The magic of story telling


Since the beginning of time, story telling has helped us make sense of our world.

Like many people, I love a good story. It is through story telling that we give 'shape and meaning' to our experiences. Stories help us understand the mysteries of life, our universe, the seasons and life cycles. Importantly, story telling provides a social order to things, like the direction of morality.

We learn through stories because our brains are hard wired to do so: we think in narratives all day. No matter what we're doing we think in the 'cause and effect' structure of stories - even when constructing a shopping list. I thought it was just me who had stories running through my head all day, but it turns out we all do!

Hard wired

Our brains are also hard wired to relate stories to our existing experiences. For example, if you are scared of spiders (like I am) and you've had a bad experience, then a story about spiders will probably make you feel terribly anxious and fearful (sweaty hands and all).  This is because it taps into the emotion of your past experience - relating the story to what you know.

What I find really fascinating is the neurological effect. When you read instructions or a list, you tap into the part of your brain that decodes language. But when you tell a story, you activate the same part of your brain that would be activated if you were actually experiencing the events in the story. And this is the same for the listener too! If I was to tell you a story about a delicious meal, it would activate the sensory cortex of your brain. If I was to tell you a sad and heartbreaking story, the limbic system of your brain (which controls emotion) would be activated. This explains why I am often a complete blubbering mess whenever I watch a sad movie! My limbic system is in overdrive.

What is really interesting about this for me, is that storytelling synchronises the brain of the storyteller and the listener. Both have the same part of their brain activated during the story, and they achieve a deeper connection because of this. So storytelling affords us a way to connect on a deeper level with people. Powerful stuff. 


Archetypes are critical to any story. You can't have a good story without one. For those of you who need a reminder of the definition of archetypes: they are universal characters we understand through our collective unconscious. Or in more simple language: characters we universally understand. You will find archetypes in folk tales, fairy tales, mythology and in the popular culture of today. They are probably best defined through examples: the hero, the jester (or the fool), the innocent and the ruler - to name a few. 

How do archetypes work? They help us organise thoughts and ideas in cultural text. They act as an 'emotional shorthand' to connect with the audience. By providing recognisable structure and characters, archetypes help a story to be universally understood and enable popularity. Game of Thrones is a great example of the power of archetypes to gain universal appeal and understanding. Games of Thrones is hugely popular, even with people who normally don't like 'all this fantasy stuff'. And it is jam-packed with archetypes! There are many heroes, rulers, magicians and outlaws. There are nurturers and innocents, lovers and fools. It has them all, in multiple incarnations.

Archetypes and your brand story

At this point, I am sure you're asking, "What the hell has all this story telling and archetype stuff got to do with branding?" The answer: a damn lot. Through story telling your brand can achieve a deeper connection with people. Through archetypes your brand can have universal appeal and understanding.  

Use an archetype to tell your brand story and your brand is immediately aligned with the desired qualities and characteristics of the associated archetype. They also help position or reposition your brand in people's minds - by immediately communicating a universal understanding of your brand. Using an archetype to drive your brand strategy also helps you create a consistent visual and verbal representation of your brand.

Nike uses the hero archetype to tell their brand story. The company name comes from a greek mythological hero: Nike, the winged Goddess of Victory. Their logo is a visual representation of her wings. Once you start looking, you will see the hero archetype in their advertising and the subliminal suggestion that the everyday person transforms into a hero  - and attains the Goddess of Victory's attributes of force and speed - when they wear Nike apparel. Their 2014 commercial is a great example of the hero archetype coming to life through their brand story. 

Other great examples are: Lego using the creator archetype to tell their brand story and Lonely Planet using the explorer. As you read this, your brain connects these brands to a universal understanding provided through these archetypes. It makes sense, it gels.

Your brand isn't limited to a single archetype, and can be represented by a combination of a few. Virgin can be coupled with the magician and jester archetypes. The Virgin brand is innovative and charismatic like the magician, and embodying the jester - the Virgin brand loves for everyone to have fun.

In my next blog post I will share the archetype wheel and how it can be used to build a well-rounded digital brand.