Brand archetypes; great or garbage?
Many use the brand archetypes framework as part of their strategy stage to help provide personality traits for a business and build an emotional connection between a customer and a brand.
The commonly known 12 brand archetypes that is used worldwide today is based on Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung’s work, which is primarily based on people’s personality types – these were outlined back in 1919. The thinking behind the brand archetype approach is over 100 years old.
Brand marketers have leveraged Jung’s framework to create a simple tool for building a brand’s personality; as you may have guessed, there are 12 archetype descriptors which are a bit like categories: the Innocent, the Everyman, the Hero, the Rebel, the Explorer, the Creator, the Ruler, the Magician, the Lover, the Caregiver, the Jester and the Sage.
Many designers use brand archetypes as a way of giving personality to a brand. But being popular doesn’t always mean it’s good for you and your brand. Here at Nalla, we believe they are restrictive and can potentially harm your business – and here is why.
A Historical Overview of Brand Archetypes
Carl Jung (front right) at Clark University in 1909.
First, let’s understand where the approach originated and how it has evolved over time. Psychologists World documented that in his work, Jung noted the relationship between our personal unconscious; which contains an individual’s memories and ideas, and a collective unconscious; a set of memories and ideas shared amongst all of humanity. Shared concepts, which Jung described as archetypes, permeate the collective unconscious and emerge as themes and characters in our dreams and surface in cultures worldwide for decades – from myths and stories to more recently, books, films and paintings.
The fact that this ‘archetype’ shows up in different parts of the world led Jung to conclude that these are embedded in human consciousness rather than passed down via communication and that key figures in mythology use the same archetypes as we do in modern-day storytelling.
Jung based his archetypes on the model image of a person or role that everyone would recognise, including the mother figure, father, wise old man and clown/joker. It wasn’t until 2001 that non-scientific marketers Carol S. Pearson and Margaret Mark began to use an approach similar to Jung’s in a system that businesses could use to categorise their thinking and approach to brand personality in their book, The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes.
The historical references behind this book are believed to be not just Jung’s work but also incorporating the Myers Briggs personality tests developed in the 1960’s by Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs-Myers, the book set the foundations for the 12 brand archetypes we know today – mapping the thinking against several brands of the time.
One of the oldest visual references for this can be seen below (image extracted from The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson, 2001). It maps out the customer’s motivation and fear next to the archetype name.
This has evolved into the well-known wheel (as shown below, image from The Desmond Company). This is a visually simple tool that anyone can use as a framework discussion piece.
An Overview of the 12 Brand Archetypes
There are twelve brand archetypes detailed within this framework: Innocent, Everyman; Hero, Outlaw, Explorer, Creator, Ruler, Magician, Lover, Caregiver, Jester, and Sage.
The Innocent exhibits happiness, goodness, optimism, safety, romance, and youth. Example ‘Innocent’ brands include: Coca-Cola, Nintendo Wii and Dove.
The Everyman seeks connections and belonging; is recognised as supportive, faithful and down-to-earth. Example ‘Everyman’ brands include: IKEA, eBay and Airbnb.
The Hero is on a mission to make the world a better place, the Hero is courageous, bold, inspirational. Example ‘Hero’ brands include: Nike, BMW and Red Cross.
The Rebel questions authority and breaks the rules; they crave rebellion and revolution. Example ‘Rebel’ brands include: Virgin, Harley-Davidson and Diesel (jeans).
The Explorer finds inspiration in travel, risk, discovery, and the thrill of new experiences. Example ‘Explorer’ brands include: Jeep, Red Bull and Patagonia.
The Creator is imaginative, inventive and driven to build things of enduring meaning and value. Example ‘Creator’ brands include: Lego, Apple and Adobe.
The Ruler creates order from the chaos, the Ruler is typically controlling and stern, yet responsible and organised. Example ‘Ruler’ brands include: Mercedes-Benz, Microsoft and Rolex.
The Magician wishes to create something special and make dreams a reality, the Magician is seen as visionary and spiritual. Example ‘Magician’ brands include: Apple, Disney and Absolut.
The Lover creates intimate moments, inspires love, passion, romance and commitment. Example ‘Lover’ brands include: Victoria’s Secret, Chanel and Häagen Dazs.
The Caregiver protects and cares for others, is compassionate, nurturing and generous. Example ‘Caregiver’ brands include: Johnson & Johnson, Pampers and UNICEF.
The Jester brings joy to the world through humour, fun, irreverence and often likes to make some mischief. Example ‘Jester; brands include: Old Spice, Ben & Jerry’s and M&Ms.
The Sage is committed to helping the world gain deeper insight and wisdom, the Sage serves as the thoughtful mentor or advisor. Example ‘Sage’ brands include: Google, BBC and Philips.
Are there Advantages of Brand Archetypes for Small Businesses?
The concept behind the brand archetypes isn’t entirely defunct, it’s just not the right approach for most due to its limitations of businesses falling into stereotypical clichés. There is an argument that using them for smaller businesses can lead to some success.
It can be used to set the scene and educate brands – which means they can understand the concept of brand strategy and brand personality. This is especially useful if brand strategy is new to them.
The concern here is that these businesses might assume choosing your brand personality is as easy as identifying their sector and letting that lead them to their archetype. For example, if they are in healthcare, they could simply select the ‘Caregiver’ brand archetype.
This neglects the need to ensure their branding connects to the target audience and focuses instead on what the internal team think their brand should be.
Adopting a certain archetype type means that businesses in the early start-up stage may find it easier to demonstrate who they are and what they represent to their internal teams. For example, say a business at an early stage feels they most relate to a ‘Hero’ brand archetype. Understanding what this represents and discussing with others who acts as a ‘Hero’ both in and out of their sector could give them a good grounding to debate. It also helps with an internal understanding of brand positioning and strategy – as long as it doesn’t go as far as to jump into setting a ‘Hero’ brand strategy without having the proper research to back this up. And by proper research, I mean approaching any brand positioning as audience first. This involves really getting to know your customers, their pains, needs, wants and expectations, and then setting brand personas as the bedrock of your strategy.
This is the best way to ensure that you reach your target audience and have success with your marketing and makes customers relate to you. Picking one of the multiple archetypes on offer just won’t have the same impact.
The Limitations of Traditional Brand Archetypes
The main issue with the archetypes approach is that it feels incredibly akin to looking at a zodiac wheel, picking what star sign you are out and reading your horoscope. Clients struggle with what to do with their type. I’ve heard comments like; “Another agency helped set our strategy. We know we are a ‘Jester’ archetype, but we are stuck on how we communicate that to our customers?”.
The issue here is that they are focused on a ‘type’ rather than what their actual brand positioning is, lacking the key focus of what customers relate to.
It also is beyond generic. It is based on the agency’s or key stakeholders’ opinion and gut reaction and completely disregards any research components. Inward-focused rather than audience-focused. To create a standout brand, there needs to be visual and verbal uniqueness. Fitting your business into a stereotype seems to be the exact opposite of that.
An example of this is Lego. Take a look at the wheel; of course, people will automatically categorise them into the ‘Creator’ archetype. The very fabric of the product is building and innovating through play. But what would you do if you wanted your business to bring another block to market (for this example, let’s say it’s made of wood)? When looking at the brand archetype wheel, you’d still lean to a ‘Creator’ archetype as your business essentially targets the same audience. Doing this would be detrimental to your standout. How do you differentiate whilst attracting the right customers? You research what is it they like about Lego; what is it that puts them off buying Lego; what do they really need; what would the right customer attraction strategy be?
A Modern Approach to Branding: Putting People First
What we need to remember is that the wheel approach was created over 20 years ago, and in that space of time, the world has evolved dramatically, as has brand perception and how target audiences interact and connect with brands.
Nobody had a smartphone, social media didn’t exist, biometrics were in their infancy, Alexa may have been someone’s nickname and “the cloud” was a weather term. Tracking someone by satellite via street cameras or GPS on their phone still seemed like science fiction.
Rachel Layne, CBS News
Although the human brain has evolved over hundreds of years to be ‘feelings first’; and we have an innate desire to engage with stories. The brands that prosper are the ones to connect not on a transactional, pragmatic level, but an emotive one across both physical and digital spaces. Using the brand archetype model restricts businesses from creating a brand that can connect on an emotional level by simply not putting customers first.
Although brands may be liked or trusted, most fail to align themselves with the emotions that drive their customer’s most profitable behaviours. Fully connected customers are 52% more valuable than those who are simply satisfied.
Harvard Business Review
Constructing a strategic narrative around how your business helps it’s audience (it’s people) is key.
To do this, the strategy must underpin the output of your brand, basing that on an archetype is not the right solution. Basing that on insights driven from research, understanding your competitors and ensuring you have stand out is key.
So what should we do if we don’t use the brand archetypes I hear you say? Here are three tips to set you in the right direction when you are thinking about your brand strategy and brand personality.
Be brave. An effective brand strategy needs to feel challenging. It needs to be bold enough to drive action and change. If it’s too safe, or simply a neat summary of where you are today, then it’s not fit for purpose. A great strategy should be something your team aspires to be part of, it should act as a blueprint for every aspect of your brand and communication, and provide a clear roadmap for the future. A tick box of nice, cosy words isn’t going to do any of this.
Too often brands are built around generic values and purpose statements, peppered with words such as inclusivity, honesty, respect and professionalism.
On the surface they appear pleasant, positive, even noble values to deliver upon. But ask if the opposite also holds true — what organisation wouldn’t aspire to be inclusive? Who would see themselves as dishonest? What brand wouldn’t want to be seen as professional?
Meaningful brand strategy defines your difference and should be unique to your organisation. It should live at the heart of your business, defining how to act in order to best connect with your audience — it should never be reduced to empty words on a website that could be mistaken for virtue signalling.
Above all, your brand should live by its values.
Don’t focus on your competitors. From an outsider’s perspective, it’s easy to look at any sector and identify who is investing in their brand and who isn’t. Every industry is peppered with lame lookalikes or outright copycats. The brand archetypes wheel leans towards doing this if used as a ‘pick one’ approach. Every lookalike that’s obsessed with being one of the pack is guilty of paying far too much attention to their competitors and not having enough time to consider what their audience expects, wants, or needs.
Start by benchmarking your brand against your competitors; then use this as a springboard to define and develop your own points of difference, not as a checklist or a ‘how to’ guide.
Don’t ask what you can learn from brands in your own industry — ask what you can learn from your audience. Which brands and organisations do they find engaging, inspiring or even exciting?
Keep it simple. Brands that succeed invariably do so because they connect quickly. They know how to deliver their key messages succinctly, and how to communicate their difference and value. They work hard to remove any barriers that make their messages appear complex. They understand where to add additional emphasis to make their ideas stick.
This doesn’t mean cutting content. A compelling three-minute film tells a more concise story than one that’s short, dull and difficult to decipher.
Simplicity begins with being absolutely clear what your brand is communicating.
If you haven’t defined a clear brand strategy, it’s very difficult to create a brand or any marketing that will have cut through.
The 12 brand archetypes is a popular approach used by many worldwide. But it is a huge bugbear of mine. Why? Because it goes against the very foundations of what brand building is about.
Being popular doesn’t always mean it’s good for you and your brand, so watch out. Archetypes are restrictive and can potentially harm your business.
The first challenge is that the archetype framework is beyond generic. It is based on the agency’s or key stakeholders’ opinions and gut reactions and completely disregards any research component on the customer. Therefore, being very inward-focused rather than audience-focused.
Second is that to create a standout brand there needs to be visual and verbal uniqueness. Fitting your business into a stereotype is the exact opposite of that.
For me the archetypes approach feels incredibly akin to looking at a zodiac wheel; picking what star sign you most relate to and reading your horoscope means you often end up with very cliché choices. Pampers falls into ‘Caregiver’, what a surprise!
In practice, from speaking to clients where we have been passed an already started project, they struggle with what to do with their type. I’ve heard comments like, “Another agency helped set our strategy. We know we are a ‘Jester’ archetype, but we are stuck on how we communicate ‘Jester’ to our customers?”. Yikes! Stop right there!
The issue is that they become focused on a ‘type’ rather than what they actually need – originality, how to stand out from competitors, unique brand positioning and responding to what customers relate to.
If the team you are working with are using it – please pause everyone right now and instead reflect on what zodiac sign best reflects another person in the team; at least you can have some banter with that!
What should you do instead of using the brand archetypes wheel?
- Research your customers
- Research your sector and get inspiration from out-of-sector
- Set a differentiating strategy to ensure you stand out
If you’re struggling with setting the right strategy for your brand, why not get in touch with us? Or, if you’re an existing brand and want to understand how strong your brand is, download our Brand Performance Checklist. It’s a free (bonus!) tool that will help you to quickly assess how and where brand improvements can be made.
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