As both a face and a function, brand archetypes can reveal how a brand shows up in the world, how it is motivated and what triggers it. Very simply, archetypes can facilitate the understanding of a brand and why it attracts certain customers. Consider Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson’s assertion in The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes: “Archetypes are strange attractors of consciousness. You attract customers when your brand is congruent with an archetype that is either dominant or emerging in their consciousness.”
While archetypal stories have enormous impact in marketing and communications, there is also commensurate value in observing how archetypes function within business and leadership style and, subsequently, how they affect the authenticity and trust of a brand and its outreach efforts.
An expanded definition of archetypes
Going a bit deeper, we think it’s worth including some of the experts’ definitions of archetype:
“Archetype [är’-kĭ-tīp’]: a symbol, theme, setting, or character-type that recurs in different times and places in myth, literature, folklore, dreams, and rituals so frequently or prominently as to suggest (to certain speculative psychologists and critics) that it embodies some essential element of ‘universal’ human experience.”
—The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
“An archetype is a universally familiar character or situation that transcends time, place, culture, gender and age. It represents an eternal truth.”
“Forms or images of a collective nature which occur practically all over the earth as constituents of myths and at the same time as individual products of unconscious origin.”
—Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion
In Personality and Personal Growth, Robert Frager and James Fadiman offer a mental map of how archetypes organize our psychological material, stating that archetypes “are somewhat like dry stream beds whose shapes determine the characteristics of a river once water begins flowing through them.” As carriers of energy, when an archetype is activated, a flood of experience is released. As for practical application of archetypes, Frager and Fadiman also assert that “all creativity has an archetypal element.”
With this foundation, brand enters the equation.
Consider Noah Hawley’s description of brand that appears on the June 2000 issue of Business 2.0: “Part art, part science, ‘brand’ is the difference between a bottle of soda and a bottle of Coke, the intangible yet visceral impact of a person’s subjective experience with the product—the personal memories and cultural associations that orbit around it.”
To varying degrees and for various reasons, people are in relationship with brands. In human relationships, people come to know who you are by how you behave, not by how you say you behave. We are evaluated and understood by our actions, not necessarily by our intentions. How people are in relationships feeds into part of how Marty Neumeier, author of The Brand Gap defines brand: “The brand isn’t what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” Archetypes can facilitate brand relationships by aligning what the brand says it is, what it does and how it is perceived and known.
In partnering to meet various business challenges, we often have to wade through traditional MBA-speak. If we’re lucky, we receive brand pyramids and wheels filled with relevant adjectives and other brand references, multipage documents on brand assets and equity, spreadsheets of data on buying patterns, market research and segmentations. Sometimes we get a business plan. Sometimes we just get questions: “Aren’t you supposed to define my brand? Isn’t that why we hired you? Have you looked at our website?” And sometimes we are called on to support a new brand and business from scratch.
While business plans, websites and traditional marketing tools and research are all helpful, sometimes they can also create limitations. Humanity’s desire for certainty leads us to categorize, analyze and box up the components of a brand. But business, and brand as its essence and culture, is actually an ever-changing organism within an ever-changing ecosystem that refuses to be constrained. As an accounting balance sheet is representative of a moment in time, so too are brand definitions, marketing plans and demographics. By their nature they are incomplete.
So how do we capture the organic, affecting and affected, continuously learning and growing aspects of a brand? How do we create or uncover brand meaning? What constitutes real meaning in a brand is very similar to how we understand each other as human beings. What do I feel as a result of an encounter with you? How do I know what you are about? Are you trustworthy? These questions and more are inherent within archetypes.
Archetypes not stereotypes
Archetypes lack the dehumanizing factors of stereotypes, representing instead a full spectrum of characteristics that can manifest both positively and negatively. Stereotypes limit choice while archetypes empower choice. A stereotypical emotional experience comes to mind. While we don’t contest the genius of Steven Spielberg’s work and contribution to society, we’re relieved he has lightened up on the stereotypical music used in his early work to ensure the audience felt what he wanted them to feel. His archetypal stories have always been enough to elicit the audience’s reaction without being cued to prescriptive emotion. Or consider the mother who actively supports her child’s participation in athletics. Describing this woman archetypally as the Caregiver provokes an entirely different vision—a whole person with a full spectrum of characteristics—than does the stereotypic label of “soccer mom.”
Stereotypes break down understanding, yet their allure can be addictive because they provide quick ways of making sense of our complicated world. They are those speedy, generalized judgments that trivialize the richness of our diversity and demean the individual. Where stereotypes are like cartoons that offer a simplistic experience, archetypes are more like poems that add depth and richness to experience.
I encourage you, therefore, to take the high road and revel in your own discomfort in not having all the answers, in not being in control, in not being certain. Resist the desire to get prescriptive with archetypes, and use them instead as compass points and guides. Their power exists in the fabric that connects all of humanity. They live on the emotional and intuitive level; try to make them cognitive, or use them as labels, and they become stereotypes. If you scoop up two handfuls of sand at the beach, it’s amazing how much you can contain when you hold the grains loosely. Try to tighten them down and they slip through your fingers.
Businesses, corporations and brands are not people. But people comprise and create them. How the people within a business are thinking, feeling, intending and acting defines how the business behaves as a whole. This is an important distinction in light of how much brand work draws on psychology and personification—and it implies that using archetypes as a brand tool comes with certain responsibilities.
Branding and all its related disciplines—marketing, naming, advertising, design—must acknowledge the responsibility of its enchanting tendencies. If we accept that the archetypal landscape contains the most broad and diverse stories shared by all of humanity, then the mandate for mindful application should be self-evident. Archetypal stories ignite emotional responses that run the full gamut. And so it follows that the user of archetypes has a responsibility to hold as paramount the greatest common good. It should be remembered that using the rationalization of “it’s just business” is tantamount to Cruella de Vil’s assistant in 101 Dalmatians saying, “What kind of sycophant would you like me to be?” If you’re going to use archetypes to guide your business, develop your brand and sell stuff, we urge you to keep your values close at hand.
Authenticity not manipulation
We often attribute certain human characteristics to a brand in order to understand and clarify how it affects the relationship with its users, but a brand actually represents the perception of the collective characteristics of all the people involved. A brand can be a natural extension of the values (and archetypes) of the creators of its business, or it can behave disingenuously to fulfill its own agenda regardless of true cost. It can act as an adolescent and try to manipulate its customers and target audiences, or it can responsibly parse its choices against the greater collective good.
Archetypes are a powerful tool that when accompanied by accountability and compassion can increase the greater common good. As you apply them to your business and brand, I encourage you to challenge your assumptions of right and wrong, to consciously do no harm and to honor a long-term, integrated bottom-line perspective.
*Join Joshua Chen, owner of Chen Design Associates, San Francisco, for a Virtual Book Signing and preview of the NEW book Archetypes in Branding: A Toolkit for Creatives and Strategists (Tuesday October 9, 2012 2 p.m-3 p.m EDT). Hear Josh talk about the design process that went into creating a visually compelling representation of a well-known, but often intellectually challenging concept. By walking through the creative journey, Josh will showcase the design of the archetype cards that reveal CDA’s unique mastery of pacing, information signposting, color and typography.