Story Branding 101: Rethinking the Hero’s Journey. Don’t Be the Hero — Be the Yoda
Poor hero’s journey.
Entrepreneurs everywhere keep using its formula… and they keep getting it wrong.
Seriously, if we had to name the #1 most misunderstood idea in brand storytelling, the hero’s journey would win by a country mile!
When we learn about the hero’s journey, it’s always through the lens of, “This is the oldest storytelling framework in the world. Every story you’ve ever loved can be mapped onto the hero’s journey. Yes, especially Star Wars!”
So our first instinct is to assume that we’re meant to use the hero’s journey to make our brand more interesting. After all, it is a proven formula — it doesn’t get any more tried-and-true than that.
And the more we think about it, the better it fits!
Your brand’s heroic journey (and the capital-P Problem with it)
Now, let’s see:
There’s the call to adventure when the hero (you) decides to take up the scary but thrilling quest of starting a business…
Along the way, you face and overcome obstacles of all sorts: bootstrapping with no money, juggling a company and a full-time job, building your first product, and so on.
At some point, you may reach a crisis where everything seems lost and hopeless — but still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (yay, go you!)
You change and grow as a person and a business owner, and your journey continues.
Sounds cool so far — definitely better than your average About page!
There’s just one problem… Or even: Problem.
Your customers have no reason to care about ANY of this
From your perspective, your brand story might be the bee’s knees. And of course it would be — you’re living it!
But why should your customers care about your journey?
You and your brand aren’t household names like, say, Apple and Steve Jobs. Unless you already have some name recognition, your target market has no reason to take interest in you right off the bat.
Plus, your story isn’t exactly a head-spinning, heart-wrenching, butt-clenching thrill ride that would grab attention all by itself. And chances are, your customers aren’t nerdy enough to read, watch, or listen to brand stories for fun (unlike us!).
But the biggest reason of all is simple: your customers just don’t see you or your brand as the hero. Unless they already have a relationship with you, they won’t relate to your story.
Because in their world, they’re the heroes! They’re on an adventure of their own.
So if you want to market to people using the hero’s journey, you must start by accepting this simple fact: you are not the hero. Your customer is.
But you still have a place in their story!
The Yoda to their Luke Skywalker, must you be
(Don’t worry, we’re not doing the rest of the article in Yoda-speak. Dumb, even if fun, that would be!)
The second most important figure in the hero’s journey is The Sage, a.k.a. The Mentor. They set the hero on the path to adventure. They train the hero and teach them everything they need to know to overcome the obstacles along the way…
And without them, the hero might not succeed.
This is the role you need to fill in your customer’s heroic narrative. If they are Luke Skywalker, you need to be Yoda. Minus the green skin, small stature and big pointy ears, obviously.
(But if you can get Frank Oz to voice you, we say go ahead!)
You need to teach them. You need to train them. You need to show them the way. If you can do that, your customers will grow to know, like and trust you — naturally.
So the question is, how does this translate to marketing? What are some specific ways you can “be the Yoda” to your customers and help them on their own hero’s journey?
3 ways to position yourself as The Mentor to your customers
You can’t just approach your customer and say, “I can solve all your problems.” That’s the kind of thing heroes do. And remember: in this story, you’re not The Hero.
Instead, do what The Mentor would do…
1. Reflect their story back to them
Before your customers are ready to listen to you and learn from you, they need to know two things:
- That you “get” their situation.
- That you sincerely care.
And if you just go out and say it, they won’t believe you. So you’ll want to play a benign Jedi mind-trick on them!
There’s this simple communication strategy used by everyone from therapists to hostage negotiators. It builds trust and makes the other person feel understood and at ease.
Here’s what it looks like: whenever the other person tells you how they feel, what they want or what they need, you repeat it back to them.
We know: it seems almost too stupid and too obvious to work… and yet, it does!
Of course, marketing to your customers isn’t a dialogue. It’s a one-way conversation. But the same principle applies here, too. You can talk to them about what they want, what they need, what they’re afraid of, all of it… in their own words, as if they’re sitting right across from you.
“In their own words” is the most important part here. To use this strategy effectively, you need to know what your customers talk about when they share their goals, needs, problems, and fears — and also how exactly they phrase it.
Now, Yoda could just Force-sense what to say, but we have to make do with good old-fashioned research! Interview or survey your customers, read the emails and support tickets you get, look for specific language online — in other words, get to know them.
And when you learn your customer’s story and their language, there are lots of ways you can use it:
- You can create an explainer video about your product with your customer as the hero.
- You can choose case studies and testimonials that better fit your customer’s experience.
- You can make your sales copy 10 times more compelling and persuasive…
- …actually, you can improve all your copy and boost conversions across the board!
- And you can even create a customer persona that’s actually usable — imagine that!
2. Meet them where they are
In a classic hero’s journey, the mentor figure often shows up early. Sometimes they’re with the hero from the very beginning as they grow up (like Merlin and King Arthur).
Other times they show up while the hero is living a normal life and not thinking about any adventures, thank you very much, and turn their life upside-down (like Gandalf did to Bilbo in “The Hobbit”).
And sometimes they show up after the journey starts, just when the hero is starting to realize that they’re in over their head and they need guidance (as in the case of Yoda and Luke).
This dynamic also shows up in marketing, but it’s a little more subtle. For example…
Let’s say that you’re a fitness coach, and your potential client hasn’t started their journey yet. They’re living their best couch-potato life, eating whatever they want as much as they want, and don’t think about their health much.
If you were to show up now and present them with your message, they’d probably tell you to get lost. “I don’t need to get in shape, I feel fine!”
But then something happens. Maybe their doctor notices elevated blood pressure, or they pick up a bag of groceries and throw out their back, or they go to the beach and get self-conscious. They start thinking that maybe they should clean up their act…
So they go online, come across your website, read a few articles, watch a video or two, and possibly subscribe to your email list.
And from there, they might go on a journey, and you might end up as their mentor and coach…
…or they may do nothing until something else happens that makes them go, “Holy crap, I gotta do something about this!” And then they get serious about listening to you.
Bottom line is, just as with fictional hero’s journeys, your customers will go through different stages of awareness. And if you want them to pay attention to you, you must offer them what they need at each stage.
If they’re unaware they have a problem, then you don’t need story branding yet: just educate and entertain your audience with content that speaks to their interests. Along the way, they will pick up on your authority and credibility anyway.
Once they become problem-aware, tell them about a solution. Act as The Mentor: give them advice, point them to a free resource, help them make meaningful progress.
And when your customer is ready for a bigger, better solution, show them what you can do. Give them a demo of your product, explain your USP, tell them success stories about people just like them. And most importantly, get them excited about what the future holds!
3. Blow their mind
In the original Star Wars trilogy, Yoda wasn’t much to look at. He was, well, a Muppet. So the creators went to great lengths to make us believe that Yoda was a truly wise mentor figure.
They gave him the best dialogue in all of Star Wars — witty, philosophical, genuinely inspiring…
They made him come alive with fantastic voice acting and phenomenal puppet work…
And they made the X-Wing scene.
In that scene, Yoda uses the Force to lift an entire space ship out of the swamp, to show Luke (and the audience) that he’s capable of far more than he thinks…
…and possibly to show off and get Luke to finally stop complaining!
This is a scene from a 39-year-old film, and it still holds up. It gives us goosebumps to this day.
And it holds a valuable marketing lesson: if you want customers to see you as a mentor figure, you’d better show them that you’re worth looking up to.
Blow their mind! That means…
- Don’t just give them “information” — help them get meaningful results.
- Don’t just repeat conventional wisdom — give them your unique perspective.
- Don’t just give them advice — challenge their misconceptions.
- Don’t just tell them you’re awesome — show them what you can do!
There are literally dozens of ways to do this: hosting workshops and webinars, giving talks, sharing behind-the-scenes details of what your brand is doing, creating provocative and contrarian content, building amazingly helpful free resources… You name it.
Here’s a helpful (but very ambitious) rule of thumb you can follow: whenever your customers interact with your brand, they should walk away changed.
Maybe in a small way — like having learned something new…
Or maybe in a big way — like having gained a new perspective on themselves or the world…
But is some way.
Of course, this is a ridiculous standard to match every time. And you won’t! But you’ll match it enough times that your customers will come to look up to you, trust you, and seek your advice…
…because they’ll recognize you for The Mentor you are.
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