Self-Selection, Archetypes, & Symbolism

Creating a cult brand takes a lot more than clever positioning. After coming out with a bang, then what? Your brand’s reason for being needs to be meaningful and it has to create its own visual and verbal language that is unique and resonates with its fan base. Each “member” must feel that they’re important, treasured, and that they share special values with everyone else in the group—to the exclusion of society as a whole. The brand forms a common core; from it emanates shared values that are holistically satisfying and enrich lives on physical, emotional, and spiritual levels.

In part one of this article, I discussed the concepts of exclusive inclusion and branded ritual as tools for marketers who are tasked with taking a brand stand they can uniquely own. Rituals are simple, straightforward, and easily replicable actions that can be shared by members of the group or solo. Simply put, rituals are behaviors embedded with meaning, purpose, and belonging. Rituals are not the same as routines. Routines become habits. Rituals, when your brand’s community vitally enacts them, become a way of life. Rituals are the glue bonding together memory, identity, community, and daily living.

But for rituals to take root there has to be a strong brand archetype and compelling symbolism.

An archetype personifies the brand—makes it human. Archetypes give brands context and storylines. As long as established brands stick to the meaningful archetypes they’ve created, the emotional resonance of their storytelling power will only increase with time. Sounds great, but what is a meaningful archetype?

Archetypes can be summed up easily in our minds by a single word. Here are some examples:

  • Caregiver: All State, Lululemon, Whole Foods (self-care and nurturing of one’s loved ones)
  • Creator: Apple, Lego, Crayola (uses talents and unique vision to make something new)
  • Dreamer: Godiva, BMW, Coach (indulges in luxuries large and small)
  • Everyman: Walmart, The Home Depot, (no pretensions to elitism wanted or needed)
  • Rebel: Harley Davidson, Virgin (pride in nonconformity)
  • Seeker: North Face, Patagonia, Jeep, REI, Levi (intrepid; enjoys overcoming challenges)
  • Warrior: Nike, The Olympic Games, Gatorade (“Just Do It”)

Archetypal brand strategy 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 our sense of self. For most of us, our self-identity is textured with personal and archetypal mythos. Learn more about archetypes and how to use them in brand development.

This form of character alignment has the potential to reach far deeper into the human psyche than traditional advertising mascots such as Tony The Tiger, Ronald McDonald or The Old Spice Man ever could. To be clear, Tony the Tiger is an advertising mascot not an archetype. He has nothing to do with Kellogg’s brand values or the brand promise of Frosted Flakes. Because the truth is, kids who eat sugary cereals for breakfast are not on the swim team. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great, long term, contiguous storylines that have wielded some power over my childhood. The simple fact remains that advertising is really the only differentiating element in these brands. And that approach, Dear Reader, is a 20th century concept and an antique.

The universality of archetypes.

Brand implementation based in an archetype has great power. Archetypal brands have compelling stories that are universally or globally understood, memorable, and persuasive in their appeal to specific consumers who become emotionally invested in them. Storytelling is as old as mankind, yet there are only a small, finite number of universal themes, so it is crucial for brands to first identify themselves by archetype and then to weave a unique story within that framework. For example, there are a number of cult brands that are based on magician archetypes, but there is only one Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap; only one Disney.

They have unique stories based on their founders’ visions. Those visions grew as posthumous chapters were written that began to weave their founder’s unique point of view and history into brand’s new frontier. Even with new, invented landscapes Dr. Bronner’s and Disney magician archetypes success comes from being so single-minded that they are willing to ignore everyone for whom the brand’s core values and belief systems don’t resonate. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, they have built their brand by focusing on a small, but dedicated group who value what’s important to the brand, and who strongly believe that, through and with them, dreams do come true.

Words as symbols and a broader definition for icons.

Established archetypal brands with cult followings are identified by both visual and verbal brand communication. I’ve been discussing the verbal aspects of these brands but they have equally strong visual cues.

We live in a world that is dominated by symbolism and we are hard-wired to tap into it. Regardless of whether these symbols are religious icons or iconic logos, people create and attach meaning to them. These symbols, and the meaning we ascribe to them, are the building blocks that we use to build our personal identities.

Therefore, taking a symbol we already know and adding another layer of meaning is a wise and powerful way to build brand story. Icons are quick concentrations of meaning that cause your brand identity and brand values to spontaneously resonate. The Nike Swoosh, The Apple Start-up Bong, The smell of Cinnabon, The Coke Bottle, The Beatles mop-top hairdo, KISS’s make-up… Iconic symbols can be sounds, hairstyles, platform shoes, or even an absurdly long tongue. Whether Icons are visuals, sounds, smells, or some other form, they are sensory imprints that instantly summon the brand essence.

People are hard wired to create shorthand.

Symbols are empty vessels that we pour meaning into, and then carry around in our subconscious. Symbols like stories, or memory-anchored pictures, serve us in powerful ways. The ones we hold onto longest and care about the most have a spiritual element and are based upon genuinely caring about people.

As you think about how to use symbols and symbolism to elevate your brand, consider the influence of pop culture, the endurance of long standing human ideas, and the pervasiveness our collective subconscious. Watch 3 minute webcast on the cultural relationship between icons and longstanding symbolism. Remember there is power in a good story. Story doesn’t discriminate and is not dependent on a big advertising department or celebrity endorsement.

Story is the universal marketing tool available to anyone. Remember, for it to get under our skin, your story should not be about significance, but rather contribution. Tell me again, why does your brand matter?

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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.

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