The hero’s journey

How to find the perfect story at your company

Katharina Wohlfahrt | © punkt & komma
Katharina Wohlfahrt
Content editor
Every form of company communication tells a story. That’s what makes storytelling a permanent fixture in (online) marketing. Modes of life, aims, conflicts, trials, successes and failures: A good story contains all that and more. And that’s exactly wherein the challenge lies. It’s about providing stimuli to evoke certain desired emotions – and that’s where the hero’s journey comes into play. 

Because: Without a hero, there’s no story. And without a hero’s journey, there are no adventures. Simple stories about everyday heroes are often enough to generate lots of attention. But how do I come by my company’s stories? Authenticity – that’s the magic word! High time to get to the bottom of the most successful narrative form in a business context … 

From the first appearance to a happy ending

What do Frodo, Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker have in common? They’re all rather unremarkable in the beginning and then gradually develop into heroes throughout the course of their journey. And it doesn’t necessarily take supernatural powers for that. It’s more about their special character traits such as courage and loyalty that distinguish them as heroes. 

It’s relatable, easy to understand and has a clear structure – that’s why the hero’s journey has become one of the primary narrative models in Hollywood blockbusters. But this approach doesn’t just work great in movies. It works exceptionally well in song lyrics, theatre plays, literary bestsellers and, of course, in corporate communication as well. After all, the principle can be applied to any story and all sorts of topics. 

But where does the hero’s journey come from? What are its stages? And how can you find the heroes of your company? We’ve got the answers for you! 
„The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.“
Joseph Campbell

The origins of the hero’s journey

American myth researcher Joseph Campbell is considered the discoverer of the hero’s journey as we know it. His research showed that even primitive peoples used to tell stories to learn from each other and that all of them followed a similar pattern. 

US screenwriter and publicist Christopher Vogler realised the importance of this basic formula or template for successful entertainment. His memo about the “journey of the hero” impressed Disney and earned him an engagement as story consultant for “The Lion King”. And the rest is – you’ve guessed it: (hi)story!  
Eine Mickey Mouse Figur, die auf einem Klavier steht und von einem Licht angestrahlt wird

The three acts and twelve stages of the hero’s journey

The hero’s journey can be broken down into twelve successive stages: 
  1. The ordinary world: The hero realises that his everyday life is missing something – something crucial to him that he can attain. 

The eleven subsequent stages in three acts are visualised based on the current Bauhaus commercial.

The departure

Act 1
2. The call to adventure: It’s time for the hero to strike camp and move past his comfort zone. He gets a first glimpse of “that which could be”. If he ignores the call to adventure, he’ll keep hearing it again and again. 

3. The refusal of the call: The hero wants to listen to his inner voice that keeps telling him to avoid the unknown. So called “threshold guardians” play to the fears of the protagonist to discourage him from starting his journey. But only those who depart can make their dreams come true. 

4. Meeting the mentor: The hero receives the support of a mentor that strongly influences his development. He has a wealth of knowledge, doesn’t set any conditions and doesn’t expect anything from the hero. At the same time, he’s familiar with both the old and the new world. 

5. Crossing the first threshold: Most people stay in the ordinary world. But not our hero because he does something that cannot be reversed. By entering the new world, he experiences the polar opposite of his old world – and the second act of the journey begins.
The call to adventure
Der Held, von hinten, der auf das Chaos im Garten blickt
Crossing the first threshold
Der Held schaut wenig begeistert und denkt über seine weitere Handlung nach
Act 2

Initiation: the world of adventure

6. Experimenting with the initial change: From now on, the world is separated into good and evil. The hero masters some challenges and trials. He overcomes dangers, defeats enemies and finds out who’s on his side and who isn’t – in other words, he learns to navigate the rules of the new world. 

7. Approaching the innermost cave: The hero comprehends the situation as a whole and encounters his biggest (inner) enemy. He’s the exact opposite of all good traits, hopes and dreams. A showdown is imminent. 

8. The ordeal: The critical turning point, the biggest change in the story, takes place. It’s a matter of life or death and afterwards nothing is like it was before. In the moment of his biggest fear, the hero encounters a reflection of his own dark side. 

9. The reward and seizing the sword: The hero has completed his task and is rewarded with the “elixir”. He identifies what he wants to do in the future, feels alive and powerful. His confidence has grown. Time to celebrate.  
Der Held wird aktiv und trägt beim Sägen Schutzbrille und Handschuhe

The return

Act 3
10. The journey back: With his boon, new insights and new understanding of self, he heads back into the ordinary world. Expendable characters are left behind. Oftentimes, a chase or race against time ensues. 

11. Renewal or metamorphosis: The hero returns home with the boon and faces the final change. His best traits join up with his lessons learned. Good ultimately defeats evil. 

12. Return with the elixir: The elixir has changed the hero and his environment. What he has learned throughout the journey is integrated into his everyday life. Many things take on a new meaning for him. Having solved the task, the journey comes full circle.
The journey back
Die Frau hat ihren Helden gesichtet und freut sich über seine Rückkehr
Return with the elixir
Der Held und seine Frau fallen sich in die Arme, während man im Hintergrund das fertige Werk betrachten kann

And in marketing? Every company has its heroes!

So who’s the hero of your company? Is there one? Yes, there is and you’ll find him in your target audience. Yes, that’s right: It’s – as usual in the case of marketing – not about you. It’s all about your customers, partners, etc. Companies and brands act as aforementioned mentors and support the hero on his journey. 

The hero’s journey makes it possible to convey visions and values and thus creates opportunities for identification. It illustrates how helpful and indispensable your products and your services are for helping the hero solve his task. That only works if he experiences and loves the attitude towards life you’re trying to convey. Hence, the goal is to appeal to his emotions as he lives through the story. 

Easier said than done? Let’s go on a successful hero’s journey together … 
The journey from company hero to successful storytelling

Questions that’ll get you a step closer to the hero’s journey

  • Which topics and, more importantly, problems and challenges are your customers and partners confronted with in their everyday lives? Don’t shirk the uncomfortable!
  • What hopes and dreams do your heroes want to turn into a reality? 
  • In which situations do customers (maybe unexpectedly) come in contact with your brand? 
  • When and where did certain products and services help them? 
  • Are there any little adventures hidden in your customer surveys that you should revisit? 
  • Which positive experiences with the company do people within the company talk about? (Potential) employees can become heroes too, after all … 
  • Can the company history be turned into a thrilling epos? 
Zwei Hände, die eine halb beschriebene Seite aus einer Schreibmaschine ziehen

Additional tips:

  • Keep it short and crisp, so the story can be followed all the way to its ending. Especially on social media, people’s attention is a highly coveted asset. 
  • Dramatic composition including an arc of suspense is an essential component of every great story. 
  • As is a golden thread that is created by recurring symbols. 
  • Ideally, the connection to the company is established subconsciously throughout the story and not by blatantly naming the brand. 

Need more examples? Marketing campaigns as the ones by Obi, Nivea or Edeka show how diverse corporate storytelling can be. 
Eine Infografik, die neben den zwölf Phasen der Heldenreise auch den jeweiligen Zeitpunkt und dazugehörigen Spannungsbogen abbildet | © IWW Institut

Is your hero’s journey in keeping with the times?

There are a few storytellers and marketers who criticise the hero’s journey for being outdated. A narrative form that has been milked to the nth degree. As alternatives, they frequently name dialogic Jointly Told Tales and narrative resonance. The fact of the matter is that a good story needs to be told – and social media makes content distribution easier than ever before. Even across different channels as our post on crossmedia marketing shows. 
That’s reason enough to explore other forms of storytelling beyond the hero’s journey. But that’s another story … 

.. that we’ll certainly be telling you in our online magazine soon. So go ahead and sign up for our newsletter right away! 

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