IN THE FIRST AVENGERS MOVIE, you see a team of superheroes join together to fight a common enemy. They use their powers to save the world, with little to no regard for their own safety.
But you don’t know why. You don’t know what makes the Avengers The Avengers.
For that you need to see the first Iron Man movie, or read the original comics for each character’s “origin story” – the reasons behind why they are who they are.
The origin story is not new or isolated to superheroes. This idea has been around since time immemorial, from ancient myths to modern novels (and yes, comic books.) It is central to the storytelling “Hero’s Journey” championed by Joseph Campbell and embraced by Hollywood screenwriters.
Brands have origin stories too, but often these stories are distorted by time or mythologized beyond recognition. And while brands champion “storytelling” as a marketing tool, their stories sometimes lack the authenticity necessary to make an honest human connection.
It’s time for that to change. It’s time for brands to embrace their origins and, in doing so, become true superheroes who are driven by purpose and who live the stories they tell.
Three Types of Origin Stories
While every origin story is different, they tend to fall into one of three categories:
Trauma is popular in origins of the “anti-hero” or the reluctant crime fighter. Bruce Wayne’s traumatic fall down a bat-infested well, combined with seeing his parents murdered, turned him into Batman. Bruce Banner suffered a very physical trauma from gamma radiation that turned him into the Hulk.
For brands, the “trauma” is rarely that dramatic. Sometimes the trauma is financial or is a product of circumstance; the trauma also might be a market or technological disruption (e.g., the Web giving birth to e-commerce and Amazon.)
- AirBNB – When founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia had trouble paying their rent, they addressed their “financial trauma” by turning their apartment into a place for temporary lodgers. They built their own site rather than use Craigslist so their listing would be more “personal,” and AirBNB was born
- Uber – The simple act of hailing a cab turned into a traumatic experience for Uber founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, when they were stuck in a Paris rainstorm with loads of luggage and no transportation. In solving their trauma, they made getting a ride a lot easier for all of us
Destiny is the origin story most like the traditional Hero’s Journey. A “normal” person is suddenly thrust into an abnormal world or situation –and after some reluctance, the hero accepts his or her calling. Think Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or DC Comics’ Wonder Woman, whose multiple origin stories over the decades involved her being “destined” for greatness and a heroic life.
- Apple – Destiny is sometimes confused with fate. While the origin of Apple fits both descriptions, co-founder Steve Jobs had the aptitude and vision to do something great as far back as his high school years. By the time he partnered with Steve Wonziak to create a new kind of personal computer, Jobs was well on his way to fulfilling his destiny and changing our culture along with it
Chance is perhaps the most common origin story for both superheroes and brands. Let’s be honest, Peter Parker was just in the wrong place at the wrong time when he got bit by that spider (though it was the chance murder of his uncle that caused Spiderman to use his powers for selfless good.)
Brands, however, are notorious for turning random chance into successful businesses or new categories altogether.
- Toms – Like many brand origin stories, the Toms story is deeply tied to that of its founder, Blake Mycoskie. A vacation in Argentina, a chance meeting in a café with a charity group collecting shoes for needy children and a desire to make a difference led to Toms and its “buy one, give one” business model
Heroes Without Flaws Aren’t Human
One caution when building your origin story, whether rooted in trauma, destiny or chance: Be careful not to confuse anecdote with narrative. Uber, for example, begins with a memorable anecdote about being stuck in the rain, but there is more to the story than that “aha” (or “uh oh”) moment. There were challenges and doubts and all the various ups and downs that make a superhero complete.
A hero without flaws is not human and therefore not relatable to an audience. Take time to develop an authentic narrative that pulls the audience in and puts them inside your story.
The Origin Story’s Superpower – Empathy
Superheroes don’t need an origin story, they can just be super and leave it at that. The same goes for brands – read pretty much any brand’s “about us” page and it will be all about that brand today, right now, without any nod to the path it took to get there.
But stories without emotion are not stories. They don’t capture our attention or imagination and are easily forgotten.
An origin story’s greatest power is empathy; this is true for superheroes as well as brands. Empathy is what allows us mere mortals to relate on a human level and become emotionally invested.
Marketing is all about empathy – without empathy, a brand is just a logo. Lifeless. Meaningless. Pointless. When there are countless brands bombarding eyeballs every day begging for a sliver of attention, empathy is everything.
Yes, people want to know what brands do, but that’s not enough. People also want to care, they want to understand and believe in a brand’s purpose. They want to know why brands exist and they want to be part of that story.
The journey to becoming a brand superhero begins with embracing your authentic origins. Only then can you find your true superpower and use it to share your purpose with the world.
Part II: Brand Superheroes: Finding Your Power and Purpose
Part III: Brand Superheroes: Living the Stories You Tell