Cinderella were all more popular, according to the researchers.

Brands and Emotions

Given the ubiquity of these emotional trajectories in fiction, perhaps its not surprising that brands’ stories would follow a similar path—after all, emotional storytelling is a key component of many brands’ content strategy efforts.

Brands love a good origin story, particularly if that origin is a garage. The “started in a garage” cliché parallels the rags-to-riches archetype. A company that starts with almost nothing in a garage (or a dorm room, take your pick) can become a game-changer through hard work and ingenuity. It’s a classic story of a company rising up from nothing.

Cadillac highlighted this well-known tale in a commercial that lists various brands’ garage-to-riches stories:

The Cinderella storytelling arc is also common among brands. Take Apple, for instance: the company experienced early success before descending into near bankruptcy—until Steve Jobs returned to save the day and steer the company toward impressive innovation and growth.

Chrysler’s commercial featuring Detroit reflects the Man in a Hole archetype—the idea that brands (or a city, in this case) in a tough spot can eventually triumph. “It’s the hottest fires that make the hottest steel,” a narrator intones, emphasizing the idea that the company has risen past even the toughest challenges. (Cue Eminem.)

In Duracell’s tearjerker about a man who needs a hearing aid, the “fall then rise” arc is also very apparent:

Storytelling and Content Strategy

Creating effective brand stories isn’t easy. Even knowing the six storytelling archetypes, there’s no tried-and-true storytelling content strategy or recipe for creating awesome stories on every try.

Still, story archetypes demonstrate that the emotional arcs of brand stories are important. Powerful brand storytelling should mimic the way we tell stories to one another—filled with ups and downs. While storytelling categories shouldn’t be prescriptive, they can help digital marketers think about ways of using emotional highs and lows in their storytelling efforts.

At the same time, marketeres need to be cognizant of clichés. Rags to Riches may be a popular storytelling format, but as the research found, users tend to like other emotional arcs better. Plus, there are only so many rags-to-riches origins stories consumers will take before sensing that your story is scripted.

Stories form a fundamental part of the human experience, providing a way to pass on wisdom, explain the world we live in, and create meaning and context. People are inherently driven to share stories, not content. Focusing on the emotional arc behind the story can help brands understand the type of content users are hard-wired to share.

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