Why I Geek Out on Brand Archetype Theory
Updated: Aug 22
I encountered brand archetype theory for the first time soon after Cranium was acquired by Hasbro. Hasbro's agency was leading an effort to "reinvent, reimagine, reignite" its dazzling toy chest of brands, and I joined a few all-day workshops where we explored the core customer desires underlying everything from Connect Four (no comment) to Mr. Potato Head (okay then) and Trivial Pursuit (now we're talking).
I had never worked for an agency, but those strategy sessions were transformative and energizing for me. These were my people! They thought exactly how I thought! I drank it up like a cold glass of sparkling lemonade.
But when the discussion turned to Cranium, things got tricky.
Before the meeting, they had hired an outside "expert" to analyze each of the brands and declare the archetype, like a telemed doc handing out a chicken pox diagnosis, and I flat-out disagreed. It was wrong. It disregarded the fundamental principles of the brand we had poured our hearts and souls into. It turned Cranium from a complex tapestry into a caricature. I argued passionately. I got on the phone with this so-called expert and made my case. His review had been cursory; his responses wholly unsatisfying.
I got my hands on a copy of The Hero and the Outlaw. I read it cover to cover, filling the margins with notes and exploring other possible fits to try to rescue the brand I loved.
Somehow the issue got escalated to a group manager, who had little understanding of the underlying theory or vision for creative possibility. He pounded his executive gavel and sided with the expert. End of discussion.
Soon after that, I left Hasbro.
I can't say that was the reason precisely, but I knew I could only thrive in an environment that had room for nuance and collaboration and boundary-pushing creativity.
I brought brand archetype theory with me. I became my own expert.
I've now led dozens of collaborative brand archetype exercises. I took a giant room full of people through it at the Kohler headquarters as part of an on-site brand storytelling workshop. I've incorporated it into crash courses on personal branding, virtual creative mastermind sessions, and pro bono work for nonprofits. I've worked it into brand strategy development for a a print and packaging company (Explorer), a fintech startup (Magician), a digital marketing agency (Explorer), a new line of home coffee brewing products (Sage), and a company specializing in underground power cable rejuvenation (Hero). I've introduced it over Skype from my car, with team members calling in from Seattle, Stockholm, and Nairobi.
The tool is powerful. I have never seen it not land. Every person gets engaged in the conversation, every time. I've developed my own particular way of applying it, which illuminates areas of non-alignment and alignment. It raises discussion points. It forces teams to confront their muddled messages. It demonstrates why everybody can't be like Apple or Uber. It guides toward focus and inspires ideas for product features and extensions, for customer service, for company culture.
I have experienced, time and again, the electrifying moment that takes place when a team coalesces around the Ruler, the Everyman, or the Rebel, right there in the room.
Sometimes it's more of a process, with extended discussion around the pros and cons, the implications, the opportunities presented by two or three of the archetypes. That is equally productive and just as clarifying.
We always get there.
We find our north star.
Keep reading: Part 2, How I Geek Out on Archetype Theory