Archetypes and Stereotypes

The power and the pitfalls of brand archetypes

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The term “archetype”, as it is used in marketing today, has its origins in Carl Gustav Jung’s theories. He believed that universal, mythic characters— archetypes—reside within the collective unconscious of people the world over.

Archetypal images represent fundamental human desires and evoke deep emotions. Each of the 12 archetypes we work with symbolises a basic human need, aspiration or motivation. In other words, an archetype is a human type in its purest form: the classic hero, outlaw, ruler, or wise man. Each type has its own set of values, meanings and personality traits.

The archetype has become a powerful tool in developing our brands’ relationships with our audience.  The archetype taps into the real meaning and values that the brand embodies. Yet at times there can be some confusion over how the archetype is used to develop the brand’s personality and communications.

There is a danger in seeing archetypes as a ‘stereotype’.  To develop a cardboard cut out character that is simply grafted onto the brand. Yet there are subtle depths to the character and a shallow interpretation and translation will be dismissed by an audience as clichéd and unbelievable. It is important to explore the attributes of the product or brand and anchor the archetype and its meaning in an actual benefit or truth.   Our brand cannot simply put on a suit of Explorer clothes and ‘play’ the Explorer. We have to become the Explorer, in the way we act, talk and believe. There has to be a real relationship with the brand and its archetype.

Classic characters are used to define the archetypes, but they must not be taken too literally.  Putting a bottle of water in the hands of a jungle adventurer may certainly embody the Explorer, but how much more relevant would it be to think of the character within an urban jungle and appeal to our need for freedom in a setting we can identify with.  The archetypes and their stories can become powerful metaphors for our modern lives.

Archetypes can be said to be ‘timeless’ but your communication has to be timely.  The story of Cinderella – and its Lover archetype – still appeals to all of us, yet how much more compelling does it become when it was turned into ‘Pretty woman’ with Julia Roberts?

It is also important that we do not confuse the archetype with the characters in our audience. At various times of our lives, we can connect with different archetypes and their stories as we struggle to find meaning and balance within ourselves and discover our true identity. A hero brand like Nike is not necessarily talking to heros. It is appealing to the latent hero within all of us, and encouraging us to explore this side of our personality.

Be aware that all archetypes also have their flaws. With the innocent, there is a fine line between appealing to our ‘inner child’ and appearing overly mawkish and sentimental.  With the Sage who dispenses wisdom there is the danger of appearing overly analytical and pompously intellectual.

The brand archetype is simply a starting point, a foundation for the brand personality and your brand story.  The choice of archetype is where the real work begins. Take time to create your brand story, set it in its cultural context and then be consistent in the way the brand behaves, talks and acts.

Used properly, archetypes can exert a powerful influence, not just on the brand, but on our audience too. It is not overly dramatic to say that we have a moral responsibility to accentuate the positive role model of the archetype. We’re not just selling products, we are telling stories that can touch people’s lives. Use your archetype wisely, and it’s a story that can have a happy ending for everyone.


Suggested reading:

The Hero and the Outlaw – Building extraordinary brands through the power of Archetypes – Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson – McGraw Hill.

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