How I Geek Out on Brand Archetype Theory
Updated: Aug 22
When I first encountered brand archetype theory, I absorbed everything I could to understand how others applied it. I'm an experimenter at heart, and I've now put a fair amount of energy into developing my own way of applying it and tailoring it to the situation, whether that's an hour-long brand storytelling workshop or part of a deep-dive strategy development project.
If you read Part 1 (Why I Geek Out on Brand Archetype Theory), you will appreciate that the one thing I never do is come in and tell a team which archetype their brand is. I always come in with an opinion, but I avoid pronouncements. I make damn sure the process is collaborative. Sometimes the results surprise me.
Exploring Core Motivations
When I started using this tool in my own practice, I used to just go right into the twelve archetypes, but I found that can be pretty overwhelming, and it misses the incredibly focusing and clarifying power of the quadrants that bound them.
There are some dynamic axes at play. Is the brand more about stability and control (Caregiver, Creator, Ruler), or about change (Hero, Magician, Rebel)? Is it more about community and belonging (Jester, Everyperson, Lover), or autonomy and independence (Innocent, Sage, Explorer)? Each of those quadrants contains a wide range of emotional territory, but understanding that fundamental grounding is an important place to start.
Introducing the Archetypes
When we get to the archetype level, I avoid mixing examples from different industries. Sure, Disney is an iconic Magician brand, and Nike is a quintessential Hero, and you'll see those on just about every conference brand archetype slide, but to me, comparing those radically different businesses doesn't really make it click.
I like to get things rolling by showing archetypes for cars--when you take twelve vehicles that all have four wheels and get you to the grocery store, but they give you twelve different emotional feelings, that gets much closer to the point.
Considering the Category
Next, I pull examples from the category we are considering, to ground the discussion. I have created these kinds of custom archetype maps for nonprofits...
Seattle coffee shops...
tech startups, expense management offerings, and even vibrators. (I do thrive on variety...)
Once a CEO, whom I would call a skeptic, drily asked if there would be ponies at our archetype workshop.
Breaking Free from the Expected
This is also a good point to consider whether the category you are considering has an underlying archetypal feeling--for example, games might naturally skew toward Jester, baby products might evoke Caretaker, and high-end chocolates might subconsciously conjure up Lover imagery. I find that the most interesting and memorable brands break free of these "expected" category associations.
Identifying White Space
Next, I map out the competitive set, as well as any special considerations such as partners and sub-brands. This exercise illuminates white space, opportunities to take a different point of view and stand out. Here's an example from our Motif Coffee brand strategy project.
Because very few companies develop archetypal brand identities systematically, you might need to consider core purpose, visual identity, and external messaging. There is no place where you can look this up, and if you try, you'll certainly find competing theories.
Many competitors are difficult to place precisely because their expression is all over the archetypal map (the very situation we are trying to avoid). So this part is a judgment call, but it always leads to good discussion.
Mapping Themes and Messaging
Finally, I map out the key themes and messages I've observed in the company's communications or heard in my interviews with stakeholders or customers, both key elements of our brand strategy development process.
This is my favorite part. A key principle of a strong brand is that you can't be everything to everyone, and this visual drives the point home. When you're talking all over the map, you're sending mixed signals and diluting the emotional power behind your brand.
At this point, the discussion tends to go in one of two ways. One is that the team expresses "Oh, we are Rebel, 100%!" And I can point out that they are using precisely zero Rebel language (this has happened before, more than once--perhaps it comes from working with so many industry disrupters?). This can be an energizing motivator to refocus the brand expression around a powerful new core idea (though, of course, we can't all be Rebels.)
More commonly, mapping the themes illustrates that the team is naturally gravitating to a short list of archetypes that we can explore more in depth.
The first thing I do at this point is to go back to the core motivations for each quadrant, which are overlooked in many more superficial applications of archetype theory. Left to right, are we more about self or community? Top to bottom, are we more about structure or energy and change?
For the Novinium brand strategy project, we did this exercise with a larger group, split between the marketing team and the executive team. In this case we tabulated votes to illustrate the relative pull and identify our short list to explore further. (We eventually aligned around Hero.)
Once we can narrow down to two or three that are appealing in different ways, I like to do a deeper dive where we "try on" the archetype through the lens of the brand. At this stage, I make a spreadsheet that maps out the different archetypes side by side, and I bold the phrases that feel the most relevant and applicable. This is an ideal time to explore and discuss opportunities and implications at the brand purpose level, for product, for culture, and for marketing. Here's an excerpt from one we did for the CenterCard brand strategy project.
In the spirit of giving credit where it's due, much of this drill-down analysis is drawn from The Hero and the Outlaw, though I do quite a bit of curating, extrapolating, and updating in the process. It's a useful book, but it's not a perfect book. And, well, it's a book. Let's face it--Volkswagen can no longer claim the Innocent archetype, but Everlane can. The Coke (Innocent) - Pepsi (Jester) comparison has lost its fizz, but Uber (Ruler) and Lyft (Jester) is illuminating and relevant.
Determining the North Star
I used to let teams who were having a hard time committing blend two archetypes, and I've seen examples of other agency work that lands on these kind of "we couldn't quite get closure" Jester-Sage, Innocent-Magician hybrids, but I don't anymore. The whole point is to focus.
I do, however, allow a particularly magnetic secondary archetype to inform the outward expression, or brand personality. We'll cover this textural twist in Part 3. After all, as I tried so hard to explain years ago, there is more than one way to be a Sage.