We all love a good story, but what are they for? Telling stories around the campfire was the human species’ evolutionary advantage. Stories teach us how to live a good life, warns us of hidden dangers, and helps us benefit from the experience of others. Much of what holds civilization together is our capacity for storytelling: our institutions, religions, tribes, only work so long as we collectively believe the same shared narrative. Your company’s brand is really just the sum total of the stories you tell, and “what other people say about you when you're not in the room,” as Jeff Bezos, Founder of Amazon, once remarked. So the ability to tell a good story is a superpower, because the best stories get remembered and shared, efficiently transmitting whatever message you wanted to impart. Stories affect our behavior: they make us more likely to take one action over another, when faced with a problem.
It stands to reason that a good story needs to contain a non-obvious truth. If the truth was obvious, no benefit to telling it. Stories help us examine our blind spots and biases, reminding us of the way the world really works, or sharing with us a vision of how it could work if we want it bad enough. They contain enduring messages that solve perpetual problems. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey teaches us that an unlikely hero can accomplish great things. Rags to Riches stories tell us that anyone can make it, no matter where they come from. Icarus stories warn us of the dangers of excessive pride. Consciously and subconsciously, these stories guide how we live, shaping our behavior. Imagine a society where these stories didn’t exist. We’d have fewer heroic deeds, lower upwards social mobility, and more falls from grace. These stories are powerful because they show us our default assumptions may be wrong.
If we want to make our own successful stories – to promote our brands and products – we first to identify what nonobvious truths to build our stories around. We often pick up on these lessons subconsciously, but if we want to identify the nonobvious truths hidden in the stories we know, a useful tool is the Semiotic Square. Developed by Algirdas J. Greimas, a French linguist, but tracing its roots back to Aristotle’s logical square of opposition, a Semiotic square contrasts two opposing concepts. For an example let’s take the Semiotic Square for the Hero’s Journey: common to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Spider Man, and most other popular stories. There is always a battle between Good and Evil, and we’re forced to confront the question “How can something Good be Strong?”. Normally we expect Evil to be unassailably strong, because Good people don’t typically spend all of their time amassing power. The story needs to teach us that what looks like power is usually weakness, and that good people can prevail against the odds.
At the heart of every Semiotic Square is a contradiction. Faced with a growing evil power, we might be tempted to do nothing. The story tells us that we’re stronger than we think, and if we persevere, we can win against the odds. We can be the hero of our own story. You can break down any popular story with this framework, and once you get in the habit you’ll see it everywhere. For example Beauty and The Beast, provides us the non obvious truth that something Ugly can be Good. Typically we expect Ugly things to be Bad and Beautiful things to be Good: it’s how our brains are wired. Facial symmetry is an indicator of genetic fitness so we’re evolutionarily biased towards it. However from the story we learn that the conventionally handsome Gaston is actually the bad guy, and the beast is capable of redemption. The fable of the Tortoise and the Hare grants us wisdom along a different axis. We expect the speedy Hare to win, but instead we learn the folly of rushing ahead: slow and steady wins the race. This novel information sticks in our heads, and the next time we’re caught up in the rat race, it might help us relax.
This tool doesn’t just apply for those hoping to create works of fiction. The Semiotic Square is a reliable way to spot new business opportunities, unmet consumer needs, and unique insights for advertising campaigns. A famous example is Apple’s 1984 ad, which depicted Microsoft as the ‘evil empire’ and Apple as the rebel alliance. In another example Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign builds on the exact same truth we learned from Beauty and the Beast: that conventional beauty is not automatically universally good, and that people of all shapes and sizes can be beautiful. Along another dimension, we can explain the success of Guinness’s much celebrated “Good things come to those who wait” campaign. We normally expect success to be gifted to the impatient few, eager to get ahead. Guinness turns this on its head, instead saying that you need to hang back to get the best rewards. It’s a modern day Tortoise and Hare story, but this time carrying a valuable brand association. Consumers don’t reject the injection of the brand into the story, because it actually fits the narrative. Pints of Guinness actually do take relatively longer to pour. What Guinness have cleverly done is taken an assumed weakness, and reframed it as an unexpected strength. What stories can you tell about your brand that can do the same?
Apple - 1984
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Square of opposition
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