Archetypes in Branding

April 20, 2016

April 20, 2016


Estimated Reading Time 7 Minutes

John Taylor

What are archetypes and what do they mean to your brand? As strange as it may seem, you already know. You instinctively understand and identify with archetypes every time you read a novel, watch a movie or binge on a boxset, you just may not realise you’re doing it.

The concept of archetypes was first defined by Psychologist Carl Jung:

Archetypes are symbols, themes and character types that recur in different times and places throughout myth, literature, film and ritual.

Jung felt that they occurred so frequently, and across so many different cultures, that it suggested they embody some essential primitive elements of ‘universal’ human experience.

Archetypes in Branding cards

So despite this detailed explanation, what Jung was really saying is that archetypes are basic character types or roles so universally recognisable and relatable that they should require no explanation at all. And because they are essentially characters we all play at some point, elements of our psyche, we should instinctively understand them.

In much the same way that almost every story boils down to one of seven basic plots, characters can broadly be broken down in to a relatively small number of archetypes. When we use archetypes in our brand process we dig deep, using a family of 60 archetypes, to produce a truly faceted identity.

But just like a pack of cards, all 60 members of this extended family belong to various ‘suits’ and these can be rounded down to twelve core archetypes; Sage, Explorer, Innocent, Rebel, Hero, Magician, Creator, Sovereign, Caregiver, Everyman, Jester, and Lover.

Because these archetypes are so easily understood, they frequently reoccur in all kinds of story telling; myth, literature, film, television and, yes, even brands.

Take British Airways and Virgin Atlantic for example. British Airways is a Sovereign archetype; not only are they at the top of the tree, they provide stability by being in total control, they speak to you like a kindly parent and they have heritage, trust and power by the bucketload. Virgin couldn’t expect to enter the fray and compete on the same terms, so they don’t. Virgin is a Rebel archetype, they’re the alternative to the statesmanlike approach of British Airways. They speak to you like an exciting friend from out of town, the one who knows all the best places to go. They have deliberately occupied an identity completely counter to British Airways. But behind the scenes they both do essentially the same thing, they put people on planes and take them places. 

British Airways archetypes in branding

British Airways archetypes in branding

It’s all about personality, archetypes act as a subliminal short-hand, allowing us to connect with, and understand, the core behaviours and functions of a character or a company. Some people will naturally gravitate to a Rebel brand and attitude, others prefer a Sovereign.

That’s the beauty of brands – they aren’t supposed to appeal to everyone.

To illustrate the fact that this is by no means a new idea, nor is it some kind of recent marketing hocus-pocus, we’ll look at how one of the twelve core archetypes, The Sage, crops up over and over again to play the same role.

Virgin Airlines archetypes in branding

Virgin Airlines archetypes in branding

First, without any further explanation, picture the sort of character The Sage might be. The word ‘sage’ suggests learning, wisdom, authority, and guidance. Of course, all that wisdom and learning takes time, so this archetype carries an inherent suggestion of age.

Bearing all this in mind it’s no surprise that The Sage archetype is sometimes referred to as ‘the wise old man’. So now, lets take a look at this archetype in action across five stories spanning over 2000 years of history.

650 B.C. – Mentor – The Odyssey and The Iliad

Odysseus goes to war, beginning his epic voyage and leaving his Son in the capable hands of Mentor, a wise old man. As his name suggests, Mentor instructs and guides young Prince Telemachus on his quest to ultimately reunite with his father and become a man.

For the most part, Mentor was a regular ‘wise old man’ but he also had an interesting, slightly mystical, sideline in ‘being possessed by the Goddess Athena’. She would occasionally swoop in to help whenever Telemachus ran into trouble, creating a wise and magical version of the Sage that has become ingrained in the collective subconscious.

1100 –  1250 A.D. – Merlin – Legends of King Arthur

A magical wise old man guides young Arthur, introducing him to a much wider world and guiding him to a magical sword, Excalibur. Merlin continues to advise Arthur as he becomes King and supports him in his adventures beyond.

1937 A.D. – Gandalf – Lord of the Rings.

A magical wise old man instructs and guides young orphan Frodo, introducing him to a much wider world and supporting him on his epic journey. Along the way he arms him with a magical sword, Sting, which glows blue in the presence of enemies.

1977 A.D. – Obi-Wan – Star Wars.

A magical wise old man instructs and guides young orphan Luke, introducing him to a much wider world, supporting him on his epic journey. Along the way he arms him with a magical sword, the lightsaber, made of glowing blue energy.

1997 – A.D. – Dumbledore – Harry Potter.

A magical wise old man instructs and guides young orphan Harry, introducing him to a much wider world, supporting him on his epic journey. Along the way he arms him with a magical sword, the sword of Gryffindor.

As you can see in these examples, the Sage archetype repeatedly crops up to play the same role time and again. When we see a wise sage-like character in a story, we have certain expectations; we expect them to act, speak and even look a particular way. There’s another archetype hiding in all of those examples, the Hero. A Sage wouldn’t be much use in a story without someone to guide and advise. In all of these examples, the Sage guides the Hero, introduces a new world, imparts critical information and to ‘arm’ them in some way. All these things usually result in a transformation for Hero, from someone who appears small and unimportant who needs help, to someone who is in total control, able to achieve almost anything.

The same exact principle works for brands, which are in essence, another form of storytelling.

So above and beyond everything else we would expect a Sage brand to ‘Help us understand our world’. Different brands might do this in a number of different ways but essentially if they help us understand our world and eliminate tricks, misinformation and ignorance, then they are probably a Sage archetype. They are there to reveal information, arm us with knowledge, to teach and empower us. 

Typical Sage brands might include: IBM, New York Times, CNN, McKinsey, Wikipedia and TED

All different brands with different approaches but undoubtedly all part of the same Sage family.

IBM archetypes in branding

TED archetypes in branding

Understanding the primary role a brand needs to play in the mind of a consumer, and in the marketplace, helps us understand which archetype that brand should embody. This in turn helps the brand to ‘stay in character’ by remaining consistent across all channels and touch points.

Archetypes provide an easily understood ‘behaviour barometer’ for a company – you instinctively know that a Sage shouldn’t act like a Jester and that a Sovereign shouldn’t act like a Rebel. Because all brand perceptions are built up through repetition, clarity and consistency across each of these touch points, this means that your brand will be absorbed and understood faster.

Ultimately this will strengthen brand recognition and differentiation.

At Better we run a half-day workshop to help clients understand more about archetypes, to uncover their own brand archetype and to find out how it can help them communicate their brand. This is often the first stage of the Brand Story process and provides an easily understood and practical framework on which to build a brand tone of voice and visual language.

So take another look at these twelve core archetypes: Sage, Explorer, Innocent, Rebel, Hero, Magician, Creator, Sovereign, Caregiver, Everyman, Jester and Lover. Do you know which archetype your brand is?

If you’d like to know more about archetypes and how they apply to your brand, then contact us for a chat on 01642 989158 or drop us a line at