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Sports Marketing Can Learn From Storytellers

The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. These are some of the best-selling books in history and subsequently some of the highest grossing films of all time. So what do they all have in common? And how can sports marketing storytellers learn from them?

All three stories have hit a storytelling sweet spot, tapping into an innate human desire to hear stories of heroic quests and adventures. Even if you’re not Harry Potter’s biggest fan, the heroic quest that J.K. Rowling had chosen – for Harry Potter to defeat the evil wizard Lord Voldermort across seven novels – follows one of the most powerful forms a story can take; the battle of good versus evil.

The ability to tell a compelling story is central to PR and marketing, and this is especially true in sports marketing. Storytellers who master the heroic quest concept and successfully use it to tell their brand’s story can engage their audience, change perceptions and improve understanding in a way their contemporaries cannot.

So what exactly is the Heroic Quest and what does it consist of?

The structure of the Heroic Quest, a phrase coined by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez in their 2016 book titled ‘Illuminate’, is split into three chronological acts: The Beginning (Dream, Leap), The Middle (Fight, Climb) and The End (Arrive and Re-Dream).

Simply put, the hero in the quest must embark on a testing and long journey, overcoming set-backs and obstacles that push them to their limits, before they finish triumphant (or in some cases, fall tragically short).

We see these stories all the time in sport; Andre Agassi’s long road to recovery from injury (and a fall in the world rankings to 141) to win the US Open in 1999, Lionel Messi’s rise to become the best player the world has ever seen despite a growth hormone deficiency as a child, and Michael Phelps who has battled back from rehab following alcohol abuse and is set to compete for the USA in the 2016 Rio Olympics. It’s hard to forget Leicester City’s recent climb to the top of the Barclays Premier League and with a Hollywood film depicting the feat reportedly in the pipeline, this may well be the purest form of the heroic quest within sport we have ever seen.

‘Illuminate’ by Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez (2016)

Why does storytelling work so well in PR and marketing?Without getting bogged down too much in the science (take a look at the image below for more detail if dopamine and cortex activity float your boat) our brains are far more engaged with information presented in a storytelling form rather than cold hard facts. Science has proven we humans crave stories. We spend about one third of our lives daydreaming (this actually equates to about half of our waking hours) and another third dreaming of stories in our sleep.But stories do not just come in the form of daydreams distracting us from the day job. Stories can help us connect (the more personal to the viewer the better) with and understand ideas being presented to us. They can conjure a range emotions to help change perceptions of and behaviour towards individuals and brands.

People have a tendency to enter the worlds of the stories they are gripped by and the boundaries between what is real and not becomes increasingly blurred. A great story has the ability to transport you to another world completely. Ever wondered why films can be such tear-jerkers or why you grab the edge of your seat during horror movies? Our brains find it difficult to make the distinction between real life and a figment of someone’s imagination.

But in a world where your audience is dominated by Millenials – a demographic who are increasingly time-poor and often distracted – how can you ensure that your story successfully stands out from the crowd?

1) Make it personal

The more personal and emotive the story, the easier your audience will find it to connect and identify with the characters involved. Keep your hero individual (rather than a group or team) and your viewer is more likely to relate and feel a part of their journey. A good example of this is Under Armour’s emotive ‘Rule Yourself’ video featuring USA swimmer Michael Phelps:

2) Make it authentic

Authenticity is key. Your story should be born from a genuine place otherwise you run the risk of people switching off and, rather than valuing it, thinking of it as a disturbance. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen in Under Armour’s ‘I Will What I Want’ video that launched in 2014 is an example of authentic storytelling at its best.

3) Make it suitable for the digital age

The traditional art of storytelling is being challenged. Grab your audience’s attention in the first 15 seconds of the story and you’ve got a good chance of keeping it. The powerful Rugby World Cup 2015 advert ‘Force of Black’ by New Zealand’s kit supplier adidas quickly captured their audience’s attention to help them tell the story of the blade jersey and the force of 15 All Blacks coming together as one.

Under Armour’s ‘I Will What I Want’ and ‘Rule Yourself’ campaigns also use a shortened form of the heroic quest to great effect:

While the heroic quests found in The Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are easy enough to recognise, it takes a skilled storyteller to present the less straightforward events of day-to-day life in engaging ways, particularly as brands look for new ways to start a conversation with their audience as new technology blossoms.

There are so many heroic sporting stories out there for brands to tell. Working out how to tell that story in a way that is relevant to the brand, engaging for their audience and is powerful enough to change their perceptions is the quest that brands must embark on.