Giving Brand Archetypes Another Shot

Yes, they’re touchy-feely. They’re also incredibly valuable for early-stage companies.

One thing I’ve noticed about early-stage companies — their websites, investor decks, in-product messages — is that many have a similar feel. They’re trying to be minimalist (like Apple), intellectual (like Google), friendly (like Facebook), or some combination of the three.

I guess that’s because few early-stage teams think about engineering a strategic personality. Most either expect it to flow organically from the founders, or fear (rightly so) the rat hole of an extended branding project. Many simply admire companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, and, consciously or not, emulate them.

Which, given that brand personality is a powerful source of competitive differentiation, seems like a big missed opportunity. For example, what if you’re in a category packed with competitors who also come off as minimalist, intellectual and/or friendly? What if you’re creating a new category in which customers are simply looking for a different brand personality type?

So when I started helping early-stage teams with strategic messaging and positioning, I wondered: Was there a way to help early-stage teams identify a strategically optimal brand personality, while saving them the time and expense of a dedicated 3-month branding engagement?

How I Encountered Brand Archetypes, and Why I Mistakenly Dismissed Them As Useless

A few years ago, a friend of mine who was the CMO of a large public company invited me to sit in for exactly the kind of extended branding engagement my early-stage clients fear. She hired in an outside branding consultant to lead it, who kicked off the session by presenting a slide very similar to this one:

The 12 commonly accepted brand archetypes

The consultant described brand archetypes as a kind of corporate Myers-Briggs — a system for classifying brand personalities. In terms of classic narrative structure, the customer is your hero, and your brand is the customer’s guide — like Obi Wan Kenobi or Gandalf. Archetypes, then, define a spectrum of guide (brand) personalities. There are Jester guides (Geico) and Warrior guides (U.S. Marines), guides who act as Caretakers (Nordstrom), and guides who like to party (Virgin). Lego is a Creator brand, the consultant said, because it promises to help you build things and express yourself. Apple, she explained, is a Magician brand because it makes your life simple and effortless.

“Which kind of guide do you guys want to be?” the consultant asked, throwing the question out for discussion.

But instead of reaching a happy consensus on their brand archetype, my friend’s team attacked the whole concept. “Apple helps people create things, so why isn’t it also a Creator?” one person argued. “How is McDonald’s a Caregiver and not an Everyman?” asked another. By the time, several weeks later, the consultant issued her brand archetype recommendation (Explorer), my friend dismissed the whole idea of brand archetypes as “a little too touchy-feely for us.”

For the next few years, whenever anyone mentioned brand archetypes, I rolled my eyes. More recently, however, as I thought about how to integrate brand personality with my strategic messaging work, I wondered if they might hold the key. In other words, was the problem really with brand archetypes, or with the way the consultant had introduced them? And could I achieve what I wanted with a more constrained, tactical approach?

How I Use Brand Archetypes Today to Quickly Align Teams on a Strategic Personality

Whether I’m building strategic messaging or an investor deck, I start by diagramming the elements of a company’s story. Then I translate the story into high-level messages.

For example, take a startup called FairyGodmother, which targets lonely young people tormented by evil step-families. To help its customers attend high-society social events, its technology turns pumpkins into chariots, mice into horses, and rags into gowns/glass slippers. (Yes, their MVP breaks at midnight. They’re looking into it.)

Here’s what we might come up with for the story elements and the messaging (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll summarize both):

Like every startup, FairyGodmother poses a choice for its target audience. The choice here: Hire us and become happily married, or don’t and remain lonely and tormented. Given that story, “Get the happily-ever-after you deserve” seems like a reasonable headline for the company’s website.

But we can certainly imagine other headline messages that tell the story through different personalities, and this is where I’ve found brand archetypes to be helpful. Instead of showing my client teams all 12 archetypes, however, I present just a few distinct archetypes that make sense. I list the personality attributes associated with those archetypes as well as representative brand examples. Most importantly, I share a glimpse of what the team’s own message might look like (below, bottom row) as shaped by each archetype:

In this way, teams get to “try on” different personalities so they can choose one that feels right and that makes sense in their competitive space. In effect, the brand archetype acts as a filter, coloring the message with a differentiating personality:

The results have been overwhelmingly positive. The teams I’ve worked with in this way come up with strategic messaging that clearly expresses a personality they’ve determined to be strategically optimal. Most tellingly, those teams have embraced their brand archetypes broadly, using them to communicate who they are to outside designers, PR firms, and others who will help shape and convey their identity.

Diving Deeper into Brand Archetypes

If you’ve read this far, you probably have lots of unanswered questions. For example, How do you curate a limited set of archetypes that “make sense?” How do you come up with messages for each? And how do you decide which is optimal?

I’m still honing my approach, but when I need answers, I often look to the inventors of brand archetypes, Carol Pearson and Margaret Mark (with whom I have no relationship). In their 2001 book, The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, they contend that successful brands express “one compelling and identifiable archetype” in everything they do; fail to choose one — or flip-flop between archetypes — and you become the next Levi’s. (Pearson and Mark claim that the clothing brand’s famously muddled positioning is the result of cycling through, over several decades, at least five archetypes: Explorer, Outlaw, Hero, Everyman, and Lover.)

I buy that argument, but even if you don’t, you’ll enjoy the authors’ take on how certain product categories have natural archetypes (insurance companies tend to be Caretakers, for instance), and how to choose an archetype that differentiates your brand versus a category leader (Pepsi’s Jester to Coke’s Innocent, or, back in the 1950s, the VW Beetle’s Innocent to GM’s Ruler.)

To be sure, you’ll find yourself quibbling over a few of the authors’ archetype classifications for a few famous brands (Is Volvo a Ruler or a Caretaker?), as my friend’s colleagues did with their consultant. But try to get over it: In a world crowded with competitors looking to guide your customers, brand archetypes are the most valuable tool I’ve found for helping early-stage leadership teams quickly and strategically define a personality those customers will want follow.


About Andy Raskin:
I help leadership teams craft strategic messaging and positioning — for fundraising, sales, marketing, and recruiting. My clients include companies backed by Andreessen Horowitz, KPCB, First Round Capital and other top-tier investors. I also lead storytelling workshops for teams. More at http://andyraskin.com. Or follow me on Twitter: @araskin