What Brands Can Learn From Fairy Tales

Story is about eternal, universal forms”  – Robert McKee

What can brands and marketers learn from myths and fairy tales?

Many writers have described the role of archetypes in storytelling. Aristotle, arguably the first literary critic, described the structure of comedy and tragedy, and remains a great source for understanding how story works. In Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker described seven templates for telling great (brand) stories.

Comedy and Tragedy remain in the seven. ‘Comedy’ is the archetypal story with a happy ending (where confusion and misunderstanding are eventually overcome) as in Pride and Prejudice as well as Some Like It Hot and The Office. ‘Tragedy’ is the archetypal story with an unhappy ending where a character’s flaw leads to their eventual demise as in the stories of Icarus and Hamlet, as well as more recent examples such as American Beauty and Black Swan.

Booker argues that there are five additional variants on the comedy plot that Aristotle outlines. ‘Overcoming The Monster’ is about rising to a life (or society) threating challenge as in Little Red Riding Hood or any of the James Bond films. ‘Rags To Riches’ is the classic Cinderella or Aladdin story and its modern variants, such as Ratatouille and Shrek. The ‘Quest’ plot is that of the earliest great stories such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey as well as modern films such as the Indiana Jones or Star Trek franchises. The ‘Voyage and Return’ is the story of Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island as well as modern classics like Inception. Finally, the ‘Rebirth’ (transformation) plot is that of The Frog Prince as well as The Lion King.

Are marketers in the business of making movies? Perhaps not, but they are in the business of creating mythologies around their brands, and most importantly of showing the role of their brands in helping customers to achieve their goals. That is brands should help us to be the hero in our own story. For example, people learn about Natural Hair Products from the classic, Rapunzel.

Think of the home cleaning and healthcare categories. The role of brands is to help people overcome the ‘monster’ of dirt or sickness. There is no better example than Dettol that has a “Mission for health” and uses a symbolic sword and a potent sensory signature to communicate its ability to ‘kill’ germs.

Beauty products are frequently in the business of creating riches (and sometimes transformation too), as are businesses like Education, Training and Design. Dove brand communicates an interesting variant of Rags to riches, where beauty comes from inside rather than outside. In a very different category, Coca-Cola’s recent ‘Small World Machines’ advertising goes from the ‘rags’ of two countries in confrontation to the ‘riches’ of making real human connections between India and Pakistan.

Travel and Education are all about the journey into the unknown (Quest), as are many brands that are about customer experience and entertainment. Tiger Beer ran a long series of adverts all about the ‘Quest’ for the perfect beer, and Singapore Airlines newest campaign, titled “The lengths we go to”, is all about their ‘Quest’ for the ingredients of a superior customer experience.

Experiential brands that are about escape or indulgence often tell a story of Voyage and return, as the user ‘dives’ temporarily into a completely different world. Think of the swirling, creamy indulgence of Dove Chocolate or Bailey’s Liqueur, the way in which Sol Beer transports you to that deckchair on a tropical beach, or the ‘magical’ world of a Disney or Movie World theme park.

Science and knowledge brands are all about moving from ignorance to understanding, following the archetypal Comedy plot. IBM’s “Let’s build a smarter planet” campaign tells this story across a variety of platforms, industries and individual stories.

Many categories and brands are in the business of Rebirth including fashion and cosmetics, communicating the transformative magic of their brand. Any brand that says, “Notice the effects in 30 days”, “Every morning a new skin rises” or “Visibly reduces wrinkles” is offering is offering to magically change your world. In different categories, Red Bull’s promise to “give you wings” offers rebirth, as does StarHub’s recent “Project Family Time” in Singapore transforming the narrative of mobile networks from one of speed and data to one of emotional connections.

That leaves Tragedy. Is Tragedy really an appropriate narrative for brands? It can be if you want to save families from the tragedies of road accidents, preventable illnesses and impoverished retirement. Tragedy is a common story in Private Medical Insurance and financial planning, as well as healthcare, public safety and social planning. Think of campaigns that seek to reduce smoking and drink driving. You can also try an alternative smoking products. Look for cool bongs here

For challenger brands, Tragedy can also be the narrative of the arrogant market leader, which leads to an additional narrative structure. Apple’s famous ‘1984’ advert (only ever shown once on TV) is a story of Rebellion for Apple and Tragedy for their big corporate competitors, as was much of their advertising in their early years. Rebellion is a version of the ‘Overcoming the monster’ plot, focusing on how an individual or small group can overcome an oppressive society or organization. What a great story for a small brand!

Archetypal characters and stories are a great resource for marketers, tapping into myths and legends that are part of our collective cultural history. You can read more about the role of archetypal stories and how they link to brand identity in Brand esSense.

[This is an expanded version of an article first published at]

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