The Hero With a Thousand Faces – The Mythic Brand
(This article first appeared on influential.com.au)
A great brand is more than a logo, business name and tagline, they stand for something unique and special, they powerful emotional and subconscious perceptions of value, meaning and status which are unique to that brand. This translates as loyalty, trust, and connection among their customers.
Creating a great brand really relies on expressing your essence as a story which people connect with on a deeper level. Many people and businesses can’t imagine summing themselves up in a story. They feel like “But I’m pretty boring”, or “Everyone knows what I do” or “I’m an accountant and I help people with tax returns”. Naturally, if that’s your story, people aren’t going to get excited or interested in what you can do for them. Many of us just can’t imagine writing an interesting story at all.
In reality though, there are threads of meaning, motivation and values that run through our lives which can guide us in developing a meaningful story. If you think of why you started doing what you do, or what made you choose one path over another at critical junctions in your career, you will get ideas about what makes you tick. Likewise if you ask your friends or clients their strongest memories of you, or why they choose to do business with you, you may get surprising results or they may confirm your expectations about what is special and distinctive about you.
We can turn this into a great story by following a narrative structure, such as setup, conflict, resolution, which helps ensure the story is engaging, meaningful and satisfying.
When creating a brand story we want to move beyond simply a nice or interesting story. Brands are built of symbols, meaning and feelings as much as details about facts or features. For this reason, rather than following a generic story structure it is more powerful if we look instead to the most powerful and enduring stories from human history – mythology.
Mythology – stories that speak to a deeper truth
The most enduring myths of humanity owe their power to both their structure (which we’ll review below) – they are built to make a great, appealing, satisfying story, but also because they speak about a fantastical reality beyond the boring everyday world. This adds a certain excitement, but it also allows them to speak to people from different cultures and backgrounds about things that are universal to human experience. In a way, the fantastical nature of story helps people disregard their critical mind and be more receptive, and also to view their own situation through the lens of the story.
The greatest brands weave these elements in to a brand story which often takes on a life of it’s own. In many cases the stories become bigger than the events that inspired them, and might not be strictly accurate.
What makes apocryphal stories about business leaders or creative individuals so powerful? Usually these succeed by speaking the language of myth which is much more emotional, symbolic and meaningful than our everyday story of facts and figures, dates and data.
The power of these stories doesn’t lie in their factual accuracy so much as what they say about the person or business – that might be more general and eternal than any specific event or fact might convey. Sometimes a fictional story or quote tells the story better than any real life event.
For example, Henry Ford is often quoted as saying “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
There actually isn’t a record of Ford ever saying this, but it does indeed sum up his unique value: innovation so well that it deserves to be true. Great individuals like Ford develop a mythology built around them, their companies or inventions that build a powerful brand that works better than any advertising.
Many of us are already living out a story, often without realising it. Understanding your current personal or company mythology and consciously telling more energising and empowering stories can transform your life, business or career. This doesn’t mean making up lies – to work these stories need to convey deeper truths about your values, challenges, vision and gifts.
The power of brand mythology
When most of us think of myths we think of kings and magic, gods and immortals, dragons and unicorns – fantastic things which don’t really exist. It can be hard to imagine how we can apply this to developing a personal or business brand.
In fact, the foundations of mythology are in the symbols, characters and story structure. The fantastic details are mostly there to tell our brains to enter the non-rational world. They are like a signpost saying – what I’m about to tell you isn’t for you to remember like facts, but to imagine and believe and take into your heart. Because these magical stories speak to our subconscious they can be much more powerful and persuasive that dry ideas that deal with boring everyday life. Understanding and using the power of myth and storytelling in telling our story and building our brand can help us achieve this. It’s worth noting that of the world’s most prominent brands, many of them are based on characters from mythology, or use them in their symbolism.
Mind you, we don’t always need to invoke dragons and wizards, knights and magic to enter the mythological world. In the modern world, dragons might be replaced by corporate dinosaurs. Wizards appear as wise old mentors or computer whiz-kids. People who battle for justice and truth to protect the environment are modern day knights. And in many ways, we live in an age of real magic. Transformative technology, systems or new ways of seeing old things can all represent the magic of your brand story.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
A great entry point into understanding mythology is the work of Joseph Campbell and his concept of the monomyth. Campbell was a mythologist who spent decades studying the myths of cultures from around the world and throughout history. Campbell was particularly interested in the most prominent myths which survived for thousands of years. He noticed strong similarities between seemingly unrelated myths cultures removed by thousands of miles or thousands of years. Campbell proposed that there was a fundamental structure to all the great myths through human history. Excerpt from Wikipedia – The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
As the name suggests, The Hero with a Thousand Faces can appear in any time, or culture. For our purposes, the Hero is every one of us. Every person must make the hero’s journey to discover their gifts and the unique value they can bring to the world.
In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarised the monomyth:
In laying out the monomyth, Campbell describes a number of stages or steps along this journey. The hero starts in the ordinary world, and receives a call to enter an unusual world of strange powers and events (a call to adventure). If the hero accepts the call to enter this strange world, the hero must face tasks and trials (a road of trials), and may have to face these trials alone, or may have assistance. At its most intense, the hero must survive a severe challenge, often with help earned along the journey. If the hero survives, the hero may achieve a great gift (the goal or “boon”), which often results in the discovery of important self-knowledge. The hero must then decide whether to return with this boon (the return to the ordinary world), often facing challenges on the return journey. If the hero is successful in returning, the boon or gift may be used to improve the world (the application of the boon).
Very few myths contain all of these stages—some myths contain many of the stages, while others contain only a few; some myths may have as a focus only one of the stages, while other myths may deal with the stages in a somewhat different order. These stages may be organised in a number of ways, including division into three sections: Departure (sometimes called Separation), Initiation and Return. “Departure” deals with the hero venturing forth on the quest, “Initiation” deals with the hero’s various adventures along the way, and “Return” deals with the hero’s return home with knowledge and powers acquired on the journey.
The classic examples of the monomyth relied upon by Campbell and other scholars include the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, andChrist, although Campbell cites many other classic myths from many cultures which rely upon this basic structure.
Why should we care about this mythological theory?
Mythology is all around us. We are so immersed in myths that we barely notice them.
An obvious place to start looking is fairy tales, movies and fantasy novels. In many ways the monomyth describes a successful narrative structure, so it’s no surprise it occurs so readily across different cultures. Campbell’s work was inspirational to many artists and storytellers, and some of the most popular stories of our time are consciously built using the concepts and structure of the monomyth. For example, George Lucas credits Campbell’s work as an important influence in developing the popular Star Wars trilogy.
In her great book in visual storytelling, Resonance, Nancy Duarte covers the Hero’s Journey followed by Luke Sky-Walker in Star Wars in a visual format.
What can we learn from Campbell’s concept of the monomyth?
Understanding the monomyth can help us to craft our brand storytelling in a way that conveys our deeper values and messages in a way which is more direct, persuasive and meaningful. Review your own life, or the growth of your business. When have your felt the call to adventure? When have you faced trial and tribulation? What was the unexpected benefit? What was the hard won knowledge? How can you bring it to the world?
Another great place to start is to take a look at some of the stories you find most inspirational. What makes them powerful? Can you see the elements of the monomyth within them?
Do this both with your real world heroes, both those you know personally (maybe a family member, business partner or personal mentor), real people you don’t know (such as successful entrepreneurs, brilliant inventors or transformative political figures). With many of these people you will already have a simple story about them in your mind which closely follows the monomyth structure.
Likewise thing of your favorite books and movies from childhood and today. It’s great to re-watch some of these to rediscover some of the joy and power of myths and heroes.
Many fantasy books and films like The Hobbit, Harry Potter and Superhero films like Spiderman closely follow the monomyth formula.
Doing this helps you to identify what is meaningful and powerful to you, and is a great inspiration for discovering what the power of mythology can do for your own brand.
In many ways, while we might laugh at other civilisations with all supernatural tales of gods, ghosts or dragons, our own culture remains obsess with mythology in the form of superheroes and celebrities. Mythology holds eternal appeal for the human psyche, and ever culture creates it’s own unique stories of the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey can help you understand and develop your personal story because it not only provides a framework for a great story, it helps draw out what is most important and valuable to you, find strengths from your weakest moments, celebrate victories over adversity in your past and identify the unique skills and insights you have developed as you overcame them.
Importantly the Hero’s Journey isn’t complete until you bring your gifts back to the everyday world and use them in service of others.