Archetypes & Brands

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Filling The Contextual Void:

Ever since a friend convinced me to read Robert Johnson's "He," I have been fascinated by the role that archetypes play in the genesis and of mythology, relationships, personalities, pop culture, and even brands.

Given my profession of choice, perhaps especially brands.

I was reminded of this connection yesterday when I happened on John Howard Spink's "Using Archetypes To Build Stronger Brands."

As John himself notes, surprisingly, not a lot of work is being done on this front. Knowing what I know about the role that mythology and archetypes play in cultural identity, it surprises me that very few brand strategists and Marketing thought leaders have made the connection between archetypes and brands - or at least that most have not worked to incorporate the notion of archetypes in their operational brandbuilding methodology.

Per John:

Though the development and management of brands is central and fundamental to everything we do, are the tools we use up to the job? Or do they do more harm than good? Brands are complex, abstract and difficult to pin down. However, in endeavouring to define them we often forget this. With techniques such as brand pyramids,we take something wild and untamed and attempt to constrain and control it. Rather than trying to understand brands in their natural habitat, we put them in a zoo. I recognise that pyramids, onions and similar techniques can be useful internal disciplines. But do they really help define the unchanging core values of a brand? We spend weeks debating the nuances of synonyms, performing semantic gymnastics to prove that Brand X is different from Brand Y, and agonising over whether something is an Emotional Benefit or a Brand Value – a distinction we struggle to understand in the first place. At the end of the day, what does this get us? More often than not, a pile of disconnected words that looks like nothing less than an explosion in a bombed thesaurus factory. Unfortunately, having built our pyramid and agreed that our brand is contemporary, stylish, relevant, inclusive and other usual suspects, we fall into the trap of thinking our job is finished. Usually though, we are no closer to articulating ‘core essence’ than when we began – even if that particular box has been filled in. What should be rich, complex and, by definition, hard to articulate ends up neutered and subjected to death by a thousand adjectives. Ironically, our supposed unchanging brand template is reduced to a fluid selection of meaningless or undifferentiating words that even those close to the process interpret in different ways. The result, to quote Shakespeare, is a brand which is '...a walking shadow; a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'.

You may feel this is harsh, but ask yourself how many walking shadows there are out there, and if we struggle to find meaning, think how consumers feel.


Enter the archetypes:

There are certain basic characters and storylines that appear regularly in myth, fairytale, literature and film; archetypes that represent core aspects of the human condition, and tap deep into our motivations and sense of meaning. When we encounter these, they resonate in powerful ways that transcend culture and demographics.

This is why, when penning the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas turned to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, to help him understand the archetypal narrative structure and characters found in these mythic stories, and why these three films enjoy such strong and enduring appeal. Whether Luke Skywalker, The Man With No Name, Red Riding Hood, Harry Potter, or real people such as JFK, Princess Diana or Marilyn Monroe, there is something primal in archetypal characters and situations that stirs our emotions, stimulates our memory and sometimes changes lives. In developing and managing brands, are we really so different from George Lucas or a budding Barbara Cartland?

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.

This is why a Harley-Davidson marketer can say: ‘what we sell is the ability for a 43-year old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him’ Or why Scott Bedbury, in his time head of marketing at Nike and Starbucks, believes that: a brand is a metaphorical story that … connects with something very deep — a fundamental human appreciation of mythology … Companies that manifest this sensibility … invoke something very powerful’.
Bingo. Right from the horses' mouths.

What seem like "intangible" elements of a brand are really very precise sets of contextual values, emotions, aspirations and projections that can easily be not only identified but plotted, graphed, and inserted into a brand's identity. (All you need is the key - the actual archetypes - and a clear understanding of the role they play in the psyches the folks whose culture you are trying to intertwine your brand with.)

This is actually VERY easy to accomplish. Some brands even achieve this without even realizing it. They instinctively tap into something primal and culturally relevant without really knowing or understanding why or how they did it.

Take Nike, for example: The Nike brand appeals to the "champion/hero" and uses sports as the medium for its allegorical language. The very choice of names - "Nike" the Greek Goddess of victory - has immediate Archetypal implications:

A) Nike is a Goddess. A creature straight out of Mythology - in which every character, god, human and everything in between is the embodiment of a specific human archetype.

B) Nike symbolizes victory. Victory typically comes from bravery, sacrifice, courage, strength... all being the attributes of the brand - or rather, the symbolism that the brand aims to help consumers project onto itself and every product it stamps with its sexy little swish mark.

Once the brand takes on the attributes of the desired archetype (or two, or three), then people begin a sort of projective identification dance. They first project their wants and needs onto the brand, in effect using it as a vessel for the qualities which they cannot articulate or completely manage on their own. They then become patrons of the brand in order to possess these attributes in a form they can understand, use, and express. Once a brand has achieved this type of relationship with the public, it becomes alive. It becomes part of pop culture. It becomes relevant on a level that surpasses traditional marketing, messaging and business-speak. It becomes a power brand.

Understanding archetypes and using this knowledge to build powerful brands is kind of a no-brainer... but still, very few agencies, marketing firms and brand boutiques use this simple tool. Strange.

I'm glad to see that John has tapped into this, and I hope that more of you will as well. Aside from the books mentioned in his piece, I also encourage you to read Robert E. Johnson's "He." It's a quick read (less than 200 pages) that will help you not only understand the roles that archetypes play in our everyday lives, but also understand human behavior (particularly in the Western world) in a way that no other book or university course can. It is pure genius.

The Messaging Crutch:

About a week ago today, I found myself having a conversation with a couple of branding experts. We were chatting about projects that I had worked on, and I sensed that the methodology behind the successes that I'd had in the last few years wasn't clicking with them. Three or four times, they asked me about messaging.

"Yeah, but... what about the messaging?"

You might have thought they were asking me "where's the beef?"

Messaging... Hmmm... It hadn't occurred to me until I was asked the question that "messaging" had stopped to be all that important to my process in quite some time. Messaging. Yeah. In truth, messaging seemed almost superfluous. I explained that with every single project I had worked on since 2004, messaging had been secondary at best. In most cases, when dealing with branding projects and even most effective marketing campaigns, the strength of the product, brand or idea was easier to understand viscerally than when articulated. The clever taglines, the tight copy, the words on the page or the poster or the screen were almost completely irrelevant.

What I found is that the strength of a brand often lies in its power not to have to be explained or articulated. In a way, defining a brand too well may actually hurt it.

No, forget that. Replace may with will.

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.

Using archetypes in your brand development process can help you tap into the raw nature and identity of a brand better than any brand pyramid, onion, pie chart or whatever cookie-cutter technique you are currently using. It's okay if you don't believe me. But... for your sake (and more importantly, that of your clients), at least look into it. It might be the one thing your practice was missing. At the very least, it will become a great new tool to add to your brand-building toolbox.

Breathing Life into the branding process:

I'll let John make one last important point before we close the book on today's topic:

I find it more exciting to think of myself as the author of eternal brand stories than as someone who writes strategy documents and brand pyramids.

Well, um... yeah. I can relate. I hope we all can.

Truth: Brands live out there, in the collective ocean of pop culture that we all share, swim in, and contribute to. (Wait... that sounded kind of gross. Sorry.) Where brands don't live is inside agency meeting rooms or in the heads of creatives living in the ad world. They don't live inside your market research or on pie charts or inside brand pyramids. They don't live in your taglines or in your copy or in the dialogue of your spokespeople. Your brands live in the same world as Darth Vader, Ronald Reagan, Brad Pitt, Hercules, John McLane, Rocky Balboa, John F. Fennedy, James Bond, Paris Hilton, Rintintin, Sony Bono, Spiderman, Jack Bauer, Cinderella, and Tony Soprano.

Maybe it sounds like a stretch to some of you, but if you look into this a little more closely, you'll start to see it. Some of you may have to look a little more closely than others... but it's well worth the extra effort.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone. ;)

Image by Tom Gauld, via the meme huffer blog.

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