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Branding and the Use of Archetypes

At the core of any compelling brand story is an essential brand archetype. Let’s take a step back for a second and talk about archetypes, in general. According to great thinkers such as Plato and psychologist Carl Jung, archetypes are instinctively recognized icons, with ingrained symbolic imagery that is universally recognized by people across all cultures. We know these themes on an almost inborn psychological level, just like on a physical level we instinctively recoil from a snake.

For example, every culture intuitively understands the Caregiver archetype and the Wizard archetype. The Caregiver embodies nurturance. Classic nurturers are Moms, Nurses and personas like Mother Theresa and Florence Nightingale. The Wizard demonstrates vision, intuition and the ability to transform an idea into reality, seemingly magically. In myth Wizards are characters like Merlin and Gandalf. “Magic is science before its time.” Modern day Wizardry is evident in the “magical” functions of the internet and the new “3D printers that can make physical items materialize from within a plastic box.

Strong brands have stories woven around them based on instinctive archetypes that are experienced on an emotional level as compelling, genuine, important for some crucial need, universal and relevant at a deep psychological level. We’re drawn to them because of what they represent and develop ongoing relationships with our favorite brands because of what they mean to us, not just what they do. In “The Hero and the Outlaw,” Carol Pearson and Margaret Mark laid the groundwork for understanding how the concept of archetypes applies to brands, identifying a set of 12 basic archetypes.

Some brands fit purely into one of the 12. For example, Johnson’s Baby Products embodies the Innocent. It’s the quintessence of a happy baby — soft, simple, gentle, sweet, lovable, new beginnings.

Harley Davidson is a virtually perfect expression of the Destroyer/Outlaw. It’s a counter culture brand that expresses power, asserts its independence and displays rebellious, unconventional attitudes.

Brands that are most consistent in communicating their archetypes over time are the ones that are most successful in the marketplace. This is evident, when you look at Interbrand’s Top Global Brands:

For example, a major leader over the years has been Coca Cola. Coca Cola has steadfastly communicated its Innocent archetype throughout the years. The Innocent is about authenticity, honesty, belief in the possibility of a better world, renewal, freedom to be yourself within a family of support, positive energy, good feelings.

Coke invented the current look of Santa in the 1930’s – an old, jolly fat man in a red and white suit.

Later, they created the “It’s the real thing” campaign in the 60’s, which led to the classic song advertised globally, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” developed by Bill Backer of McCann Erickson. Of his engagement with the Coke brand, Backer said:

They went on to their famous polar bear campaign in the 90’s. According to creator Ken Stewart, “That's really what we were trying to do — create a character that's innocent, fun and reflects the best attributes we like to call 'human'. The bears are cute, mischievous, playful and filled with fun."

About a decade ago, Coke ads invited us to “live on the the Coke side of life” which is about drinking Coke and feeling good. The message is optimistic, positive, spontaneous, and colorful — again all aspects of the Innocent.

Meanwhile, rival Pepsi has lagged way behind on the Interbrands list, occupying slots between 20 to 30 over the past several years, but always taking a back seat to Coke.

While Coca Cola was creating an ongoing story about simple pleasures that everyone can enjoy, Pepsi has tried on various identities – Regular Guy, Underdog, Rebel, Explorer.

Looking at the two brands’ logos development over the years, you can also see consistency in image in the logo design for Coca Cola, while Pepsi has undergone many iterations of how it displays its name, suggesting that it’s not as clear on what its core story is.

Others from the Interbrands global brands list also have powerful archetypes that have been telling the same story over the years.

While the Interbrands top rankers’ brands above fall pretty clearly in one of the fundamental 12 archetypes, most brands are actually blended. For example, Aveeno is an Earth Mother which blends Caregiver and Wizard. AT&T is a Connector which combines Caregiver and Ruler. Herman Miller is a Pioneer which combines Explorer and Creator.

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