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Hero or Outlaw: How Archetypes Can Tell A Brand Story

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In 2001, The Hero and The Outlaw introduced the branding world to the use of archetypes. The book reminds us that humans relate to stories with strong characters, and that storytelling has an important place in marketing.

According to Carl Jung, mythic characters—or archetypes—are ingrained in our collective unconscious. We use them to understand the world. So if marketers align their brand with an archetype, and mirror that archetype’s role, they’ll build emotional connections with their customers. This sort of alignment elevates brands from fulfilling a need to being a beacon of values. It’s a brilliant purpose (and powerful burden) for any brand.

Nowadays, archetypes have a mainstream presence in brand strategy. But with the choice to rely on archetypes as a storytelling device, there are key considerations every marketer should be mindful of.

1. There should be careful consideration of authenticity and context in the casting of brand archetypes.

If a brand uses an archetype, it must do so with care. The human psyche has a surprisingly sensitive B.S. meter. So brands must discover the right archetype, as well as the right context for that archetype.

Most often, brands cast themselves as the central character in the story. But this isn’t always the right approach:

First, the central character usually relies on help from other characters. The moral of most stories is that you cannot accept only one way of being; we need different energies in balance to navigate the journey.
Second, not all archetypes are intended for a lead role. Different archetypes mirror different human values: order, freedom, ego, and social connection. Each of these has significant value to the moral but isn’t necessarily the center of attention.
The challenge many brands face when using archetypes is removing their ego from the equation. They must step back and decide who is at the center of their story—themselves or the customer—and align their archetype accordingly.

2. What role does your target customer play?

Here’s another point of discussion to consider and one that appears to be missing from the archetypes conversation: in brand storytelling, there needs to be careful consideration of the role of the core customer, and their persona, in the story.

Sometimes they’re not a character in the story at all; they’re just an engaged listener seeking an escape. Therefore, at the most basic level, you should consider how relatable your archetype might be to your intended audience, presuming they are mere consumers of (and not players in) the story.

Typically, however, if your customer is engaging with your brand, they are as much a part of your story as your brand is a part of their story or context. They are one of the characters being served by or interacting with your brand’s archetype. So, you might consider that your customers aren’t always in need of rescue – requiring a Magician or Hero. Sometimes they just want a companion, like a caregiver, lover, or “regular guy” to be with them on the journey – or even a scapegoat like a Jester or Outlaw to give them freedom to indulge.

And, yes, sometimes they aspire to be the Hero themselves. It’s all relative to the role that a brand might play in their lives.

3. Archetypes should guide brand behavior as well as communication.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if a brand is going to choose an archetype like a Magician or Hero, they need to really give something to the world besides just selling a product. A brand that takes on a Hero archetype, for example, has to tell a story that shows they are quite literally following a call to save the world. That’s probably not related to a specific product, but to the way they behave as a company. That’s why Hero brands like Nike nail it so well: they empower a higher order social ethos. They don’t just sell sneakers and t-shirts.

A Magician brand, on the other hand, likely provides an outcome that might seem impossible or magical. But the brand can deliver that unlikely outcome thanks to unique product intrinsic functions. Sure, there are emotional benefits there as well. But the end benefit is focused on helping someone get out of a jam.

It might seem, at the outset of a brand archetype journey, that once you have found your archetype, the communication strategies become clear. But the context in which your brand engages with the world is more complex and requires mindfulness. The human psyche runs deep, and archetypes are not just window dressing.

In conclusion, here are three related questions every brave brand should ask when aligning their brand with an archetype:

1. What are the functional and emotional benefits your products provide? Translate those benefits into the role the brand plays in the lives of consumers. Is it solving a major problem? Providing amusement? Dispensing wisdom?

2. What do you know about your customer’s overall lifestyle and values? What role do they want to play in the story? Are they aspiring heroes waiting for the kind of empowerment your brand offers?

3. What is your brand’s purpose? What good does your brand serve beyond your product’s intrinsic function? Will your choice of archetype determine how your brand behaves in the world beyond marketing communications?

Want to have a brave conversation about your brand and how archetypes can help tell your story? Give us a shout and let’s start creating the story together.

*This piece was originally written for the Scout Big Brave Idea’s Blog. Click here for more brave thinking from my fearless coworkers.

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