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Using archetypes to
build stronger brands
Jon Howard-Spink, Mustoe Merriman Levy, sets out an approach to
understanding and developing firmly-grounded brands

PART ART, part science, disconnected words that

brand is the difference looks like nothing less than an
between a bottle of soda and explosion in a bombed the-
a bottle of Coke, the intangible saurus factory.
yet visceral impact of a persons Unfortunately, having built
subjective experience with the our pyramid and agreed that
product the personal memories our brand is contemporary,
and cultural associations that stylish, relevant, inclusive and
orbit around it (1)

The curse of the pharaohs
We all know why we need
other usual suspects, we fall
into the trap of thinking our
job is finished. Usually
though, we are no closer to
brands.We know the physical articulating core essence
properties of the products we than when we began even if
work with, the functional that particular box has been
benefits that stem from these, filled in.What should be rich,
and how they might be trans- complex and, by definition,
lated into communication hard to articulate ends up
propositions. We will also be neutered and subjected to
aware that most other prod- death by a thousand adjec-
ucts in the market will have tives. Ironically, our supposed
similar functionality. A spin unchanging brand template
must be developed for our is reduced to a fluid selection
offering to create its market of meaningless or undifferen-
positioning, but what hap- tiating words that even those
pens if someone else comes close to the process interpret
and sits nearby? in different ways.
Recognising that the most The result, to quote Shake-
potent consumer needs are speare, is a brand which is
often emotional rather than '...a walking shadow; a poor
functional, we look to intangible quali- understand brands in their natural habi- player, that struts and frets his hour
ties to provide differentiation.We build a tat, we put them in a zoo. upon the stage, and then is heard no
brand. Easy isnt it? Unfortunately not. I recognise that pyramids, onions and more: a tale told by an idiot, full of
Though the development and manage- similar techniques can be useful internal sound and fury, signifying nothing'.You
ment of brands is central and disciplines. But do they really help define may feel this is harsh, but ask yourself
fundamental to everything we do, are the unchanging core values of a brand? how many walking shadows there are
the tools we use up to the job? Or do We spend weeks debating the nuances of out there, and if we struggle to find
they do more harm than good? synonyms, performing semantic gym- meaning, think how consumers feel.
Brands are complex, abstract and dif- nastics to prove that Brand X is different Nature abhors a vacuum, and where
ficult to pin down. However, in from Brand Y, and agonising over meaning is unclear consumers impose
endeavouring to define them we often whether something is an Emotional their own. Our brands become subject
forget this. With techniques such as Benefit or a Brand Value a distinction to the vagaries of personal experience,
brand pyramids, we take something wild we struggle to understand in the first resulting in fragmentation and inconsis-
and untamed and attempt to constrain place. At the end of the day, what does tency. My brand becomes different to
and control it. Rather than trying to this get us? More often than not, a pile of your brand, which may be terribly post-

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modern, but isn't great for effective characters found in these mythic stories, the whole point. But how much more
brand management. Where brands are and why these three films enjoy such powerful might our brands be, if we
poorly defined we lose control. strong and enduring appeal. Whether recognised this truth and pursued it sys-
Obviously, this isnt always the case. It Luke Skywalker, The Man With No tematically?
happens often enough though with the Name, Red Riding Hood, Harry Potter, This might seem counter-intuitive.We
negative consequences frequently going or real people such as JFK, Princess spend most of our time endeavouring to
unnoticed for an alternative approach Diana or Marilyn Monroe, there is make brands unique, so why root them
to be considered. If current tools and something primal in archetypal charac- in an archetype if someone else could do
models arent good enough, what is the ters and situations that stirs our the same? Wont this minimise differen-
alternative? Is there a better way to get to emotions, stimulates our memory and tiation? Only if you believe that the
grips with the intangible characteristics sometimes changes lives. pyramid of adjectives currently mas-
of a brand? In developing and managing brands, querading as firm and distinctive
are we really so different from George foundations is better, and only if you
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, Lucas or a budding Barbara Cartland? confuse an archetype with a stereotype,
far away Ironically, in this postmodern age when as they are in no way synonymous.
It will be no longer enough to produce a use- people are supposedly no longer inter-
ful product.A story or legend must be built ested in meta-narratives with common You say stereotype, I say archetype
into it; a story that embodies values beyond understanding, brand development is
utility.What is happening is that the story nothing short of creating a story that Hes just a stereotype.
shapes our feelings about a product,and has people want to be part of; a character He drinks his age in pints.
become an enormous part of what we buy with values that have deep resonance He has girls every night.
when we buy a product (2) which our target audience want to emu- But he doesnt really exist
(Stereotype,The Specials)
A stereotype is culturally, and often tem-
An archetype is a universally familiar character porally, specific, usually complete with a
heap of negative connotations. All cul-
or situation that transcends time, place, culture, tures and times have stereotypical
gender and age. It represents an eternal truth characters, but they dont travel well.
They tend to be rigid, simplistic and
one-dimensional. Unfortunately, most
There is a book I havent read called late or be associated with. also carry some grain of truth, which is
The Complete Writers Guide to Heroes This is why a Harley-Davidson mar- why they are easy to slip into and hard to
and Heroines (3). As the title suggests, its keter can say: shake off. They are ten-a-penny in sit-
purpose is to help writers of romantic what we sell is the ability for a 43-year- coms and just as prevalent in
fiction in character development. It is old accountant to dress in black leather, ride advertising, which can be one reason
built around the premise that there are through small towns and have people be why brands become undifferentiated,
certain identifiable characters you afraid of him (4) moribund and in need of reinvention.
should use (16 to be precise), like the Or why Scott Bedbury, in his time Stereotypes embody surly teenagers,
swashbuckler or the librarian. head of marketing at Nike and Star- lazy students, arrogant stockbrokers,
Apart from generating amusement in bucks, believes that: bumbling vicars, hen-pecked husbands
planning departments, and games of a brand is a metaphorical story that and bad women drivers.
whos who? around the agency, there is connects with something very deep a fun- In comparison, an archetype is a uni-
an important truth here.This is the truth damental human appreciation of versally familiar character or situation that
of archetypes: that there are certain basic mythology Companies that manifest this transcends time, place, culture, gender
characters and storylines that appear sensibility invoke something very and age. It represents an eternal truth
regularly in myth, fairytale, literature and powerful (5) more than just a (stereotypical) manifes-
film; archetypes that represent core As an approach, this is nothing new. It tation; a start point more than the
aspects of the human condition, and tap is precisely what the Ancient Greeks and finishing line and a brands bedrock more
deep into our motivations and sense of Romans did with abstractions.They per- than the characters in its advertising. So,
meaning. sonalised them and used story and ritual whereas a stereotype can be expressed in
When we encounter these, they res- to bring them to life in a way that went only one shallow, inflexible way, arche-
onate in powerful ways that transcend far beyond our use of flabby personality types can be manifested and often
culture and demographics.This is why, descriptors. Similarly, using the same combined in a multitude of distinct
when penning the original Star Wars archetypes, we can personalise our ways, each of which taps into primal
trilogy, George Lucas turned to Joseph brands today, using story and ritual to needs and motivations whilst retaining
Campbell, author of The Hero With a bring them to life. the freedom and flexibility to change
Thousand Faces, to help him understand The reality is that many of us will be external trappings with the times.
the archetypal narrative structure and doing this unconsciously already thats Take a very obvious archetype, the

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interpretations of adjectives, but we all

Manifestations and nuances may be understand archetypes in the same way.
different, but we all recognise a character
And they all lived happily
[the champion] who fights for truth in ever after
defence of the weak It may be because I fritter away my
earnings on comics, and sub-Tolkien
fantasy novels, but I find it more excit-
Champion. This character is found is Indiana Jones my brand is Peter Pan. ing to think of myself as the author of
throughout myth, history and popular It isnt enough to combine these with eternal brand stories than as someone
culture. Manifestations and nuances everything else on the brand pyramid or who writes strategy documents and
may be different, but we all recognise a creative brief.Tapping into the power of brand pyramids.
character who (usually but not always) archetypes isnt about mouthing the Obviously, putting theory into practice
fights for truth in defence of the weak words, it is about being a living manifes- is never easy. From my personal experi-
(whether people or ideals).The Cham- tation of that archetype to your ence, and a quick web surf, it becomes
pion is Joan of Arc, Martin Luther King consumers. clear that this isnt broadly held as a way
and Aragorn, William Wallace, Robin Alternatively, to create structure, some of viewing brands or brand management.
Hood and the Magnificent Seven. It have attempted to identify key master Apart from Dublin-based brand consul-
protects, empowers and champions the archetypes that exist in most cultures tancy Alexander Dunlop, and Carol
underdog; it challenges unjust systems, notably Carol Pearson, author of Awak- Pearsons rather disappointing The Hero
fights the bully and rescues people in en The Heroes Within and The Hero and and The Outlaw, little work has been done
distress. The Outlaw (6).The danger is that this in this area.Words and adjectives remain
When it comes to brands, the Cham- can tend to the stereotypical if used the norm. Unfortunately, people tend to
pion archetype can be seen in the likes of insensitively. However, as a start point it feel comfortable with convention, even if
Domestos, Which? or Virgin. No one stops you lurching into debates about it doesnt deliver.
would say these brands are interchange- the relative merits of obscure characters It is easy to do things the accepted way.
able or undifferentiated. Quite the from mythology and folklore (7). More often than not, I do it. There is a
reverse. They all have a clear, distinct real danger of looking like a mad hippy
positioning in their markets, and these Heres one I prepared earlier (another good stereotype) if you start
positionings are consistent and potent. How does it work? Consider a household likening your clients brand to characters
These brands all tap into the same cleaning product.You might start by dis- in fairytales. None the less, in true heros
recognisable archetype, but this actual- cussing whether your brand is a hero journey fashion, having received my call,
ly frees them to be different and avoids fighting against dirt and germs, I plan to throw caution to the wind, set
the descent into undifferentiated stereo- an innocent promising a return to the off down this path, and see what happens.
typing that comes when a brand lacks natural simplicity of Eden, or a caregiver
strong foundations (Figure 1). nurturing and protecting your family. 1. N Hawley: Brand Defined. Business 2.0,
The Champion is just one of many Having decided that the archetype you June 2000.
archetypes. These are also potentially want is the caregiver, you may then flesh 2. R Jensen: The Dream Society. McGraw-Hill,
limitless if you look to specific character out particular nuances. There may be 1999.
manifestations for example my brand secondary archetypes that are part of the 3. See
brand while Richard Branson and Vir- 4. As quoted by Tom Peters at
FIGURE 1 gin embody the Hero archetype, there is 5. S Bedbury: What Great Brands Do. Fast-
Brands as stereotype and archetype also a bit of the Outlaw as well. Or there company, August 1997.
may be particular examples of care- 6. See
givers, real or fictitious, that might 7. See the Encyclopaedia Mythica at
capture how you want to be seen are
you an earth mother or Mother Teresa;
Florence Nightingale or Princess Diana?
It then becomes much easier to use Jon Howard-Spink is
conventional techniques such as brand currently planning
director at Mustoe
pyramids. If everyone agrees that the Merriman Levy. He
brand is a caregiver as manifested by an has written five IPA
earth mother, you find that the words in Effectiveness Awards
the boxes suddenly become more mean- papers, three of them
winners, and has
ingful and interconnected.
spoken at the MRS
It also becomes easier to judge conference.
whether an execution is right for the
brand we may have different

October 2002

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