Small super hero toy represents a company's brand story and its unlikely protagonist.
Storytelling Content Creation

Why a Brand Story Needs a Hero (Plus 12 Ancient Archetypes to Get You Started)


Imagine your brain activity being measured as you read this list of names:

  • Jay Gatsby
  • Sarah Connor
  • Michael Corleone
  • Don Quixote
  • Sister Mary Clarence
  • Holden Caulfield
  • Scarlett O’Hara
  • Jack Sparrow
  • Marge Gunderson
  • Aibileen Clark
  • Indiana Jones

You may never realize just how much neural commotion ensues when you recognize a name or two (or eight) from this list—but more happens “up there” than you can imagine. Each story represented in this list evokes a powerful neurological response when the memory is called up.

And the same result is possible when followers recall a brand story.

In his 2015 TED talk, Assistant Professor Uri Hasson from the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University described an experiment wherein viewers were shown an episode of the BBC’s Sherlock for the first time, then asked to describe the episode to someone who’d never seen it. As the storyteller explained characters and events, his brain showed a unique pattern of activity. Simultaneously, as the listener absorbed each plot twist, his or her brain activity lit up in the same ways. The more the storyteller elaborated, the more synchronized the two brains were.

Now, imagine a diverse room full of people—a mix of ages, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds. A hodgepodge of political stances, world views, loves, hates, hurts, and joys. Next, imagine their minds all in sync with yours. By default, all those brains would also be coupled with one another. It would be beautiful. And the one tool proven capable of achieving this is story.

Trying to craft a company’s brand story can feel like an exercise in futility, though, if they don’t have a sexy plot to feature. Doesn’t a good narrative require drama, intrigue,
redemption . . . and some computer-generated explosions, or something?

Actually, no. It doesn’t.

All a good story needs is a hero to applaud. Real life does the rest.

You don't need a catchy plot line to tell your brand story. All you need is a protagonist worth rooting for.

The Character

Consumer behavior and technology have reinvented the wheel, so you don’t have to. Storytelling is the only constant in a rapidly changing world. Sure, the wise marketing team might use the hottest apps and lingo, but it doesn’t look to novel, flashy storytelling concepts for the actual story. No, when it comes to content creation, an astute creative uses the one element that has made storytelling a cultural glue for thousands of years: the ancient archetype protagonist.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, organized the twelve archetypes of characters humans have always followed, and for whom humanity will always pull. Where in your life do you see each one?

1. The Creator

Shutterfly highlighted the creator archetype by depicting memories as a medium for art. The creator is often visual, sometimes musical, occasionally artistic, but always productive. What he builds may not always be valuable to others, but the urge to create remains. His goal is to make vision reality.

2. The Ruler

This protagonist, shown by Aston Martin here, needs order. Her order. She’s doing it for the benefit of the group, so what could go wrong? (Lots, as you know.) She’ll take responsibility for the inferiors, if that’s what’s needed. The goal is to achieve greatness, and the means: control. A smart brand gives the ruler archetype exactly that.

3. The Caregiver

This nurturing soul’s life purpose is to lift others up, defend them, and ensure their success. P&G used a smart angle to highlight her in their 2016 Rio Games ad. You’ll know this persona from her actions, not her communications.

4. The Jester

Knock-knock! (Who’s there?) It’s the funny guy whose goal is to connect with others, and whose talent for spotting silly makes it possible. Louis CK—or, rather, his tummy bagel—was featured as the funny guy in this cringe-worthy CK One ad. This protagonist’s weakness is the tendency to waste time, so be sure to position this protagonist as an entertainer only, not an answer.

5. The Lover

Bless his heart, he’s so sweet, the lover. Idealism is his thing, and he won’t stop until he finds it. Since there’s a little lover in all of us, we feel for this character as he searches for deeper and deeper connections.

6. The Everyman

This is you. It’s me. It’s your human spouse and your normal coworker. It’s the train conductor and the grocer. The everyman-as-protagonist story like the It’s a 10 spot shown during the Superbowl shows that these heroic people do more each day for Metropolis than Superman could in one of his dramatic episodes.

7. The Hero

Here he comes! The hero will master the problem and leave an enduring mark on the world. Jimmy John’s shows a protagonist whose inner hero is only one mishap away. We’ll sing songs about the hero’s courage when he’s gone, since that’s what he wants. Possibly the opposite of your “everyman,” this onlyman runs toward an explosion when others run away.

8. The Magician

Possibly the one who caused the aforementioned explosion, your magician craves the same power the hero does, but prefers crafty cunning to the white horse. Today, he’s your certified ethical hacker. Tesco Mobile Shopping App recently nailed this archetype by showing a modern-day amateur magician winning at his own game.

9. The Rebel

Dodge Ram got this one right in an ad that features Mom’s nagging voice as it follows one extreme adventurer after another. In an office, a rebel archetype is the one who insists curse words in the brand’s communications will get and keep readers’ attention. He’s the disrupter in a world full of marketers who crave authorship of that one disruptive idea. Outrageous, polarizing, and occasionally dark, the rebel won’t stand for what’s not working in anyone’s current marketing strategy.

10. The Explorer

The wandering soul. The nonconformist who doesn’t enjoy rebelling but certainly won’t go where you say. The one whose curiosity is so strong it’s almost aggravating
. . . almost. Unsurprisingly, Airbnb puts this archetype front and center in many of its ads.

11. The Sage

Like the magician, the sage loves contemplating the unseen details of a situation. Unlike the magician, however, he desires understanding. Not power. A sage may be the office know-it-all when not challenged with a true mystery.

12. Innocent

The innocent’s deepest desire is paradise. To get there, he usually clings to safety and uprightness. Some would call him a saint. Others would call him a bore. Nationwide has been smart to use a kid—not a naive grownup—as an innocent archetype.

To keep things interesting, remember that the best protagonists can change over time. Your caregiver may morph into a rebel when she’s trying to process a trauma, for example, and the lover can become an explorer if his search becomes a journey. Some heroes (Michael Jordan, for example) have been shown in an everyman light in order to feature a quirk of life or a daily-use product.

Telling your client’s story couldn’t be easier, since historical literature and the human brain have pretty much handed you a dozen drag-and-drop templates (in the form of these archetype protagonists) that you can use in your content creation. Whether a company’s particular product is the sword in your hero’s hand, the road on which your adventurer travels, or the sidekick with an answer, the main character’s success will always be linked to it.

True story.

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Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and the Content Marketing Institute currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's gig economy. For more, visit

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