An elusive force exists that anchors characters, stories and brands deep into the throngs of history. It’s the rebel, the caring mother, the warrior — a backbone of storytelling that spans both longitudes and centuries.
We call it the archetype. Consciously or not, brand builders have been leveraging these archetypes for decades. When we think back to history’s most resonant and enduring brands, we can often see them at work: The Marlboro Man. Betty Crocker. Nike.
The rebel, the mother, the warrior.
Throughout the decades that brands have used archetypes, however, brand communication was mostly one-way, visual advertising. Now it’s becoming conversational.
How can brands further leverage these archetypes in this modern environment of conversation and community building?
To help understand what exactly archetypes are, let’s take a look at the Merriam Webster definition:
1. a perfect or typical specimen
2. an original model or pattern; prototype
3. a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, etc
For our purposes, we’re mostly concerned with the third definition. It may also help to understand the larger role of archetypes by comparing them to stereotypes, as seen in this pyramid graphic adapted from Jon Howard-Spink:
He states that brands rooted in stereotypes are simplistic and undifferentiated. Brands rooted in archetypes (“universal and eternal truths,” as he calls them) are rich and distinctive. But what makes these archetypes so powerful?
The Power of Archetypes
Archetypes provide something familiar and relatable that, according to Shaun Crowley, taps into deep-seated human needs:
Look hard enough, and you’ll see that a lot of advertisements draw on a universal, deep-seated need (an archetype). They tug on the readers’ primitive emotions, playing to their deepest needs, ambitions, desires, and sometimes, fears.
As Crowley points out, archetypes are not only deep-seated, but generally universal. The most basic ones can be found ingrained in the fabric of folklore all across the globe and throughout history (as far as culture-specific archetypes go, I’ll be writing about that in a future article).
Howard-Spink emphasizes the need to be a part of something larger:
Ironically, in this postmodern age when people are supposedly no longer interested in meta-narratives with common understanding, brand development is nothing short of creating a story that people want to be part of; a character with values that have deep resonance which our target audience want to emulate or be associated with.
Archetypes are powerful because they satisfy basic, universal human needs of belonging. So how can brands use them?
Research by Dr. Paul Riedesel of Action Marketing Research unearths an interesting way to incorporate archetypes into brands. Rather than segmenting audiences according to demographics, he argues they can also be segmented according to archetypal personas:
When consumers encounter advertising directed at archetypes rather than semifictional segment averages, they will be more likely to recognize the objects of the advertising. It is true that most consumers are mixtures of several archetypes, but many will be dominated by a given archetype (a statistic which can be calculated) and in any case the type of consumer evoked in such advertising will ring true (advertising verité?)
Indeed, Riedesel even links us to a method for quantitatively measuring and comparing archetypes.
The implication of this idea is a powerful one: With archetype segmentation, the goal should be to aim messages at what consumers want to be, not what they are.
Conversational Brand Archetypes
Archetypes have traditionally been incorporated through visual advertising. A few years back, Olivier Blanchard of The Brand Builder argued that messaging isn’t even important for strong brands who use them:
Does Apple need a tagline? Does iPod need messaging? Does Starbucks? Does Nike? Does Porsche? Does Halliburton? Does PowerBar? Does Disney? Ben & Jerry? Staples? Ferrari? Cartier? Target? Heineken? PR pros will argue that they do. The reality is that they don’t. If the brand you create is powerful enough – inside and out – then messaging is barely frosting on the cake. Heck, it’s little more than the colored sprinkles on the edges. The messaging is nice and it dresses things up a little, but… if you create a power brand or a love brand, it might as well be an afterthought.
Perhaps this is true to a certain extent. But since the time that article was published, brands have become far more conversational. Messaging thus plays a larger and more organic role in brand building, and there is opportunity for archetypes to find their way into these brand messages.
Brand personas now come alive and engage with us via social media, brand advocates and spokespeople. Here are some possible ways to fuse archetypes and messaging:
- Focus on what consumers want to be. Most people have in mind and archetypal character that, on some level, they strive to become. Messaging can provide assurance of that goal.
- Choose advocates that are embody an archetype that’s in-line with your brand image. If you’re brand is a “hero,” then find yourself a modern-day Odysseus.
- Use a brand persona that reflects your brand’s archetype. If you have a persona constructed with archetypes in mind, archetypal messaging will naturally follow.
Archetypes have the power to make a brand fulfilling and enchanting. But even with a method of quantitative measurement, they remain an abstract idea. Taking archetypes past the theoretical barrier and finding practical uses for them may not be convincing enough for some brand managers. But if care is taken to research and utilize them, the benefits will undoubtedly pay of. As Seth Godin once said:
Gravity’s causes are unknown, but we still need to factor it in to our lives. Same with archetypes. We don’t have to understand them to leverage them.
What are your thoughts on archetypes? Share them in the comments below.
Linked in this Article
- A Gallery of Archetypes – Meta-Religion.com
- Archetypal Analysis in Marketing Research: A New Way of Understanding Consumer Heterogeneity – By Dr. Paul Riedesel – Action Marketing Research [PDF]
- Cut through Advertising Clutter with Archetypes – Shaun Crowley – CreativePro.com
- Merriam Webster – “archetype”
- Mitakuye Oyasin: We Are All Related – By Dr. A.C. Ross – Amazon.com
- Archetypes – By Seth Godin – Seth’s Blog
- Using archetypes to build stronger brands – By Jon Howard-Spink – AdMap [PDF]
- Jon Howard-Spink on Twitter
- Archetypes & Brands – Olivier Blanchard – The Brand Builder
- Olivier Blanchard on Twitter