Mentor Marketing: Who’s the Protagonist of Your Brand Story?

One of the first things they teach you in creative writing classes is this truism: if you want to tell a story, you need a protagonist. 

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that a narrative without a protagonist isn’t possible. After all, they call us creative writers for a reason. But the fact remains, if you want to tell a good story, one that lingers in the mind and leaves a good impression, you’re probably going to need someone to move the plot along.

Here’s the thing about protagonists though: everyone fancies themselves one. The problem with that mentality is that it lends itself to egocentrism—to thinking that everyone around us exists to help us reach our goals, rather than the other way around. In other words, it’s a good way to alienate your customer base really fast. 

If we want our marketing to be successful, if we want people to actually like our company, we need to be doing the opposite. We need to make our customers the hero of the story. Our company’s role then becomes that of the wizened mentor, aiding the hero on his grand quest.

To put it plainly, we need to see ourselves as Gandalf, not Frodo. Now let’s talk about how to achieve mentor marketing.

Gandalf Gif

Every Good Story Needs a Protagonist…

Let’s start with the basics. First, a definition. A protagonist is the focal point of a narrative. It’s their actions that drive the plot forward. This process of making decisions, taking action, and moving the plot forward (for better or worse) is referred to by some intellectuals (especially web comic artist Howard Taylor) as “protagging.” Protagging is the quintessence of protagonism; you cannot be a protagonist unless you are the one moving things along.

That doesn’t mean that protagonists operate in a vacuum, however. Quite the opposite; protagonists need a few things for their story to be engaging. Three of the most common tropes utilized by protagonists are:

  1. Having a quest worth pursuing
  2. Acquiring tools to help them overcome obstacles
  3. Finding a mentor to guide them toward their goal

Hopefully by now the metaphor is starting to make sense. Customers are ultimately the ones who decide to make the sale, not you, so they are clearly the one driving the “plot.” Their quest is whatever your product or service helps them do. And the tool, the magic sword they use in their quest, is that product or service. That only leaves one role left for your business to play. 

You’re the one who’s going to give them the magic sword.

Luke Skywalker receiving his lightsaber

Mentor/Protege vs. Hero/Sidekick

Before we go any further, there’s an important distinction to be made regarding the relationship between the sage and the rising hero. The way the relationship is framed depends on, again, which character is protagging. If the story focuses on the character that’s being guided, you have a Splinter/Ninja Turtle situation. 

If, instead, the central conflicts of the story are resolved primarily by the wizened one, you have a Batman/Robin situation. At least in this circumstance (as much as it pains me to say it), you do not want to be Batman. 

You want to give control of the buyer’s journey to the buyer. Why? Because excluding monopolies and captive audiences (looking at you, Comcast), you can’t actually force a buyer through the funnel. They can be persuaded, seduced, cajoled, or even bamboozled, but never forced. All you can do is create an environment that facilitates protagging.

In other words: be the mentor they need to guide them toward the end of their quest.

What Makes a Good Mentor?

Now, not all mentors are created equal. Some are great, like Alfred (who helped shape a young boy into a brooding agent of justice), and Obi-Wan Kenobi (who taught young Luke to believe in something greater than himself). Others are…less so. Like Dumbledor, who does practically nothing to protect the kids at his school (Spooky forest full of monsters? Send the 11-year-olds!).

Dumbledore

Okay, I may have gotten lost in the metaphor a bit. You’re (hopefully) not endangering any impressionable 11-year-olds. But that doesn’t mean executing on mentor marketing comes easy. Helping the customer arrive where you want them to go requires following certain guidelines, like the following:

  1. Focus on the protege’s needs
  2. Educate the protege and point them in the right direction
  3. Give the protege the necessary tools to overcome challenges
  4. Let the protege have all the credit

Lastly, as a mentor, you need to know when to back away and let the protagonist fend for themselves. What do I mean by that? Well for one, that means “don’t pester them with a deluge of emails.” A gentle reminder now and then that you exist and have something of value to offer them isn’t bad. But, like a bad first date, desperation looks very unattractive. 

“Okay smart guy,” I hear you quip, “That’s great and all, but what does this look like in practice?”

Well, since you asked…

What This Looks Like in Practice

Good brand storytelling is not dissimilar from interactive forms of media, like video games. You invite the protagonist into the story, letting them stand at the helm. You give them gentle nudges in the direction you want them to go, showing them how to get what they want. And you avoid heavy-handed tactics that make you seem desperate or domineering. 

A good example of this is the old piece of advice “discuss benefits, not features.” Features are all about you. Your awesome company and its awesome product/service. Customers don’t really care about that, at least, not at first. 

What they care about is their New Year’s resolution to lose weight, or how they’re overwhelmed with expense reports at work. Everyone has parts of their life that could be enhanced, made easier, or otherwise improved (even if they don’t know it yet). If you talk about what they care about, you’ll go a long way to earning their trust, and their interest.

So when you’re planning content and building strategies, do your research. Find out what people are searching for online, or talk to the customer service and sales teams to find out what questions they get the most. Understand what needs your audience has, and then find ways to meet them, both with the content, and by pointing them towards your company’s offerings.

And when you do keyword research, be sure to avoid the urge to create content aimed solely at the algorithm. Google might like your “optimized” but useless content now, but as it improves, your work will quickly become irrelevant and invisible. Give them something of value in your content and marketing materials, or your high KPIs won’t last. 

Epilogue

In the end, your marketing efforts, from website copy, to ads, to content, should all be focused on how your customers can complete their quest, and how you can help them get there. Avoid the temptation to grandstand. The story isn’t about you, or how awesome you are; it’s about how you can help customers get what they want. 

As mentioned above, they don’t care about you and your company getting what you want (not initially, at least). But if you do it right, and you build a healthy relationship with your customers and your audience, they will start to care. They will come to value your company, and will want to see it succeed. But only if you’re not sending them into the forest where all the monsters are.