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This post was originally posted to the Greenbok Marketing Services blogIt is reposted here with permission.

“I’m your hero!”

Say that out loud. If someone is in the room with you or nearby, say it to him or her, too. The reaction is likely to be confusion. That’s because becoming a hero to someone is a lot like getting a nickname. You can’t claim it. It’s given to you. (Imagine Superman running around shouting, “I’m a hero!”) Super powers aside, there’s something even more important about being a hero. And it has to do with how we understand ourselves.

You don’t become the hero by saying you’re a hero. But when we look at agencies all over the world, we see a pretty common communication structure.

  1. We are SuperFirm (Introduction)
  2. You’ve got a problem. (Define the problem)
  3. We promise to solve your problem. (Make a promise)
  4. Look at all these other problems we’ve solved. (Reasons to believe)

This is a pretty standard approach to marketing and communicating with our clients. But this is at odds with how we actually approach our relationships with our clients. The statement essentially says “I’m your hero!” Clients don’t actually want heroes. They want to be heroes.

The Psychology of Being a Hero

Within psychology, there’s a field of study known as narrative psychology. Narrative psychologists study how we use stories to make sense of ourselves (our lives) and the world around us. One of the central ideas is that we understand ourselves in a narrative structure. We create stories about our lives that define who we are and who we will one day be. When it comes to these life stories, we are always the central character.

We are always the heroes of our own stories.

Our clients are always the heroes of their stories.

This means if you’re claiming to be a hero in their story, you’ve got a conflict.

Most agencies position the client as a damsel in distress in need of rescue – and the agency as the handsome knight riding in on a white horse. In a crowded marketplace, this approach appears to make sense. We want to stand apart from others. We want to be super.

Fortunately, you can still be super while allowing your clients to be heroes. You can create a brand that integrates with their narrative. You can differentiate yourself from your competition and celebrate your unique benefits. You do so by finding a role in your client’s story.

If Not the Hero, Then What?

There are numerous roles or parts you can take within your client’s narrative. These are some of the most common, drawn from sociologists such as Joseph Campbell and the academic literature in narrative psychology.

  1. Mentor/Guide – The mentor is the person who helps the hero through the journey. Trusted advisors play this role for their clients and help clients not only with the project but with navigating the organizational challenges beyond the project. Think Dumbledore to Harry Potter.
  2. Herald – The herald may show the hero a better world or warn of threats in the future. Organizations that have developed new methodologies may fit this space as they help the client envision a new way of doing things. Think Morpheus in The Matrix.
  3. Trickster – The trickster often acts as comedic relief in the story but can play a more serious role – challenging the status quo. Many clients require third parties to help them challenge the status quo (with or without the jokes) and this role can be a valuable role for more innovative agencies. Think Ford Prefect from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Here’s how our fictional company, SuperFirm, might sound as the guide in the client’s narrative:

  1. We are SuperFirm (Introduction)
  2. We understand you have a goal and barriers to achieving your goal. (Define your client’s goal and the problem.)
  3. We are here to be a guide toward your goal. (Position yourself as a guide (in this case), herald, or trickster.)
  4. You can achieve your goal. (Position the client as the hero.)

What’s important to note in this version is that SuperFirm doesn’t attain the client’s goal; the client does. The client is the hero from the very beginning.

You may find your firm’s role is a combination of those above or a different one entirely. Once you’ve found your role, you can begin to reimagine the narrative with your products and services. You can begin to reframe the client’s journey with you in it. You will find new ways to create heroes out of your clients. Your communications will shift from being “I’m the hero!” to “Here’s how I can help you be heroic!” And once you’ve made the client a hero, you may find yourself a hero, too.

Go ahead, put on the cape.