Successful movies, TV series, and books are built on stories of heroes facing insurmountable odds to get what they want. But how can a company or brand raise the stakes? The technique is the same: Stack the odds, save the day, and win the heart of your audience or customer. The trick is in the approach. Not only do you need to think differently about your brand storytelling, you have to be willing to take some risks. Here are a few suggestions on how to better position your brand’s story and take the leap.
Underdogs are expected to lose in a conflict, which is precisely what makes them interesting. The film Rocky is a great example of an underdog story, and (spoiler alert from 1976) lose he does, but what’s great about the story is that the fight with Apollo Creed is not the fight he needs to win. Rocky Balboa needs to win the fight within himself to overcome his own self-doubt. He wins just by entering the ring and the audience loves him for it. The hit TV series Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones both have memorable underdog characters with the odds stacked against them in more and more elaborate ways. Whether it’s drug cartels or treachery, the hero is always something above his or her pay grade. In other words, the hook for the audience is inserted immediately. Because more than anything, we want to see how they get out of this jam. What will the hero do, what tactics and special skills do they have that will win the day?
Image attribution: Hermes Rivera
Take, for example, Breaking Bad’s antihero Walter White. From the first episode, he is an unlikely hero at best—having just been laid off from his job as a high school chemistry teacher, he is diagnosed with cancer and finds out his wife is unexpectedly pregnant. He has two choices—curl up and die, or fight. Option one is not too interesting for a TV show. So here is where our underdog emerges. Expected to do the ordinary—get a job at a drugstore or take out a loan—he makes the decision to cook crystal meth seemingly to keep his family and his pride intact. It’s enjoyable to watch because it’s a special skill we didn’t immediately see, the ah-ha moment—of course, a chemistry teacher would know how to do this. It’s surprising and interesting. We don’t root for him because of our admiration for the drug trade, we root for him because of the challenges he is facing (i.e. the stakes) and how he uses his own arsenal of skills to meet the challenge. Also, the stakes (a family facing bankruptcy, a baby on the way) are relatable. We like emotional stories because they bring life into focus.
In the case of brand storytelling, the character or underdog need not be a person, but your company itself and its unique challenges. A good example of a brand underdog story can be a company narrative—think Clif Bar founder Gary Erikson living in his parents’ garage perfecting the recipe, or Apple and Steve Jobs’ unique approach to design and innovation to become a top brand. However, not every brand’s origin story fits this model, so you need to think outside the box. Is there a challenge you faced as a company in which you were the underdog? Or, even better, is there an underdog brand message that will resonate with your audience?
When brand storytelling can take this underdog message and expand it into a philosophical and universal idea, it’s extremely powerful. Athletic brands tend to have the easiest access to this messaging being that they are built around the idea of a physical challenge. For example, Adidas’ 2004 “Impossible is Nothing” campaign featuring Muhammad Ali is a perfect example. The entire campaign revolved around this quote from Ali:
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
In the first ad of the campaign—”The Long Run”—we see grainy footage Muhammad Ali and a group of people in the middle of a field preparing for a run.
If you know anything about sports, you will recognize the soccer icon David Beckham, long-distance runner Haile Gebrselassie, and NBA star Tracy McGrady. But even if you don’t recognize anyone in the ad, the voice-over drives home a universal message:
“Some people listen to themselves rather than listen to what others say. These people don’t come along very often, but when they do, they remind us that once you set out on a path, even though critics may doubt you, it’s okay to believe that there is no can’t, won’t, or impossible. They remind us that it’s okay to believe impossible is nothing.”
All of the people in the ad are world-class athletes—hardly “underdogs”—but the message is that at some point they were the underdog. Someone doubted them; perhaps they doubted themselves, yet they pushed harder and overcame whatever that obstacle was to reach their goal. This message can apply to a teacher, a lawyer, a baker—anyone. While Adidas spoke directly to their customers and audience, the ad works because the message is universal (not unlike Nike’s “Just Do It”). It’s about meeting a challenge and having a common goal to succeed. It’s a clear yet imprecise message: There will be challenges but there is a goal and it will be met.
For every hero, there is a villain. While you don’t have to create a mustache-twirling man of the shadows for your brand, you do have to establish the force your audience is working against, which your brand solves. It’s a necessary evil of good brand storytelling.
For a logistics company, that force may be timing or location. For an automotive company, this could be roadside dangers—Subaru’s “Love” campaign, which focuses on their safety record, has been very successful.
Another fun one is the Snickers “You’re Not You When Your Hungry” campaign that pits hunger as the villain.
Featuring a slew of celebrity cameos—Betty White as a soft football player, Joe Pesci as an angry guy at a party—these commercials play with the idea of being “hangry” (hungry and angry at the same time). In this case, your hunger is your villain, but it’s a fun way to re-brand a candy bar. While Snickers could have gone the easy route, they took the darker road less traveled and went for a new approach that resonated and created a buzz that went global.
We all work better under pressure because it enhances our motivation to get something done. There is no drama without limitations.
Some of the most satisfying stories have main characters with major limitations—the odds are stacked against them. Think of the classic film, The Godfather. Much of the thrill of the film comes from the protagonist Michael Corleone being forced into a role for which he is not quite ready. As a recent college graduate and military hero, he is being groomed for political greatness, not taking down rival families and becoming the Don of the Corleone family. Not only was he the chosen son who was supposed to “make good” and be a politician, he is also wet behind the ears. Due to a series of limitations—his father being incapacitated, his brother being killed, his other brother being useless—the only choice is Michael, and he, like every hero, rises to the occasion despite the limitations.
How do you get your brand to rise to the occasion without resorting to a crime story line? Nike’s recent “Breaking 2” does this really quickly with an ad focused on breaking the two-hour marathon barrier.
While the world-class runners featured did not succeed, the idea certainly resonated and came through in the storytelling. The iconic Nike “Just Do It” message flashes at the end. In other words, limitations are meant to be tested. As Nike co-founder and track coach Bill Bowerman explained, “The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart.”
By thinking differently and more intentionally about what makes stories compelling, brands can avoid boring an audience and instead raise the stakes and engage.
Want to learn more about brand storytelling? Attend Robert McKee and Tom Gerace’s Storynomics seminar.
Featured image attribution: Cam Adams