How Do You Leverage The Seven Basic Plots Of Marketing?

There’s a dense, scholarly and fascinating 700 page book that’s been sitting around my house for several years now, called “The Seven Basic Plots,” subtitled “Why We Tell Stories, by the British writer Christopher Booker. Inspired by my college studies of film genre and fascination with Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, I went out and bought the hardcover immediately after reading the book review in the New York Times back in April of 2005.

I say the tome has been “sitting around” not only because it took quite a while to get through a text packed with ideas and literary references, but also that it’s nice to refer back to it from time to time for inspiration.

It seems that I’m not the only one. I just discovered an October 3, 2012 Adweek article on a panel discussion hosted by ad agency TBWA on how advertisers and their agencies can leverage the basic plots to tell deeper, more meaningful brand stories. Click on the link to learn about the 7 Plots and see examples of each from the worlds of literature and advertising.

If only more marketers would be inspired by such scholarly work to tell more compelling, meaningful, emotionally driven stories. Alas, the opposite seems to be the rule.

Like basic plots, there are a very limited number of basic marketing strategies. And as with story telling, these finite options should not be limiting. Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner and DeLillo did just fine within those confines.

But so many advertisers and their agencies never get past a very literal rendering of basic strategy in their communications.  It’s the equivalent of saying that “once upon a time there was a kingdom rife with conflict and then everyone died” instead of telling the story of Hamlet. Or Macbeth. Or King Lear.

We see this all the time. Boilerplate, paint-by-numbers marketing that doesn’t scratch the surface. Brand positionings and strategies so generic that great advertising could never find its way into the realm of the possible. Where can an agency possibly go if the creative brief states a brand’s reason for being as, “A healthy way to fill kids up after school and tide them over until dinner?”

No single category or industry has a monopoly on generic brand positionings and communications. In packaged goods, we see endless, unimaginative variations on the “Good Mom” positioning and its popular executional offshoot, “Dad is a stupid, useless goofball who can’t do anything right.”  The cereal companies are particularly adept at this, churning out this kind of “Your Product Here” advertising where the product being advertised can be replaced with anything else in its category.  The long-running Kix campaign, “Kid Tested. Mother Approved,” is a perfect example. Couldn’t that be said about any kids’ cereal? It’s not proprietary or interesting as a strategy or an execution.

Obviously, “good mom” is a good thing. We certainly wouldn’t want associate our brands with “bad moms,” would we? But, please, please, tell us something we don’t know here! If we going to go down that road, how is our good mom different from all the other good moms out there? What’s her story? What makes her interesting and human?  Why should we like her or identify with her? Surely it’s not the fact that she’s buying a processed food with little going for it other than the fact that it’s not as bad as other processed foods she might choose.

Tech companies embrace the “your product here,” naked strategy approach with equal relish. Their challenge, most often, is to convert highly abstract and technical algorithms, code and other features to emotionally resonant benefits. Many truly believe, often rightly so, that they are selling game-changing, inspirational technologies, products and services.

But all too often, they stop well short of where they need to go, broadcasting the basic plot outline rather than a complete, compelling story. Take a stroll through any major airport and take look at the B2B ads lining the walls. Or better yet, peruse the websites of a dozen or so tech companies at random. You will very likely see the same basic promises, the same “basic plots,” over and over again. And chances are good that you’ll see only the plot itself and not a unique, fascinating story based on that plot.

In an effort to stay true to my original source, I’ve outlined seven frequently used business strategies, or Basic Business Plots, below. With a few exceptions, these might all be good starting points for positioning and creative development. But slapping any of these bare bones strategies on a print ad or billboard is not creative, compelling or motivating.

  1. Next Generation/Business 2.0/The Next Level – The lazy marketer’s approach, or what to say when you can’t think of anything original or proprietary.  About as believable as the character Nigel Tufnel, from the film “This Is Spinal Tap,” when he says, “These amps are better. They go to 11. That’s one louder than 10.”
  2. We Power (These Big Companies) – Credibility by association, proof that we’ll deliver because our clients include a range of large, prestigious companies. A strong pillar of support that is often unwisely relegated to a foundational strategy role
  3. Increase Productivity – Isn’t “better, faster, cheaper” always motivating? Don’t we want to reduce head count and get more out our people?  Perhaps, but if all the research we’ve run for our tech clients over the past few years are any guide, so many companies are now making productivity claims that they no longer seem meaningful or believable. More importantly, enhanced productivity in itself isn’t a brand platform.  It’s a support point or a component of a bigger value proposition.
  4. Simplify – As the U.S. Postal Service touts in its advertising, “Business is complicated. Shipping doesn’t have to be.” In a complicated world, who doesn’t love simplification? It does work for the Post Office because they’re talking about taking a small object, placing it in a small box and sending it off for a fixed rate. Enterprise software and other highly complex products are a different story. Attractive on the surface, “simplify” is often perceived to be self-degrading.
  5. The Way Business Works/The Way You Work Now – This “plot” is generally all set up with very little pay off. I know how my business works now. You don’t need to spend anytime telling me that everything is moving more quickly and that there’s more data than I’ll ever be able to digest in this lifetime. A boring and pandering way to go, but seemingly irresistible based on how it appears
  6. The Future Of Business – Everyone is going to The Cloud. People want to work on mobile devices. And? Again, tell us something we don’t know. Not to mention that when companies say “future” they really mean “present,” and they are not fooling anyone. Even what is arguably the all time most “futuristic” and innovative TV ad ever made, Apple’s “1984,” was about the present. Regardless, many, if not most, “future” ads seem to be simple grandstanding rather than a compelling reason to consider a product.
  7. The Latest Technology – When has technology ever been proprietary? It might be today, but it won’t be for long. Moreover, who cares unless there’s a benefit for my business?

To bring this home, take a look at the following copy from the website of Schneider Electric, a global company with $32 billion in 2012 sales.


Eliminating downtime, increasing density and flexibility, faster build and deploy times are critical to your success. You need to design and deploy an IT room solution that meets your availability targets while minimizing your utility bills.  (Whatever your needs)…finding and partnering with a proven solution and services provider is essential.


Business Wise, Future Driven:  InfraStruxure™ is the private cloud and IT room architecture that is scalable and adaptable, dramatically reducing time and complexity from concept and design through installation.

  • Easy to configure and deploy
  • Adaptable to your changing business needs
  • High-performance

Clichés aside, this sure seems to be a lot of copy that says nothing at all, and a prime example of “your product here” messaging.

“Seven Basic Plots” have never limited great storytellers, and a finite number of strategies should not get in the way of creative, compelling strategy and execution. Schneider Electric is a hugely successful company that will continue to flourish based on its global reach, financial wherewithal and relentless sales force.  But not all companies have those luxuries.  Whether your company is an 800-pound gorilla or a start up, the “basic plots of marketing,” are nothing more than starting points. How we tell our stories to make those strategies our own is what really matters.

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