Stories and Risk

People make sense of the world in the form of stories. We all have stories. You have a story. Your team has a story. Your customers have stories. Companies have stories, which they spend great sums of money crafting and managing and protecting. Customers have opinions about company stories, which is largely what brand perception is.

When outsiders hijack a company’s narrative, what’s called “brandjacking,” the business risk can be severe. One of the most famous examples is SeaWorld and Blackfish. Blackfish was a film by Gabriela Cowperthwaite about the effects of keeping killer whales in captivity. It came out in 2013 and resulted in SeaWorld’s stock tanking for four years (Rice & Zegart, 2018). This is now referred to as the “Blackfish Effect.”

We more often hear of politicians “controlling the narrative” in a pejorative way, and yet it’s something we could all benefit from. Our personal narratives impact our success, our moods, even our health. In scenario planning, companies and organizations explore narrative futures to mitigate risk. Marketing itself can be thought of as the writing and telling of a company’s narrative.

Notice these “narratives” are all just stories. Blackfish was a $76k documentary. It told a story. Stories have plots. They’re about people doing things. They’re full of characters that fall in different roles; and, even in our own stories, we all play different roles at different times. Don Miller and J. J. Peterson at StoryBrand argue there are four archetypal roles we often play: We can be a victim, a villain, a hero, or a guide.

These roles are inside all of us. We may start as a victim and then step up and become a hero; or, we may become bitter and slide into acting like a villain. Both heroes and villains face struggles. Both have felt pain. As Peterson puts it, the difference between them is the response: Heroes redeem the pain; villains revenge the pain (Hughes, 2020). And victims, well, victims do neither.

Peterson argues there are no good stories about victims. In a way, they aren’t even writing their stories. Their stories are happening TO them, caused by some perceived villain. In other words, victims are living “at cause,” not “at effect.” The victim has sacrificed autonomy; he blames villains and passively awaits heroes to rescue. Oh, and if this makes you think of drama triangles, well, you’re not alone.

In a Karpman triangle, the villain of course is the persecutor. The victim is already there. The hero and guide are more complicated. The guide has often already been a hero. She shows the hero how to overcome some difficulty. The hero goes on a journey and faces some struggle. Miller (2017) argues this journey contains universal elements we all respond to, here shown in all caps: A HERO faces some PROBLEM, some struggle. A GUIDE steps in who has been there before. He gives the hero a PLAN. The hero ACTS, avoids FAILURE, and finds SUCCESS.

The hero teeters between possible failure or success, the story between a bad or good ending. Without this, the story is boring. The hero undergoes some change. Maybe she was a victim who became the hero. Maybe she takes on a villain and frees other victims. The hero then risks playing rescuer, which fails to free victims of their victim MENTALITY. (As shown in the diagram, another risk is when playing hero is perceived to fail. The victim then often pivots and begins persecuting the rescuer.)   

These universal elements, Miller argues, apply to companies, to products and product teams, to organizations and their employees. One of the main mistakes companies and product teams make is casting THEMSELVES as the hero. Teams shouldn’t be telling a story in which they are the hero—they should be trying to make their CUSTOMERS the hero. Your customers don’t want a hero. Remember Mad Max? Remember the Tina Turner song in Part 3?

The bottom line is your customers DON’T CARE about your offering…apart from their own struggles. They’re looking for guides that offer clear paths to action, paths that allow THEM to become heroes. We tend to focus on customers’ external problems, the surface tasks they need to get done. More important for a solution, Miller says, are their INTERNAL problems, their deeper frustrations and fears.

As Peterson puts it, if a brand isn’t relevant to the hero’s burning questions, she’ll just move on to the next one. The hero must know what’s at stake, must see a clear difference in her life by engaging with an offering vs. not. And it’s not up to her to connect those dots. It’s up to YOU, because you’re the GUIDE.

This pertains to coaching as well. Coaches must constantly guard against rescuing, against playing the hero. The coach, interestingly, isn’t really a guide either. He’s more a meta-guide: The coach is helping the EXECUTIVE function as guide. As Mary Beth O’Neill outlines, the coach is drawn into a triangle with the exec and her issue, whatever it is. If the exec is more focused on getting the coach to help, and the coach becomes more focused on helping with the issue, then the result is rescuing, not coaching. (Image adapted from O’Neill, 2000.)

Our first example above, brandjacking, is often a sort of “guerilla marketing” done for the sake of advocacy. It’s an attempt to “recast” the company being brandjacked into the villain in its own story. Here’s another example. Brands such as Nestlé, Pepsico, and Hershey have been accused of destroying massive amounts of rainforest, even illegally.

Ten years ago, Greenpeace began posting mock Nestlé ads on Facebook with a KIT KAT logo that read “Killer.” Nestlé declared it would delete all such posts from its fan page. John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace U.K., commented that this move backfired, leading to the ads going viral (Rice & Zegart, 2018). This attempt to recast Nestlé as villain was meant to change how it sources its palm oil. Given that its stock price was relatively unchanged and that Nestlé appears to still be destroying rainforest, this was ultimately not a very successful narrative battle. Still, it was all storytelling, and there were millions of dollars at stake.

To close, let’s say you’re on a product team. How can this idea of stories help your work? Well, as stated above, your customer is the hero, not you. Knowing this, here are some questions your team should be able to answer:

  • What does the hero want?
  • How will his life be different if he gets what he wants?
  • What’s the so what?
  • From her point of view, what is opposing her?
  • What’s the villain?
  • What are her external problems, the tasks she must complete, problems she must solve, etc.?
  • What are her internal problems, her underlying frustrations or fears?
  • What is his philosophical problem? How might your solution contribute to his sense of self?
  • What is the hero’s story gap that demands resolution?
  • How does your offering help with this?
  • What does the hero need to take action on?
  • How are you giving the hero a clear call to action?
  • How will the hero’s life be different because of your offering?
  • How will a “happy ending” here make the world a better place?

As you can imagine, working with personas and scenarios can help you answer such questions, but only if done right. A persona is just a character. As Kim Goodwin points out, personas without scenarios are like characters without plots. The point of course is this: YOU HAVE TO TELL THE STORY.


Hughes, L. (2020). How to position yourself as the guide (not the hero) with Dr. J. J. Peterson. First Time Facilitator (episode 114). Retrieved from:

Miller, D. (2017). Building your StoryBrand: Clarify your message so customers will listen. Nashville, TN: HarperCollins Leadership.

O’Neill, M. B. (2000). Executive coaching with backbone and heart: A systems approach to engaging leaders with their challenges. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Regier, N. (2017). Conflict without casualties: A field guide for leading with compassionate accountability. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Rice, C. & Zegart, A. (2018). Political risk: How businesses and organizations can anticipate global insecurity. New York: Twelve.

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