When it comes to brand positioning, there are essentially 2 ways to communicate your brand values to customers:
- You can tell them what you offer
- You can tell them a story
As it turns out, using storytelling as a way of building brand awareness is an order of magnitude more effective than fact-based brand building. The greatest brands tell a story – and guide their customers on a journey through that story.
Take, for example, Airbnb. Struggling to properly communicate the Airbnb brand, Brian Chesky resorted to a childhood favorite – snow white.
That’s correct – the age-old fairytale of a princess and a big group of odd, working-class dwarves helped form one of the most enduring brands of the 21st century.
As it turns out, there’s a simple approach to using storytelling in brand building: the Hero’s Journey. Devised by anthropologist Edward Brunett Tylor in the late 1800s, the Heros’ Journey describes a pattern most great stories follow.
Every major character in a good fable goes through several different cycles that resemble roughly the following:
Broken down even further, the journey looks something like this:
- Call to Adventure: Inspired to tackle some great challenge
- Crossing the Chasm: Our hero decides to take on the adventure
- Beast at the Threshold: Our hero faces an unconquerable obstacle
- Transformation: A moment of self-realization to conquer the obstacle
- Final Atonement: Hero returns to his old world, a transformed person
As it turns out, brand discovery follows roughly the same blueprint as any good fable – and the best brand UX guides the hero through each of these steps in an elegant way.
Your ideal customer is the hero – it’s up to you to take them through the process of transformation and self-discovery, espouse your brand values and ultimately take on their old world better armed.
To architect a strong brand UX and build a powerful brand, guide your customers through the hero’s journey and slay the dragon. This article will dig into each of these steps further.
Call to Adventure
The call to adventure is a deep yearning. It’s the great motivation behind your hero’s journey – the value-driven call to action that sends your ideal customer searching for you in the first place.
The call to adventure goes beyond day-to-day problems.
In Airbnb, for example, the call to adventure is wanderlust. Although the company services all kinds of customers, their ideal customer is, in some ways, a dreamer.
Their ideal customer seeks to find adventure – and is motivated by interesting travel experiences, meeting new people and discovering new places.
It’s important to stress here again: the call to adventure isn’t some basic pain point your brand solves (that comes later).
It’s a value-driven motivation that draws (and keeps) someone attached and advocating for your brand.
The call to adventure defines your entire brand UX strategy – and until you know what that deep yearning is, you can’t possibly build a compelling brand around it.
When you study brands like Nike and Apple, they have a deep understanding of that yearning.
They know exactly who their ideal customer is – and more importantly, what their hopes and dreams are.
The first step of powerful brand UX is to understand your Call to Adventure.
In practical terms, this often starts with some analysis like building in-depth Buyer Personas or digging into the data. Really, there’s no right answer here – it’s a question of engaging all of your resources into determining what your ideal customer’s deepest motivations are.
Another great way to describe this process is discovering your customers big “why”.
The big “why” is the initial, broad motivation that eventually breaks down into smaller “whys”. Ultimately, the “why” gets small enough it fits in a neat little Google search that ends up on your website.
So, one approach to find that big “why” is to reverse engineer the process – start from what questions bring your customers to your web page and work it backwards.
For example, in Airbnb’s case, the question might be “what’s a cool place to stay in Austin?”.
If you peel that onion and go one step above, the motivation behind that question might be “where can I go in Austin that will give me an interesting experience?”, which peeled further might be something like “where can I stay that will give me a unique and lasting memory?”, and so on and so forth.
Ultimately, Airbnb would probably peel back to the big “why” – “how can I experience something incredible?”
Peel back the curtains behind your best customers and fully realize their deepest yearning – that’s where your brand UX begins.
Crossing the Chasm
Great brands typically accompany great life changes. Understanding your customer’s deepest motivations isn’t enough – you need to identify what changes ultimately push them over the edge to address that motivation.
In the prevailing Airbnb example, everyone has wanderlust – but those who ultimately do travel typically have a “tipping point” that finally sends them on their journey.
We’ve been working primarily with b2c examples thus far, but the same concepts apply to b2b.
Consider, for example, a SaaS tool like JIRA. The call to adventure behind JIRA’s ideal customer is a software engineering team that wants to be the best – that wants to create beautiful, incredible & memorable products with flawless execution.
This deep-seated motivation is important, but it isn’t everything – there are dozens of engineering teams who hold that desire that continue to lumber on with legacy, outdated workflow systems.
The teams that do ultimately decide to act on that root motivation and migrate to JIRA typically do so because of some trigger. Often, this is an organizational trigger – for instance, the company growing too quickly or reaching a certain scale where it’s necessary to have a more organized workflow.
You can probably see now that this journey-mapping actually offers a very elegant way of reducing product abstraction.
You now have 2 things you’ve understood: what deeply motivates your ideal customer, and what trigger events send them chasing that yearning.
Strong brand UX addresses both of these things.
If you look at JIRA’s UX, it’s entire structures betrays this thinking – everything from their documentation to onboarding, to messaging are all designed to attract the best software teams at the fastest growing software companies.
Another great example is Nike, whose sales consistently spike during Q1.
Why? Because New Years is a time of change – and those customers with a deep yearning to excel at what they do finally get pushed over the edge.
Beast at the Threshold
Alright, we’re finally here. You understand your customer’s deepest motivations, you understand what pushes them over the edge to start chasing it – so what’s their biggest pain point?
What’s the major obstacle on their journey to enlightenment that they’ve come to your brand seeking refuge for?
Consider the Airbnb example again. The customer’s deepest motivation might be Wanderlust, but the current pain point sending them to Airbnb is “well, where the heck do I stay?”
This step in the hero’s journey is the most directly actionable by a brand’s UX, but ultimately ties intimately with the deep yearning. In Airbnb’s case, it heavily motivates its product decisions.
When you open an Airbnb listing, you’re shown things like host biography, trendy things to do in the neighborhood and experiences with some locals.
Consider some of the “obstacles” these decisions aim to ease. “What trendy neighborhood should I stay in?” “Who is a cool person to show me around?” “Where can I meet other travelers?”
Notice these “obstacles” are all directly motivated by the initial yearning and the catalyst – they’re questions primarily asked by people who deeply seek to travel, and only recently began.
Now, compare these design decisions with some of AirBnb competitors – for example, Marriott Hotels. A typical Marriott Hotel listing doesn’t have any of the above – instead, it lists things like details on airport shuttles and distances to nearby print shops.
Why? Because Marriott’s ideal customer has a dramatically different yearning from Airbnbs – and that yearning influences the day-to-day obstacles they attempt to address through UX design.
Now instead, imagine Airbnb’s UX approach involved simply focusing on obstacles – if they surveyed their customers and listed out all of their concerns, they’d probably end up adding a lot of the same things Marriott adds.
Instead, by going through the journey and starting with the yearning, they filter apart the obstacles that their ideal customer faces, instead of just generic travelers.
In other words, following the Hero’s Journey enables you to build powerful, compelling brand experiences, because it optimally designs for your ideal and ultimate customer.
The 4th step in the hero’s journey is the promise – in less sexy terms, some might call it “value proposition”.
Herein lies the crux of brand value – a strong brand takes in an ideal customer and gives them a new set of tools and perspectives to tackle the beast and continue on the adventure.
A customer might find Airbnb in their search for accommodation in their first trip to Europe, but they stay on Airbnb because it becomes their platform for wanderlust – they use it to be inspired, to stay in touch with old hosts and to discover new experiences.
Their second trip to Europe, the old obstacle doesn’t exist anymore – instead, a new set of obstacles exist. How do I meet more interesting people? How do I get the best bang for my buck?
How do I maximize the amount of time I spend in nature?
This is a good time to bring up arguably the most fundamentally important concept in the Hero’s Journey: it doesn’t end.
A hero will run through several cycles of the Hero’s Journey in a single adventure – the same is true for any brand.
Every time a customer engages with a brand, it’s another cycle of the adventure.
Every design decision a brand makes follows these same steps and takes the user on this same journey – and the stronger the brand, the more cohesive the journey.
By the 4th step, the user is now equipped to continue satisfying their deep yearning, free of the beast that was temporarily in their way.
The final step of the Hero’s Journey is really the holy grail of powerful brand marketing & UX: advocacy.
Once your ideal customer has gone through the cycle with you, the final step is truly embracing the brand.
The most powerful brands are the ones who consistently take their customers through to this final step.
Brands like Porsche, Rolex, Nike & Apple all take their customers to this end goal – where they come back to the “real world”, fully equipped with a new perspective on their adventure.
When the traveler returns from their first trip, they’ve taken another step on the road to becoming a seasoned traveler – to embracing wanderlust.
At this step, AirBnb’s ideal customer becomes a brand advocate. When that customer travels, they don’t just travel – they travel embracing many of Airbnb’s brand ideals.
Powerful brands become powerful because people are inspired by them. Iconic brands are much like iconic people – others strive to emulate them.
The Hero’s Journey pattern offers a beautifully elegant framework for any brand to craft their ideal customer – and then work on sending that customer through the ultimate journey.
A strong brand is like a legendary author – capable of inspiring people and redefining the way they do things.
So – who’s your brand’s hero?