Get Leverage: Know Your Brand Archetype

Archetypal branding works because it appeals to all people. We all share a deep need to feel stability, belonging, discovery and achievement. In today’s world, many brands have taken on the role of building blocks we use to fabricate of our sense of self. For most of us, our self-identity is textured with personal and archetypal mythos.

The power of identifying a brand with one of these timeless stories is that the story already exists deep within our subconscious — it does not need to be created. The task for the brand is to simply tell the story through the lens of archetypes.

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung identified seven of key archetypes, but said there were many more to be discovered. In their book, The Hero and the Outlaw, Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson expanded this thinking to identify twelve specific archetypes and showed how these could be used to guide brand strategy.

The athlete, the liberator, the rescuer, the warrior.

These are the universal retellings of what Jung called the Hero. The secret to the Hero archetype is that all heroes have something in common: vulnerability. Think of The Man of Steel and kryptonite, or the biblical tale of Sampson and Delilah, his lust and his hair.

The reason archetypal storytelling works so well is that throughout history all cultures have told the tale of the hero. Heroes are typically orphans called to a quest. Hero myths closely follow a recognizable story arc, regardless of the culture telling the story. In his Book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell described this as “the phenomenon of the universal hero masked in local details”.

Hero stories have existed through the ages because they deliver on very important emotional needs we all share. The hero story helps us understand our mortality and speaks to our desire to achieve great things. Such timeless stories bring understanding and meaning to our lives.

Archetypal brand-building starts with why.

All strong brands share a set of common elements: A Foundation story, Brand Pillars, a Defined Brand Personality and, most importantly, a Brand Promise.

Addressing these elements through the lens of your brand’s archetype helps everyone deepen our answers to why our brand exists and why our employees and fans should care.

Look for ways your archetypal story might show up to the world:

How would your business change if your products and services were considered vehicles the company creates in order to keep its brand promise? The strongest organizations know how to weave a strong story into their delivery.

Think of it as symbolic shorthand for your brand beyond your logo. Iconography might include: smell, sounds taste, feel or any other indirect signal that tells a subtle and suggestive story. Iconography can be almost anything, think of the sounds your computer makes when its boots up. Author Martin Lindstrom calls this philosophy “Smash Your Brand.

Reality exists in language. Movements grow, ideas take form and empires are overthrown all because of language. Whenever we can get a group of people to agree on an idea and share it, we have the power to change the world. This could be a tagline like “Talk to Chuck”, or a communication hook like the Absolut ads campaign that hasn’t changed in 25 years.

Think about how you order coffee at your local Starbucks. First you cue up, peruse the pastry case, enjoy the artwork and then when it’s finally your turn you blurt out something like, “Quad Venti Skinny with Whip Iced Caramel Macchiato”. Look for ways to make the purchase, consumption, sharing and re-use of your offerings more intimate, more interactive, more human.

Archetypes give shape to your brand’s intangibles.

People struggle to measure the intangibles of the brand. I think this list, while not exhaustive, puts structure to the conversation and helps us see of where and how archetypal storytelling both internally and externally become powertools.

Create a vision so crystal clear of your future that everyone in your organization sees it so compellingly that your employees can scat with it.

Attract and retain the brightest, passionate peeps in your planet. Today we know that people are looking for more than just a paycheck from their career. They want to belong to something bigger. Give it to them and let them help you tell the story.

Know what business you are in, what business you should be in and which business you should get out of to ensure long term brand viability. This self-awareness becomes even more valuable when success comes in like the tide. It helps us to avoid convoluted brand architecture that can get downright unruly when mergers and acquisitions are involved.

Using archetypes to tell a brand centered story works because consumers often cannot explain their rational decisions for the emotional choices they make with purchases and the brands they favor.

Stop competing on price. Brands that consistently tell one archetypal story perform better financially. Show your customers what makes your brand different and better. Hint it’s not the features and benefits. It’s whom your loyalists get to be when they are with you.

Archetypes help brands climb out from the shadow of powerful and well-funded competitors.

It’s always challenging for a brand with less advertising dollars, fewer products and less social clout to win at the me-too game. I have seen many brands struggle for years with this.

Brooks, Tully’s, and Eddie Bauer all come to mind because they live in my backyard.

Brooks used The Jester archetype to differentiate themselves from all the big brands at specialty running, where due to size and budget, they had no choice but to behave like a cult brand. This worked really well for a long time, but as Warren buffet said in June 2013, the secret to the stellar rise of Brooks came by focusing deeply and narrowly on the needs of runners. Now do you think they would have gotten the same traction trying to out-hero Nike, Reebok and Adidas?

Tully’s enjoyed success when they realized that they could only claim territory abandoned by Starbucks: Hand crafted Coffee from the Pacific Northwest. Tully’s as The Citizen. Tully’s got clarity and power to change their reason for being from a series of lofty and un-actionable goals (which were already being met by the likes of Starbucks and Pete’s) and boiled to down to “helping people have a better day”.

And then there is Eddie Bauer. I was quite excited to see that First Ascent jackets are private label of Eddie Bauer. It warms my heart to see Eddie Bauer getting attention and breaking the bonds of what can only be described as the dark years of Spiegel. My question for Eddie Bauer is this:  what makes you different from North FacePatagoniaMountain HardwareMarmot and the plethora of premium extreme mountain top focused Explorer archetype brands currently enjoying preference?

Perhaps Eddie Bauer could benefit from carefully linking their original explorer mentality with another archetype, just not one that would make them feel like a housewares brand. I have said before, if your brand sees itself as The Explorer and the competitive landscape is such that you are getting beaten regularly by other Explorers, you may need to look for another story to tell.

Our brains create brand shorthand from archetypes.

Archetypal brands rely on the brain’s preference for organizing things to remember in boxes. It helps that these archetype (boxes) have been around for centuries, that they are found throughout the world, and that they reflect some fundamental human emotional needs. Simply said, archetypes are very strong placeholders. The story of the hero, the role of the mentor and caregiver are so engrained in our culture and the stories we hear that they create a familiar pattern.
Brands that tap into archetypes’ powerful combination of being strong placeholders organized in a familiar pattern relieve consumers of the need to remember lots of information about their products.

Strong iconic brands evoke a timeless archetypal story. This story connects them emotionally with their fans. Brands keep the story relevant by retelling it over and over again in fresh, contemporary ways. And they pay attention to the little details because the little things a brand does often comes under greater scrutiny than the big things a brand says. Strong brands are fanatical about the consistency with which they tell the story because they know that it is easy for the spell of the brand story to be broken if the details do not resonate with what a loyal customer believes to be true about the brand and has come to know and trust.

When using archetypes, the role of the brand marketer is to evoke the story through cultural cues and the emotions that consumers seek to derive from the brand. The task of an established brand is to discover and clarify its core archetypal story. The task of new or undefined brands is to identify an archetypal story and stick with it.

Do you know your Brand’s archetype?

Top Insights

Top Insights

Read Our Minds

Sign up to receive our insights directly in your inbox.
Contact Us
Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

Contact Us

Let’s get this party started.

Contact Us