What Gladiator and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” can teach us about Marketing

What Gladiator and Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” can teach us about Marketing

Written by Matthew Oxborrow, Founder, Medici Marketing.

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Thursday 16:50pm, my desk, Bogotá, Colombia.

“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

I love hero movies.

That’s why when I watched GLADIATOR again last night, for the fifteenth time, I got excited. But this time it was different…

This time I began analysing the story through a new lens… It’s what Joseph Campbell famously called “The Heroes Journey.”

Storytellers use this framework to hook the audience in and keep their attention. As marketers, attention is the most valuable and rare resource we can receive. And we’re all fighting for it, all the time.

So I think there’s something very valuable to be learned here that you can apply to your own marketing efforts to serve more people and grow your business.

  1. THE ORDINARY WORLD

In the beginning of the movie we see Maximum as a great general, victorious in battle, loved by his army and his emperor. This is known as “The Ordinary World” where the hero is introduced sympathetically to the audience.

  1. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE

Shortly after, the world as we see it in the introduction is changed and the hero must face up to this change. In this case, Marcus Aurelius is old and dying and Commodus will become emperor.

  1. REFUSAL OF THE CALL

If you’re anything like me, you watch this scene shouting at the screen “you idiot, Maximus!!”

Maximus refuses Marcus Aurelius’ request to become temporary emperor, instead of the evil Commodus, to restore Rome to a republic state.

  1. MEETING THE MENTOR

Maximus is injured and rides to Spain, his home. With Marcus dead, Commodus as emperor, and his family raped, murdered, and burned, a slave dealer finds Maximus. Here he becomes a gladiator and meets his mentor Proximo, the gladiator who won his freedom.

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  1. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

This is the end of act one. The hero, Maximus commits to the new world with its new rules and he learns to be a gladiator, understanding that his freedom lies with winning the favour of the crowd.

  1. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES

The beginning of the middle of the story, here Maximums learns who he can trust, who he can’t and faces many tests. The tests are clear: battles in the arena. What about his allies and enemies? Can he trust the emperor’s sister? Will Proximo help him? Can he trust senator Gracchus?

  1. APPROACH

They prepare for a major challenge in the new world. Can Maximus and his allies survive the gladiatorial battles?

  1. THE ORDEAL

The battle of Carthage. The gladiators are expected to lose. But they win. Maximus faces both his greatest fear and possible death. His face is revealed to Commodus. What will Commodus do? Maximus has won the crowd. Commodus is helpless and this breathes new life and urgency into Maximus’ mission.

  1. THE REWARD

Having faced the ordeal, the hero takes possession of his reward. In this case, Maximus is rewarded with life, new allies and the possibility of fulfilling his hero’s mission. But all is not safe. He could lose his reward at any turn.

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  1. THE ROAD BACK

Three-quarters of the story is told. The hero is driven to leave the new world as he knows it in search of fulfilling his mission. Can Maximus return to his loyal army to avenge Marcus Aurelius’ death and restore Rome to its status as a republic of the people?

  1. THE RESURRECTION

At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

The plan is foiled, Maximus is caught in the middle of an army of archers and his loyal ally is killed. Maximus is in chains and at Commodus’ mercy. Commodus wounds Maximus but offers him a chance to fight in the arena.

Maximus wins. He kills Commodus and restores Rome to its Republic state.

  1. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR

The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

Maximus continues his journey “home” to his family. At peace, having fulfilled his mission.

 How Does This Help You Improve Your Marketing?

For as long as humans have communicated, storytelling has existed. We use it to teach our children and we use it to understand the world and our place in it.

We’re hard wired to do this.

Each and every one of us is the hero of our own story. We all have our own enemies, our allies and mentors; we all have a mission to fulfil and challenges to overcome.

One of the most common mistakes a business makes in its marketing is it tries to position itself as the hero. This turns customers away as it doesn’t align with your customer’s narrative.

By being the hero you’re showing your customers that you don’t understand them or their problems. You’re more concerned with yourself than you are with helping them.

That’s not a winning strategy.

If you want to get customers on your side, be like Proximo.

When your customer buys from you, they are buying the solution to a problem. Not just an external problem, but also, more importantly, an internal one.

They’re entering a new world and you’re the guide.

Your job is to help them overcome obstacles and to show them what life on the other side of your product or service looks like.

Your job is to help your customer continue on their very own hero’s journey.

Let’s take a look at a simple example…

Maybe you’re a landscape gardener. You’re not just making your customer’s garden look nicer, you’re helping them to be proud of their home when they host guests. You’re making sure they don’t feel ashamed when their neighbours come over for a summer barbecue.

You’re helping reinforce your customer’s identity as a respectable homeowner and admirable host.

You’re customer might not be fighting to the death in the arena and restoring Rome to its former glory. But you are, in your own way, helping your customer continue their very own hero’s journey.

The sooner you understand the problems you solve for your customer and clarify that in your messaging, the sooner your business will grow.

The customer is the hero, you’re the mentor.

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