7 Story Archetypes: using plot to build brands

Published by

At Southpaw we’re kind of obsessed with storytelling in the brand building process. Within storytelling’s golden trio of character, incident and plot, it’s plot that provides the vital framework to hang everything from.

Enter the seven basic plot structures. It took author and academic Christopher Booker 34 years of research to identify them, but we’re glad he committed. It gives a brand strategy and creative agency like us the building blocks we need to affect human psychology and shift consumer behaviour for our clients.

Let’s take the plot types from the top.

#1 - Overcoming The Monster

Classic horror films are the most obvious interpretation of overcoming the monster, but the ‘monster’ doesn’t have to be a giant gorilla or an absent father with complex breathing apparatus. This is about the hero triumphing under adversity, showing courage and strength to win the day. Under Armour’s ‘I Will What I Want brand campaign works hard to show African American ballerina Misty Copeland overcoming racial prejudice and the ballet world’s uncompromising views on body type to rise to the top of her game.


Photo credit: Rob Luckins

#2 - Rags To Riches

From the fictional Oliver Twist and Rocky Balboa, to the real life stories of Ed Sheeran and JK Rowling, rags to riches is an addictive plot structure. A gutsy yet poor protagonist gains something then loses it again, then goes through personal growth to ultimately win their ‘riches’. Johnnie Walker’s ‘The Man Who Walked Around The World is an often cited example for its emotive, memorable creative starring Robert Carlisle, proving how a captivating rags to riches story is central to brand building in advertising.

#3 - The Quest

The protagonist on his ‘quest’ is in it for the long haul. It’s a natural fit for brands with a sense of mission who can show how over time they have sought out excellence to achieve their goals. Dyson does just that in its advertising for the V11 cordless vacuum. It opens by telling us how the hero - James Dyson - has reinvented the vacuum once again, giving us a sense of endeavour over many years. The creative is product focused and techy, but it lands the quest story perfectly.


Artwork credit: Derek Bacon

#4 - Voyage & Return

Voyage & Return brings us into legendary Lord of the Rings style narratives, where an often unlikely hero goes on an adventure that results in salvation. In recent times, Just Eat has placed their services within an epic journey to build brand equity: Snoop Dogg ‘Did Somebody Say campaign. The rapper acts as both delivery man and takeaway recipient wherever he is around the world: private jet, hot tub, catamaran, chateau, or back at the crib with his entourage. The salvation? Hot takeaway food on tap.


Image credit: Microsoft and Xbox

#5 - Comedy

Make people belly laugh and you’ve got a brand building strategy right there. But in this instance, by ‘comedy’ we mean using plot twists and turns that the unfortunate protagonist falls victim to in a series of misadventures. The job of the brand is to come to the rescue and resolve the problem with their product or service. The long running  ‘Should’ve Gone to Specsavers’ campaign plays on the comedy plot beautifully, throwing up endless situations where hapless protagonists fall foul of their (literal) short-sightedness at not getting a pair of glasses from Specsavers. This is advertising sealed forever in pop culture.

If brands can be humorous, then it shows that they’ve got a sense of intelligence and a broader perspective on the world.

Orlando Wood, author of ‘Lemon: How The Advertising Brain Turned Sour’

#6 - Tragedy

This one comes with a health warning. Dialling up a tragic plot to build your brand equity doesn’t mean going full Macbeth, but it doesn’t mean a happy ending either. This archetype is most frequently seen in charity advertising where a loss or death is inevitable, or there is a message of warning to the viewer if something isn’t done to alleviate the problem. Stuck in our memories is the St John’s Ambulance advert #SaveTheBoy from 2013. A tragic scenario is played out that can be prevented if everyone learns first aid. It’s completely arresting because it’s so grounded in reality.

#7 - Rebirth

The story of rebirth is an emotionally charged one that leverages the conviction that change can bring redemption and renewal. Often the plot needs to establish that change is needed in the first place, or that a current situation could be improved. Bupa’s ‘Is It Normal’ mental health awareness campaign builds meaning by sensitively exploring the many types of ‘normal’, confronting the stigma around certain behaviours, and encouraging people to seek support for their mental health.

Niki Macartney, Strategy Director at Southpaw. Header image: The Beer with Heart, for St. Stefanus


More Workshop



3 simple ways to gracefully turn down freelance work this Christmas

This Christmas is set to be one of the biggest ever, as the world returns from a couple of years in lockdown looking to really enjoy the holidays this time around. Some freelancers have been struggling to find work in the last few months of this...

Posted by: Antonino Lupo