M a r k e t e r the seven plots all stories must follow

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56      S o p h i s t i c a t e d   M a r k e t e r

L O N G   F O R M

ow would you feel if I told you that there are really only 

seven stories and that every children’s story, novel, film 

or play that you remember is just a variation on these 

endlessly repeated themes? That’s the argument of 

Christopher Booker’s bestselling The Seven Basic Plots: 

Why We Tell Stories. If you ask me, it throws down a 

serious challenge to any marketer who aspires to be a storyteller.

On one level, this idea seems to make storytelling a lot simpler. 

Marketers love nothing more than a proven formula that we can execute 

time and again. However, the seven plots aren’t just handy checklists of 

content elements that you can pick and choose from. To be a genuine 

storytelling brand you have to tell one of the seven stories, and you have 

to tell all of it. That includes the elements that businesses aren’t always 

comfortable talking about. Many stories may have happy endings but 

these happy endings always follow (often pretty harrowing) tensions. 

That makes securing sign-off for genuine brand storytelling tricky.

Here are those seven stories, and the brands that have taken the plunge 

by telling them. Sometimes they tell several different stories; sometimes 

they position themselves as the hero of their own tale. Either way, the 

creative process isn’t easy but the results have been spectacular:

Overcoming the Monster is the oldest and 

most instantly recognizable story of all: 

the hero must defeat an antagonistic force 

that threatens them or their homeland. It’s 

simple and endlessly repeated: through 

ancient myths like the tales of Perseus and 

Beowulf through Hollywood blockbusters 

like  The Magnificent Seven, James Bond 

and Star Wars and classic literature such as 

Dracula or Nicholas Nickleby

Overcoming the Monster is the 

natural narrative of a challenger brand. 

Apple epitomized it in its famous ‘1984’ 

SuperBowl ad, framing itself as the protag-

onist and staid old IBM as the monster. 

Under Armour does something very similar 

in defining its brand story in opposition to 

Nike. This is ironic, of course, because Nike 

itself is one of the most practised brands at 

telling the Overcoming the Monster story. 

From Eric Cantona blasting a football 

through a demon goalkeeper to the people 

overcoming everyday demons in its current 

‘Nothing beats a Londoner’ campaign. We 

all have monsters to overcome and brands 

that promise to arm us for the task have an 

inherent, emotive appeal.

B2B marketers find themselves natural-

ly gravitating towards the Overcoming the 

Monster theme as well, especially when it 

comes to creating case studies or custom-

er testimonials. However, it’s important 

to remember that a true Overcoming the 

Monster story isn’t a tale of inevitable 

success. It’s a story filled with uncertainty 

and tension, triumph against the odds and 

moments of despair followed by eventu-

al redemption. Finding those stories isn’t 

as easy as it sometimes seems. Having the 

courage to tell them in full can be even 

more challenging. We have to be comfort-

able with accepting the possibility of failure 

for our hero, in order to make their success 




  T H E   M O N S T E R



Are you telling  

one of them?

Want to know if your brand is really a storyteller?  

Test your content against the Seven Basic Plots  



are only













58      S o p h i s t i c a t e d   M a r k e t e r

L O N G   F O R M



There’s a great deal of confusion 

between the characteristic of comedy 

and comedy as a story. Being funny is 

fantastic. It’s a proven strategy in market-

ing terms and it delivers great results 

for the likes of Old Spice and Dollar 

Shave Club. But comedy as a platform 

for storytelling is different. It refers to 

a plot in which things become increas-

ingly complicated, tangled and confus-

ing, while never too threatening, before 

being instantly and simply resolved 

through a single revelation. Comedies 

deal with the complexities of human 

relationships and hold out the hope that 

a simple truth can help to clear them up. 

Appmesh makes great use of comedy as 

a storytelling platform in its approach 

to humanizing the challenges of sales 

and marketing alignment: it uses the 

complexities that are created in working 

relationships to make its proposition all 

the more compelling. The Rainforest 


R A G S   T O   R I C H E S

A poor protagonist acquires power, 

wealth, popularity and love before 


losing it all and gaining it back only 

when they grow as a person. The 

Rags to Riches story is the essence 

of  Cinderella and Aladdin,  David 

Copperfield and Trading Places. And 

it has an obvious, instinctive appeal 

to brands as well. Brand stories from 

Johnnie Walker to those of high-flying 

tech businesses are often framed in 

these terms. However, there’s a catch. 

Rags to Riches only works as a story 

because of that key moment in the 

plot where everything the hero has 

gained appears to be taken away. It’s 

compelling not because it’s aspiration-

al, but because it touches our fear of 

losing it all, and forces the protagonist  

to discover what true wealth is. 

Otherwise, this would just be the story 

of people becoming rich and successful 

– and who wants to listen to that? 

The true Rags to Riches story is one 

that marketers tell when they focus not 

just on how big their brand is, but on 

what it’s learned about itself along the 

way. HSBC’s ‘The Elevator’ ad, which 

shows the ups and downs of entrepre-

neurship, is a great example of Rags to 

Riches in all its complexity.

From left to right: 

Trading Places, Rainforest 

Alliance, The Wizard of 

Oz, Hamlet, Journey to 

the Center of the Earth






It’s a great exercise to take your 

content and your messaging and 

try to apply it to these different 

plot structures. Take the plot that 

most naturally fits your message, 

then challenge yourself to include 

all of the elements of that plot.

In doing so, you might find 

that the content you’re creating 

isn’t a story at all. That’s fine. 

Content and advertising can 

engage because it’s funny, 

because it’s true, because it’s 

entertaining or because it’s 

useful. It can do so whether it 

takes the form of a story or not. 

However, genuine brand stories 

lock onto our memories like few 

other things can. It’s worth any 

B2B or B2C brand aspiring to tell 

them. Checking your message 

and your content against the 

seven basic plots is a great way of 

testing whether that’s what you’re 

really doing.






S o p h i s t i c a t e d   M a r k e t e r       59

breakingly sad is tragic, but it’s not 

necessarily a tragedy. What makes a 

tragedy unique is the sense that it is 

inevitable; that the central character 

has a flaw that eventually brings them 

down no matter what balancing quali-

ties they might possess. This is a very 

powerful idea and a compelling one for 

any audience because of the questions 

it raises about how much of our desti-

ny we can control. The great examples 

of Tragedy in marketing aren’t shock-

ing public safety campaigns that depict 

horrible things happening to people. 


They’re ideas that prompt audiences to 

think about how they can reshape their 

destiny, by warning what happens if 

they don’t change. This has rarely been 

executed better than in a classic print ad 

of 2004: “Once upon a time, there was an 

ambitious young man who didn’t read 

The Economist. The End.”


J O U R N E Y 

  A N D   R E T U R N

It’s all about the journey home for 

stories from The Odyssey to The Wizard 

of Oz to Journey to the Center of the Earth 

to  Apollo 13 – but it’s also about the 

richer life that results from the expedi-

tion. Expedia and Airbnb have both 

built powerful travel-related brands 

around these types of stories. In the B2B 

space, it’s an inherent part of the propo-

sition for successful conferences and 

thought-leadership events. The Cannes 

International Festival of Creativity 

isn’t just selling marketers Rosé on 

the Croisette. It’s promising that they 

will return a richer and more inspired 


You’ll find links to all of these great 

brand stories in Keith’s ‘Seven Stories’ 

post on our Marketing Solutions blog: 


Alliance’s ‘Follow the Frog’ campaign 

is extremely funny but it also leverag-

es comedy as storytelling in a way that 

few brands do: an increasingly complex, 

bizarre and disastrous course of actions 

gives way to a simple proposition that 

restores everything to how it should be.

  4 .

T H E   Q U E S T

Something very specific is lost, missing 

or desperately needed. A hero and his 

or her companions must overcome 

obstacles and temptations to find it. 

This is the story of The Holy Grail, Lord 

of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz. Its 

power comes from clarity and focus: the 

conviction that there is one thing that 

matters above all others. That makes it 

a natural story for brands with a strong 

sense of mission. IBM is on a quest for a 

better planet. LinkedIn is on a journey to 

create economic opportunity for every-

one. These are genuine quest stories 

because of the wide significance of the 

goal involved, and the genuine difficulty 

in achieving it.



It’s similarly easy to misunderstand 

what tragedy means when it comes to 

storytelling. Something that’s heart-



Rebirth is in many ways the simplest 

of the seven basic stories, yet it’s also 

the most energizing and emotional-

ly charged. A flawed character faces a 

reckoning that forces them to change 

their ways, renewing themselves and 

(often) those around them. It’s the story 

of  A Christmas Carol,  It’s a Wonderful 

LifeAs Good As it Gets and Casablanca

Its power comes through transfor-

mations that seem wholly impossible 

immediately beforehand, given the 

state that those about to be reborn have 

reached. And that’s the challenge for 

brands with these tales of redemption: if 

you want to tap into the uplifting power 

of the rebirth story, you have to acknowl-

edge why the rebirth is needed.

That’s why the brand that perhaps 

best epitomizes Rebirth is Chrysler: 

an auto marque that was a byword for 

luxury, then became generic, forgot-

ten and almost bankrupt before rising 

again in a turnaround told with a 

thumping Eminem soundtrack. It’s a 

brand urging a city to rediscover what 

makes it great, and inspiring audienc-

es to be a part of that story. Samsung’s 

‘Do What You Can’t’ campaign taps the 

same power while positioning technol-

ogy as a tool to trigger rebirth in those 

it touches. Both brands share a convic-

tion that people and places can renew 

themselves, and the courage to show 

why they need to.




60      S o p h i s t i c a t e d   M a r k e t e r


hen you’re a B2B marketer who’s spent years generating demand and filling your 

leads pipeline through content, it’s surreal to come across marketing bloggers and 

pundits who claim there’s no such thing as a content marketing strategy. 

I see the point that some of these critics of content marketing are trying to make: that 

the term ‘marketing strategy’ gets used too loosely these days. However, by attacking the 

validity of content marketing strategies they are definitely wide of the mark. Content marketing 

doesn’t always involve strategy, but it certainly can and it certainly should. And that’s an impor-

tant point to clear up for any marketer looking to derive value from content.


When people claim “there is no such thing as content marketing strategy”, they’re usual-

ly aiming to prove their superior knowledge of marketing theory. The line of attack goes 

something like this: there can be no such thing as a content marketing strategy, because 

content marketing is just a tactic. Your marketing strategy, on the other hand, is a high-lev-

el formula for how your business is going to compete and create value. It can’t be built 

around one single, tactical approach. Anyone claiming to have a content marketing 

strategy, the argument goes, doesn’t understand marketing.

You’ll often find a line like this in a post that claims content marketers  

are obsessed with stealing budget from advertising, that we’re not interested  

in ROI, or that we’re snake-oil sales folk claiming to offer miraculous 


organic reach without the need for paid-for media. The people making  

the argument think they’re demonstrating that content marketers don’t 

understand marketing; what they’re really demonstrating is that they 

themselves don’t understand content.

The crucial difference between content marketing 

tactics and content marketing strategy

and how to build one

Why content 


strategy matters


S o p h i s t i c a t e d   M a r k e t e r       61

L O N G   F O R M


62      S o p h i s t i c a t e d   M a r k e t e r

A genuine content marketing strategy revolves around the 

carefully considered exchange of valuable content for valua-

ble engagement, with a commitment to identifying and 

measuring that value. As such, it is closely integrated with the 

proposition of your business and how you communicate that 

to your potential customers. It can and should influence your 

marketing strategy as a whole, not just the tactics that you use 

to execute that strategy.

Here’s what’s involved in moving beyond content market-

ing tactics and building a genuine content marketing strategy:


People who think of content marketing as a tactic or channel 

often assume that it’s purpose is organic reach. They jump to 

the conclusion that content is an alternative to paid-for media, 

and that it’s all about virality. In fact, that’s quite the wrong 

starting point for a content marketing strategy.

Consistently putting relevant content in front of the right 

people is an essential component in content marketing, and 

you’ll need to deploy paid media in a range of different ways 

in order to do it. Sometimes you’ll be looking to build aware-

ness and engagement at scale, sometimes you’ll be looking 

to deliver a carefully crafted sequence of content to specific 

people, potentially as part of an Account Based Marketing 

(ABM) approach.

Since virality is, almost by definition, impossible to predict 

or control, it can’t be part of a strategic approach to content. 

If your goal in producing content is to gain cheap 

reach and hope for some general upswelling 

in awareness then you are going to struggle 

to connect this to business outcomes and 

business strategy in any meaningful way. A 

strategy focused on producing viral hits 

isn’t a content marketing strategy.



Content-is-a-tactic marketers 

also assume that content can 

be picked up and put down as 

and when immediate market-

ing objectives demand it. Plenty 

of businesses suddenly discover an 

appetite for content when their agency 

pitches a one-off idea that sounds pretty 

cool, or when they’ve got a new product 

that they need to promote.

These ‘random acts of content’ have 

the effectiveness odds stacked against 

them. There’s no existing relationship 

with your brand as a content produc-

er that predisposes the audience to 

pay attention. When you arrive in 

someone’s social media feed out of 

the blue, offering ‘useful’ content 

that really means recommend-

ing people use your products, 

there’s no sense of authenticity. When you have an entertain-

ing idea with no obvious connection to your business strategy, 

then you’re not really engaging in marketing at all.


Content marketing strategy is really a response to what now 

happens when you pay to reach an audience with marketing 

communications. As writers like Seth Godin have argued for 

years, you can no longer rely on buying that audience’s atten-

tion just by paying to interrupt what they’re doing.

On the screens that people spend most of their day looking 

at, they only pay attention to what their judgment and experi-

ence tells them is worth paying attention to. If you want that 

attention, you need to deliver something of value in exchange: 

entertaining, inspiring or informative. You have to matter. 

Engaging an audience is now a form of transaction in itself. 


A content marketing strategy therefore starts with a value 

proposition: How can you deliver fair value in exchange 

for your audience’s engagement, whilst ensuring that their 

engagement is delivering fair value to your business?

L O N G   F O R M


S o p h i s t i c a t e d   M a r k e t e r       63

Just as with the value proposition 

for your business as a whole, there 

are many different elements at play 

when it comes to working this out: 

from your audiences’ needs to the 

competitive content landscape, the 

relative value of what you have to 

offer compared to what else is out 

there, and the need to differenti-

ate your content from the rest. Most 

importantly, there’s the question of 

what someone engaging with your 

content is worth to your business. How 

will it move your business forward?


I remember one of our account teams at LinkedIn working 

with McGraw Hill Financial, a business that sells specialist 

financial market data in the form of newsletter subscriptions. 

Understandably, McGraw Hill Financial’s marketing team 

had carefully guarded this value. They limited themselves to 

driving trials and generating leads by offering free trials of 

their subscriptions. Their activity was all promotion-led. The 

trouble was, it wasn’t generating anything like the number of 

leads that they needed.

The McGraw Hill Financial marketing team overcame this 

through a content marketing strategy. That strategy started by 

differentiating the types of content that the business owned, 

and the different types of value that they could deliver. They 

distinguished between the types of information they were 

happy to share freely in the LinkedIn feed to build awareness, 

more in-depth studies that they could share in exchange for 

contact details, and the full content experience which was only 

available on a trial subscription. They sequenced their value 

proposition and related it to different points in their prospects’ 

consideration journey. They updated their business model in 

a way that recognized the need to exchange value in order to 

engage. The results were really spectacular: a big increase in 

the number of leads, and a stronger flow through from trial 

subscriptions to paying subscriptions.

These are the types of strategic choices that turn business-

es into content marketing businesses. They aren’t simply 

a case of choosing to add some content marketing to the 

media schedule. They involve strategic thinking about how 

the business model can stretch to include sharing valuable 

content in exchange for engagement.

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