How defining your archetype unlocks your brand

They're in your favourite films and the latest binge-worthy Netflix series. And they're also behind the world’s best brands.

2nd April 2020

2nd April 2020


Estimated Reading Time 7 Minutes

James Bolton

James Bolton

James Bolton

Written by James Bolton,
Creative Copywriter

Alongside creative storytelling across a variety of channels and audiences, James helps define our client propositions by creating unique brand stories and verbal guidelines that get to the heart of their purpose and mission.

You might not know it, but archetypes are everywhere. They’re in your favourite films, vital to your latest binge-worthy Netflix series, and behind the world’s biggest and best brands. And while you might never have heard the term before, you already instinctively understand and identify with them.

noun a ·che-type

A symbol, theme, setting, or character type that recurs in different times and places in myth, literature, film and ritual so frequently as to suggest that it embodies essential elements of ‘universal’ human experience.

A look through the history books

Archetypes aren’t just a concept dreamt up by glossy Madison Avenue ad agencies or on-trend Shoreditch design studios; they were first defined by Carl Jung back in 1919. Due to their frequent occurrence across cultures and languages, the Swiss Psychologist believed archetypes were essential primitive elements of ‘universal’ human experience.

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 characters we all play at some point, elements of our psyche, we should instinctively understand them.

In fact, archetypes are dotted throughout fable and history; take the Mentor archetype as an example.

For those who aren’t familiar, Mentor was a magical wise old man who instructed and guided a young Price Telemachus on his quest to find his father, Odysseus. Don’t worry if this doesn’t sound familiar, stick with us, the theory repeats itself time and time again. Think Merlin, Gandalf, Obi-Wan and Dumbledore. They all follow the qualities and storyline of the Mentor — a wise old man who guides a young protégé on their own epic journey.

It’s a family affair

In much the same way that almost every story boils down to one of seven basic plots, characters can broadly be broken down into 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 richer, more 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.

Better archetype family cards.

Some of these archetypes are obvious to their qualities and personalities, others less so. Further still, the Rebel will naturally go against authority, take risks and look to do things differently. Archetypes work in precisely the same way. And that’s why they resonate so naturally and can be found in all kinds of storytelling; myth, literature, film, television and, you guessed it, even brands.

Archetypes in practice

Now we’re familiar with archetypes, their various families and qualities, it’s time to understand how they work in the big beautiful world of brand. One of the most important things to remember is that brands aren’t for everyone. You could count on one hand the number of brands who deliberately and successfully appeal to everyone out there. It’s just not how you target an audience, strengthen a point of difference or own a position in the marketplace. So, with that in mind, let’s think about everyone’s favourite delicious sweet treat — ice cream.

Strictly speaking, the premium type of ice cream you find in a supermarket is all the same. Take Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs. They’re both at the same price point, both made the same way, and both contain the same creamy goodness but with maybe a slight twist on ingredients and flavours. The most significant difference is the look and feel of each brand. That includes naming, identity, tone of voice and a whole lot more.

Ben & Jerry’s are all about fun, laughter and good times. They’re also a little playful and carefree — true to their homemade hippy roots in 70s Vermont. With hand-drawn type, illustrative imagery and an informative, laid back tone of voice, they’re the typical Jester archetype with a touch of Everyman. Even their name reflects it.

Ben & Jerrys - cherries advert.

Ben & Jerry's - Archetype adverts

On the opposite side of things, Häagen-Dazs position themselves as the exotic ice cream of choice for lovers of luxury and fanciful fashionistas. They rely on arty black and white fashion and lifestyle photography, always hinting at romance and premium quality. This is backed up by serif typefaces and a flirtatious yet subtle tone of voice. They’ve even gone to the lengths of coming with a European sounding name; evoking visions of snow-capped Swiss mountains and ice cream filled chateaus. In reality, they’re straight out of Brooklyn and the Big Apple!

Häagen-Dazs - ingredients advert.

Häagen-Dazs - strawberries advert.

So essentially, they’re the same product but with two very different types of brand.

If we look at a different sector, you can compare British Airways and Virgin to see how they successfully use Sovereign and Rebel archetypes respectively. For British Airways, they’re top of the tree; stability, control, trust and heritage is the name of their game. Virgin couldn’t expect to enter the fray and compete on the same terms, so they don’t. Virgin is 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 the over side of the coin to British Airways.

But Virgin’s pilots don’t fly their planes rebelliously, doing loop the loops over the Atlantic. Behind the scenes, they both do the same thing — they put people on planes and take them places, all as safely as possible of course.

What archetypes mean for your brand

As we’ve touched on above, nailing your archetype has the potential to unlock a whole host of powerful differences and new angles — all of which impact the look, feel and position of your brand. Naturally, these will appeal to different audiences too. So while it’s important to remain true to yourself, it’s also essential to understand the primary role your brand needs to play in the mind of a consumer, and in the marketplace.

Archetypes also help brands ‘stay in character’ by remaining consistent across all channels and touchpoints.

They 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 touchpoints, this means that your brand will be absorbed and understood faster. Ultimately this will strengthen brand recognition and differentiation.

However, we know fine well that not everything is black and white. That’s why when creating brands, we usually look to blend archetypes and create one overarching archetype that’s unique to you. This is likely to be led by one particular archetype, with one or two reinforcing or complementing the lead.

For our own rebrand last year, we defined our archetype as ‘a creative seeker’, that’s open minded, self reliant and always searching for a better way. Our lead archetype ‘seeker’ is powered by ‘creator’ and ‘everyman’. These two supporting archetypes represent our down to earth resourcefulness coupled with non-linear thinking and aesthetic creativity.

As all archetypes should, ours went on to heavily guide and influence our identity. This included our custom typeface and wordmark, which featured softened curves to add a sense of warmth and friendliness, and an industrial and stencil-like feel to reflect our grounded North East roots.

For clients, we run a half-day workshop to help clients understand more about archetypes, to uncover their own archetype and to find out how it can help them communicate their brand. This is often the first stage of the Brand Story process. As you cement your archetype, you start building strong foundations for a great brand. Once this is in place, it provides an easily understood and practical framework on which to build a brand tone of voice and visual language.

One last thing to remember — your archetype will never be public-facing or out in the open for all to see; instead, it will sit in the background, influencing and underpinning the way you behave, the decisions you make and the methods you communicate.

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?

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