For over two decades, many consultants and agencies have encouraged managers and marketers to leverage archetypal meaning to strengthen their brands. The idea that when a brand taps into one specific archetype, it can trigger associations, universal patterns and emotional responses that influence consumer behaviour. Archetypes, the theory says, help brands connect with customers on a more human and emotional level. They give brand’s stronger personalities and make what they say more engaging, believable or distinct.
However, although research on the use of archetypes in marketing has been very limited, increasingly concerns have been raised about a lack of managerial usefulness and the applicability of the concept, and recent evidence seems to suggest that the single archetype view may have lost its relevance. As Carl Jung says
"Those who do not realize the special feeling tone of the archetype end with nothing more than a jumble of mythological concepts, which can be strung together to show that everything means anything – or nothing at all."
"They are, at the same time, both images and emotions. One can speak of an archetype only when these two aspects are simultaneous. When there is merely the image, then there is simply a word-picture of little consequence. But by being charged with emotion, the image gains luminosity (or psychic energy); it becomes dynamic, and consequences of some kind must flow from it."
Archetypes in marketing have their roots in psychology. However, in the two decades that have passed since Mark and Pearson’s seminal work in identifying 12 primary archetypes, several challenges have emerged. First, the concept of brand archetypes has attracted criticism, especially from those who are supposed to implement it, for lacking contemporary relevance and practicality in the real world. There’s a perception that the concept is impractical and outdated, and that managers do not really know what to do with it. The 12 archetypes, according to some, are about as useful to managers as the 12 zodiac signs and should be retired.
It is no surprise that scholars such as MacInnis and Folkes (2017) have called for further studies, noting that, “Current research on the role of brand archetypes is limited, making this area a fruitful one for understanding how consumers perceive, connect with and form relationships with brands in human-like ways”.
A second concern is that while the theory has long dictated that brand identities are most effective when they identify strongly with one, and only one, archetype, there is a growing sense that this no longer applies in a fractured, multi-layered world of consumer/brand interactions and interfaces. The analogy that has been often used to describe a brand that evokes multiple archetypes is that of someone afflicted by multiple personality disorder or dissociative identity disorder. The term ‘brand schizophrenia’ is sometimes used. However, an alternative view is that brands can - and do - successfully blend together different archetypes. In fact, recent research has shown that strong brands often evoke multiple archetypes at the same time: According to Wertime (2002) “Strong brands often harmonize multiple subconscious elements” and “the decision about which archetype(s) to associate with a brand provides plenty of room for creativity and requires the company to think about how the archetypes will work in combination”.
So where are we today?
Our research identifies the following key findings.
- A focus on multiple archetypes can lead to a rich brand narrative without negative outcomes such as brand dilution, weakness, or confusion.
- A brand’s personality can be formed from a consistent blend of multiple archetypes or made from different combinations that reveal themselves over time. Just as a cake can be a single mixture made from multiple ingredients, where the first bite tastes the same as the last, but it's possible to identifying multiple flavours within each bite. Or a cake can have many different layers all of which have different ingredients. Resulting in unique experiences, depending upon the order in which they are experienced by each person. In these analogies both cakes are a single item, just as both types of brands would be a single personality. The difference lies in their combinations of complexity and the way consumers experience them.
- It is plausible that the single brand archetype argument made sense in a world where touchpoints were limited, and marketers needed to maximize the effectiveness of their messages in the few instances where they could connect with their audience. But, today, brands can tell fuller stories, and these stories are increasingly told through multiple channels and are co-created with a broad and diverse group of customers.
- Brands evoke specific archetypes strategically and consistently in their marketing communications. Clear patterns emerge suggesting that archetypes are part of deliberate strategies to connect with customers emotionally in specific ways.
- Brands often look for harmony in the archetypes they evoke. Some combinations of archetypes are prevalent and work particularly well together because they lead to harmonious storytelling.
- A brand that builds a narrative involving different archetypes makes it easy for a diverse group of customers to choose what parts of that narrative is most relevant to them.
- Some combinations of brand archetypes are so prevalent that dominant patterns have emerged within given sectors. This allows us to identify the brands that confirm and those that try to differentiate or break away from the category.
Founder of RADNB – a research and training tool that maps brands through the lens of 60 archetypal emotional drivers.