The Power of Myth

Humans became the dominant species on planet Earth not because of their ability to make tools, but their ability to tell stories. It is this hard-wired instinct for myth that still shapes successful brands.

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Constellations
Illustration by Andi Allison and Transom
This article is a chapter from Transom's E-Book 5 Things We Learned Building Brands and Websites for Wineries (PDF).

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors probably spent less time working than the average person alive today. Archaeologists who study contemporary hunter-gatherer societies find that they work on average 20-35 hours a week. The rest of their time is spent in community—relaxing, playing, and telling stories.

Archeologists believe that these stories enabled ancient homo sapiens to become the dominant species on the planet. Our siblings the Neanderthals were stronger, heartier, and had better tool-making capabilities, but Homo Sapiens told stories to each other in a way that gathered and motivated much larger groups, leading them to eventual dominance in Northern Europe and the globe. Today the capacity for not just communication, but shared imaginative storytelling, remains humankind’s greatest innovation. After all, what good is knowing how to get to the moon if you can’t motivate the people required to make it happen?

Successful brands understand humankind’s innate capacity and desire for narrative, and so they weave a story—a myth—about their company that transcends simple facts and resonates with people’s emotions. Because these emotions lead people to desire this product more than others, the company can sell more or charge more for whatever it is they do or sell.

If you can’t sell more or charge more simply because your name is on a product, you don’t have a brand, you’re selling a commodity.

—Seth Godin

What is a Myth?

We may think of Greek gods or urban legends when we think of myths, but myths aren't necessarily false. A myth is any story that resonates with the listener in such a way that it inspires its own retelling. Myths contain themes of our deepest humanity (fear, love, hope, etc.), concentrated to increase their emotional potency. Sometimes myths are created organically, like when historical events achieve mythic significance (e.g., the First Thanksgiving or the Titanic), but they can also be crafted to achieve a specific end (e.g., Manifest Destiny).

How do we harness the power of myth in branding?

Good branding is effective because it generates experiences that create emotional memories. Because human decision making is highly dependent on emotions, these memories are much more likely to become the basis for action in the future. When we work with branding clients, we always try to uncover the primary point of emotional resonance in their story. While developing our strategy for the Kiona website, we knew that the themes of family, humility, and home were central to the winery’s identity, so we organized our messaging to tell the story of a family that followed a hunch—and became remarkably unpretentious caretakers of one of the worlds’ hottest AVAs. While there are many other elements that make up the whole of Kiona, we always returned to these simple, emotionally resonant themes to make sure that a visitor spending 30 seconds or 30 minutes on the site would remember the same story the next time they tasted their wine.

Transom believes that there is a niche for just about every company, and the narrower the niche the more passionate the fans. The groundswell of “natural” wines so popular with Millennials today is the product of winemakers who stayed true to their passion for alternative methods—and who are now reaping the rewards.

Successful Stories

A brand story doesn’t necessarily have to be a narrative. Nike’s brand, for example, is based on the empowering nature of physical effort. Apple’s iconic ‘Think Different’ campaign could be boiled down to “inspired people use inspiring computers”. As long as it resonates emotionally, all a brand story needs is to be simple enough that it’s easy to remember, distinct enough that it doesn’t get confused with others, and clear enough that it communicates the essence of the company.

Importantly, your story should be true. If your company wasn’t really founded in 1914 it shouldn’t claim to be, and if it doesn’t actually care about the environment, it shouldn’t pretend to. Transom believes that there is a niche for just about every company, and the narrower the niche the more passionate the fans. The groundswell of “natural” wines so popular with Millennials today is the product of winemakers who stayed true to their passion for alternative methods—and who are now reaping the rewards.

In the end, branding is about creating the right feelings about your company. When we create true, emotionally resonant brand stories, we’re positioning our company for success by tapping into the very thing that makes us human.

Some Questions:

  1. What is my company about?
  2. Am I able to encapsulate what makes us unique in a single sentence?
  3. Can any of my competitors say something similar?
  4. Does that sentence inspire deeply rooted emotions?

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