Why Brand Archetypes Don’t Work

Type ‘Brand Archetypes’ into Google and you’ll find countless articles and explanations of the usefulness of these 12 categories in defining your ‘brand personality’. 

If you’ve never seen this tool – it originated with Carl Jung’s four main human archetypes, which marketers expanded into 12, as this graphic from Iconic Fox shows.

But don’t get too excited.

It doesn’t work.

Why Brand Archetypes Don’t Work 

Where it all falls down is when you try and put it into practice.  What actually happens when you try and use it with a client is a conversation along the lines of, “Well, we’re partly a Sage, but we really offer freedom so I guess that means we’re an Explorer? But we’ve always been known for our humour – so then we’re a Jester too…???”

It forces you into a one-dimensional place, and that’s not a marker of a strong brand.  

Let’s look at some of the examples espoused to prove that this works. 

People will point you to memorable characters in films, and claim they are loved and remembered because they represent an archetype.

Yoda is an example used frequently as the epitome of the Sage.

But imagine if Yoda really had been created that one-dimensionally. 

We don’t love him just because he’s sage, we love Yoda for his sense of humour as much as his wisdom, his sense of mischief as he gets older, his heroism and surprising athleticism.

So, he’s a Sage, Ruler, Magician, Hero and Jester? 

And how does that help you?  

Well, it only helps by showing you that his character is compelling because it’s nuanced – and getting to nuance makes a brand feel more real and engaging.

Nuance is where you want to get to; brand archetypes take you in the opposite direction.

And when you start getting to brand examples, it gets even worse.

Great Brands Don’t Fit The Brand Archetypes

Everyone nods along to Apple as The Creator. Until someone else suggests it’s actually The Outlaw.  Disney is The Magician (well of course it is; Magic Kingdom! This is easy…!), but isn’t their personality as much about creating a sense of belonging as enjoyment?? So, does that make them the ‘Everyman’?  And isn’t that sexist…

An on, and on, and on. 

Just because Harley Davidson is associated with Freedom, and this also feels a bit like James Dean, does not mean that the model works.  (And isn’t Harley Davidson also really about Belonging…?) And what about Innocent – are they the epitome of The Innocent – or the Jester, or the Creator – or the Hero of forgotten fruit….

There’s a reason Brand Archetypes haven’t been turned into a board game.  Because they don’t work.

So, when you’re looking to create a set of attributes to describe how you want a brand to look, feel and sound, please don’t default into a one-dimensional archetype. 

Consider, instead, inspiration from other sources.  Think about real people as your inspiration.  Try and personify the brand - imagine they’re at a party – which brands are they wearing, who are they with, how do they act, what do they feel, what do they talk about, what do they stay away from, would they even go to the party, what would they prefer to do instead?  It’s an old technique, but not outdated, because it gets you to some sort of nuance, and that’s what you’re aiming for. 

Or ask your client team to bring in examples of brands they see as a benchmark for how they want to look, feel and sound, and deconstruct what they chose and why. Yes, it’s harder and not as much fun as a board game, but it will get you to a better outcome.

Your brand needs a genuine sense of personality to help to drive your visual and verbal identity and connect with people in a real way, and that requires nuance.

I’ll leave you with Mark Ritson's point of view on Brand Archetypes here, which I strongly agree with. 

"Total bollocks but incredibly prevalent. 

I’ve met scores of companies who have asked me to explain what they are meant to do with this stuff and I’ve always given the same advice. Bin it.

The whole point of a brand is it is the opposite of a generic. That makes this kind of clumsy positioning-by-numbers approach entirely antithetical and completely without merit."

If you want to read more on his perspective on marketing ‘bollocks’ in general, then his article, ‘Humaning’ and the greatest marketing bullshit of all time’, is a classic.

And if you want to get clear, simple and jargon-free advice on how to do brand strategy properly, then my free video mini-course, ‘Brand Strategy in 7 Simple Steps’, gives you all the fundamentals.

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