The Hero’s Journey: Building Extraordinary Brands


Larry Lubin, Co-Founder and President, sits down with Tony Magee, Founder of Lagunitas Brewing, to discuss The Hero’s Journey and how it can be used to build extraordinary brands. Tony created Lagunitas, an extraordinary brand, using The Hero’s Journey as his guide. Lagunitas is the subject of a 2017 Harvard Business School case. Lubin Lawrence has worked for Lagunitas to understand the essence of the Lagunitas brand.

The Hero’s Journey was identified by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work The Hero With A Thousand Faces as a central narrative pattern that can be found in world mythology. Campbell’s work has heavily influenced modern storytelling, including Star Wars, The Lion King, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

L: From your perspective, what is The Hero’s Journey?

T: The Hero’s Journey is a way to understand and even drive authentic, real life experiences through the format of a describable narrative. It is the central theme in every questing story. It provides a way to back-test experiences for authenticity and legitimacy, but it can also function as a road map to drive the experiences that must be undergone in order to arrive at a high-value, or authentic, endpoint.

L: Why is this myth so central to all stories?

T: Because it describes the essential question of being alive, it helps one discover the answer to the question, “What do I do next?” It is also the myth, the seed myth, at the center of all other myths which themselves are all the stories we tell ourselves to illuminate a way forward. Carl Jung also referred to it indirectly as a way of interpreting one’s own life and the need to be the hero in your own story. By becoming that, you become yourself. It has a fractal nature, it is present at every scale of decision making.

L: Psychologists say that there are four drivers of human behavior: fear, authenticity, meaning, and social connection. Do you think the myth’s power is that it seems to hit all the drivers of human behavior?

T: Yes. Another way of thinking about it is that the most powerful human urge, after staying alive, is to be understood. Most of what everybody does is about being understood, it’s about finding authenticity, finding meaning. The only way of finding authentic meaning and social connection is through being understood by others.

L: Flipping it around now, what’s the relationship between The Hero’s Journey and Brand Building?

T: The first question of responding to any of those four drivers is always “what should I do next?”, and to act on that question one reaches for tools. Brands play a role in human life as tools in pursuit of your own journey. Either they aid your journey or they inhibit it. People fall in love with brands because they aid the journey, the way drinking a beer might make you feel a certain way or give you a different projected appearance to others.

L: When I was doing work for Lagunitas, the power of the brand was in its meaning to its drinkers.

T: We always thought in terms of cryptic story and operatic drama in projecting the Lagunitas branding. It rose from ourselves. Personally, I’m a mess, but before the brewery I always thought I had something to offer. I didn’t really know what to do, didn’t have any idea about brand creation, so I started the brewery by just doing private labels for local restaurants, no particular consumer-facing branding. I didn’t have a clue how to do anything beyond that, and that model quickly grew to its limitations. It was still a very small business, and I had to build a brand. All I knew was myself, I liked humor and I liked playing with expectations. That’s where it started.

I suppose it was a bit of therapy for me to figure out how to get it out there but we projected what we knew and it was all we had. We hoped that people recognized an individual voice. It was kind of amateurish but we got better at it as time went on. It was my process, trying to find a voice, and in doing so, people recognized something in it, even sympathized with it.

This is why entrepreneurial companies are so different than mature organizations. Most are just trying to figure out how to take what they know, sometimes only principles, and transform them into something valuable. If a brand’s equity, its story, becomes too processed it just becomes a functional brand. “It does this. It does that”. That’s why entrepreneurial brands can be so much more deeply connected to consumers, because the later versions become too researched, sanitized and second guessed.

L: The power of this idea seems important to founders, but how can brand builders in huge companies use this?

T: In my limited, yet very intimate experience of large organizations, conflict is viewed as destructive. While in the real world, the world where one’s competitors and customers live, conflict it the thing that gives rise to transformation, and those two elements exist in abundance in The Hero’s Journey’s ‘Abyss’.

If there’s an enlightened individual in the company who is able to recognize their own limitations and is possessed with the idea of growing and becoming, and if an organization embraces the idea that The Hero’s Journey is the path one has to walk, then that individual will bravely aim for the Abyss, because that’s where the product insight lies, the consumer insight lies and the thing that hasn’t yet been done. Everything else is ordinary survival.

The quadrant in The Hero’s Journey diagram between 3:00 and 6:00 is the realm of temptations and distractions. Both things that tempt one to avoid office or intellectual conflict and things that’ll distract you from the goal of the Abyss. Things as prosaic as office politics or deadlines. Large organization life is saturated with these kinds of reasoned compromises. There are all sorts of good committee-driven group-think reasons to shave the sharp edges off of an idea or dumb down the design between 3:00 and 6:00.

The Abyss is the embodiment of conflict and one can find plenty of reasons to waffle at 5:00 and avoid the uncertainty of transformation. In the end, we’re all still human, still cavemen and still searching beings which is why The Hero’s Journey still pertains, and in most cases, the Abyss is what you must aim for if a transformative insight is the goal. The Abyss is used as a visual in the military’s recruitment ads – “when you see the smoke, which way will you run”?

L: When we talk about the Abyss, either we haven’t asked the right question or we haven’t found the right way to tap into something that’s not just surviving but heroic.

T: A better word for it might be Transformation. You may think you have gone through the Abyss, but until you or your understanding has been transformed, you haven’t. The only really useful part of the journey is the Abyss. The part where most people get lost is from 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock, where the distractions and temptations appear. But most people rely on deadlines and shortcuts as transformative tools, rather than actually pursuing the Abyss. In that 3-6:00 quadrant, you can end up leaving the path, and avoid the Abyss, and still have something that seems useful, but will never be transformational. Managers can understand where they and their teams are in a process by seeing The Hero’s Journey overlay on their peoples experience of a question or target, they should have an eye open at all times for The Hero’s Journey’s signposts.

Building and feeding an extraordinary brand requires a call to adventure and the transformative pass through the Abyss. Only then is a deliverable in hand – the Transformation alone reveals it. The Hero’s Journey is useful to look forward, to forecast productive conflict.

Forecasting might be too active a word, but one engaged in solving a problem, accepting the initial call to adventure, should be looking for the threshold guardians, expecting them; pulling mentors towards into the process, expecting them; looking forward toward the temptations and distractions that would derail their productive path toward the conflict of the Abyss, a transformation that will reveal, make the deliverable valuable, and by association, authentic.

The ‘a-ha’ moment occurs during that conflict, but it isn't itself the conflict. Finally, and also important, the atonement phase arrives. A realignment with the world in light of the transformative insight and the return with the treasure of insight.

L: Talk to me more about the Abyss and Transformation. Is part of that identifying the problem, what goes through your mind as you’re trying to get to the Abyss moment vs. meet the deadline moment?

T: There’s nothing transformational about meeting a deadline. To answer your question directly, everybody knows when they’ve had an ‘a-ha’ moment. You should expect they are a part of everyday. You’ve heard it said that every day you should do two things that scare you? This is that. These ‘a-ha’ moments’ are scary. They are not comfortable moments and they're pregnant with expectation and even obligation. Einstein on the train in a lightning storm. Steve Jobs seeing the Xerox GUI. Christ in Gethsemane, Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, especially Joseph Campbell and the Mono Myth itself.

Transformation can occur when you realize you are the hero in your own story and the ‘a-ha’ moment is something you have to deliver to yourself. This is what I meant earlier when I said that we thought of Lagunitas as cryptic story and operatic drama. If you treat it like it is that, it becomes that.

L: Over the next 5 years, what kind of a journey is Lagunitas on, or is that not the relevant question?

T: It’s always the relevant question, maybe the only relevant question: “What do I do next?” Part of it is still mine to deliver. I knew that Heineken and Lagunitas needed a playbook, some language to fill the gap between the enormous old world of beer and the rounding-error-scaled world that is the new world of beer. Just a month ago I read a letter from the Executive Team at Heineken asking their worldwide operating organizations to accelerate the deployment of Lagunitas worldwide, and they want Lagunitas to be, in their own words, “the Heineken of Craft”. This is an almost unbelievable moment. This is a quintessential call to adventure. This is operatic.

L: What you’re also talking about is having an intensely aware situational reality. To make those kind of insights, to make those kinds of moves.

T: But managers do live in these kinds of worlds, and they need tools. The Hero’s Journey is the tool at the center of the tool kit. However, they have pressures. Pressures to make certain numbers and meet certain deadlines, so it’s very easy take shortcuts instead of pursuing the Abyss.

L: Basically then, it’s really getting people to think and feel this Hero’s Journey, and they apply it to their life and work, then they might actually be able to have some ‘a-ha’ moments along the way and looking for an action to take that’s really important.

T: Yes. And to recognize that in that part of it, there will be lots of things that drag you from the hardest thing, and there will be lots of temptations, shortcuts that prevent transformation of the organization, and if you take those you avoid that ‘a-ha’ moment. That’s the Abyss, you have to get it right, it’s worth waiting to get it right.

I’ve read that throughout history there have been people who reflect, study, and find insight into the nature of troubles in the human experience, and when they are successful in their pursuit of insight they become so isolated that their only course forward is to bring everybody else up to where they’re at, so that they have company, so that somebody else sees what they have seen, that’s about the only motive they have for these revelation types, I mentioned a few of them earlier.

I have utilized The Hero’s Journey as a managerial/personal forecasting tool, as a targeting tool, as a lamp to show the way forward, not just as a way to back-test. What do you need to do to get to that Abyss. For big companies, I think it’s hard but important to find those managers who can embrace and employ The Hero’s Journey as a compass, a tool, as a powerful, grounding, connecting, vision-making ‘suchness'.