Another type of marketing metaphor, the archetype, is based on the idea of universal, reoccurring characters or personifications that represent something fundamental about the ways we identify ourselves and relate to the world around us.
A few years ago, we began the process of gathering raw archetypes from as many sources as we could. In the process, we reviewed a variety of fields, including literature, religion, mythology, folklore, video games, movies, comics, cartoons, contemporary fiction, role-playing games, etc. We came up with hundreds of common character archetypes that formed a reasonable cross-section of the universal characters in human culture.
Then, we started performing clustering exercises, asking people to combine these characters into groups to help us determine where the overlaps occurred. Every participant had a different take on it, but together, we were able to find patterns between individual characters. This enabled us to isolate universal archetypes that could be applied across cultures, eras, and media.
When we spread out the data in a conference room and began the process of identifying patterns, they seemed to jump off the page, and the actual isolation process went pretty quickly. After that, it was simply a matter of naming them.
Based on our own research and process—your mileage may vary—we came up with a set of 20 universal brand archetypes that should work with most situations.
MAVERICK (Rebel, Outlaw, Rogue)
- Brands: Harley Davidson, Virgin, MTV, Rimmel, Steve Madden, Urban Outfitters, Orbit
- People: Henry David Thoreau, Sid Vicious, George Washington
- Goal/method: To achieve freedom from the establishment through defiance, disobedience, and nonconformity
EVERYMAN (Good Old Boy, Girl Next Door, Average Joe)
- Brands: Miller High Life, Sonic, Walmart, Lowe’s, Walgreens, Southwest, Visa, Covergirl, Hollister
- People: Jack Black, Homer Simpson, Tom Hanks, Princess Diana
- Goal/method: To bond with others by being humble, hard-working, and friendly
INNOCENT (Saint, Goody Two-Shoes, Angel)
- Brands: IKEA, Google, Apple, Dove, Lysol, Master Card, Aveda
- People: Mr. Rogers, Gandhi, Boy Scouts, Oprah
- Goal/method: To achieve a simple, pure life by always doing the right thing
ENTERTAINER (Clown, Jester, Performer)
- Brands: Budweiser, Fanta, Jack in the Box, Hulu, Woot.com, Taco Bell, Doritos
- People: Robin Williams, Bob Hope, Jeff Foxworthy
- Goal/method: To make friends (and avoid making enemies) through humor and fun
VILLAIN (Bad Guy, Monster, Vampire)
- Brands: Megadeth, Hot Topic, LA Ink
- People: Marilyn Manson, Darth Vader, Dr. Horrible
- Goal/method: To satisfy internal drives or passions through whatever means necessary
INTELLECTUAL (Sage, Genius, Expert)
- Brands: Ask.com, CNN, Gallup, MIT, Harvard, CIA, Bloomberg
- People: Stephen Hawking, Marie Curie, Ken Jennings
- Goal/method: To find the truth through research, objectivity, and diligence
SENSUALIST (Hedonist, Pleasure Seeker)
- Brands: Victoria’s Secret, BMW, Godiva, Versace, Food Network, Nivea, Sephora
- People: Madonna, Paula Deen, Dracula
- Goal/method: To pursue perfect enjoyment through physical experiences
SERVANT (Martyr, Slave, Monk)
- Brands: Red Cross, Amnesty International, Peace Corps, Humane Society, Police Department
- People: Mother Theresa, Pat Tillman
- Goal/method: To lose yourself through service to others
TRADITIONALIST (Conservative, Old School, Miser)
- Brands: Old Spice, Wendy’s, Procter & Gamble, Wells Fargo, Folger’s, GAP
- People: Norman Rockwell, Ronald Reagan
- Goal/method: To restore the world through a return to old-fashioned values
NURTURER (Mom, Mother Earth, Healer)
- Brands: Campbell’s, Pampers, Volvo, Johnson & Johnson, Loreal, Allstate
- People: June Cleaver, Paula Deen
- Goal/method: To help others feel loved by providing for their needs and wants
CONNECTOR (Networker, Politician, Talker)
- Brands: AT&T, Verizon, Facebook, Linkedin
- People: Oprah, Donald Trump
- Goal/method: To make things happen by knowing the right people
ARTIST (Creative, Creator, Craftsman)
- Brands: HP, Adobe, Lego, Home Depot, Michael’s, Black and Decker, HGTV
- People: Beethoven, Salvador Dali, William Shakespeare, Bob Villa
- Goal/method: To create something of enduring beauty and value
PHILOSOPHER (Sage, Prophet, Guru)
- Brands: Scientology, Calvin Klein, Nikon
- People: Plato, Deepak Chopra, Paulo Coelho
- Goal/method: To help people understand the world by seeing things from a different perspective.
DREAMER (Magician, Sorcerer, Wizard)
- Brands: Disney, Axe, Rock Band
- People: Tim Burton, Carlos Castaneda, Steven Spielberg, Harry Potter
- Goal/method: To help people achieve supernatural experiences by promoting faith and wonder (transformation)
MOTIVATOR (Mentor, Preacher, Promoter)
- Brands: Truth, (RED), Electronic Frontier Foundation, MoveOn.org
- People: Tony Robbins, Barack Obama, Richard Simmons
- Goal/method: To achieve amazing goals by getting people excited about a cause
RULER (King, Leader, Father)
- Brands: Microsoft, Rolex, Gillette, The New York Times, Jack Daniel’s
- People: Steve Jobs, Franklin Roosevelt, Moses
- Goal/method: To lead people to a common destination through confidence, determination, and influence
EXPLORER (Seeker, Wanderer)
- Brands: North Face, Pier One, Jeep, Greyhound, Subaru, Starbucks
- People: Christopher Columbus, Jacques Cousteau, Steve Irwin
- Goal/method: To learn what’s constant in life by always changing your environment
DEFENDER (Knight, Superhero, Warrior)
- Brands: U.S. Army, Greenpeace, Marlboro, Dial, Band aid
- People: Batman, George S. Patton, John Wayne
- Goal/method: To protect others from harm through bravery and service
THRILL-SEEKER (Gambler, Swashbuckler, Adventurer)
- Brands: X Games, Mountain Dew, Chrysler Crossfire, Carnival Cruise Ships, New Zealand, Camelback
- People: Richard Branson, Ben Saunders, Errol Flynn
- Goal/method: To achieve great rewards through great risks
ACHIEVER (Athlete, Hot Shot, Strongman)
- Brands: Nike, Ford, Home Depot, Adidas, Under Armor
- People: Lance Armstrong, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods
- Goal/method: To prove yourself through amazing physical acts
The interesting thing about archetypes is they don’t represent the company’s sense of “self” in quite the same way as other types of metaphors. Instead, they serve as a way for the consumer to live vicariously, explore that aspect of their identity, and expand their perspective by seeing the world through the archetype’s eyes.
Examples of brand archetypes in action
Harley Davidson (The Maverick)
This quintessential American brand is built around the Maverick archetype, which personifies a willingness to defy (or destroy) social conventions and challenge “normal” behavior.
As the Harley Davidson brand came to be associated with outlaw behavior (thanks to movies and press coverage of rebellious bikers gangs), their motorcycles allowed people to escape from their routine lives. The ride came to symbolize leaving it all behind and forging a new path. Most customers didn’t literally make this change in their lives, but their participation in the brand helped them find a healthy balance with the responsibilities in other areas of their life.
Nike (The Achiever)
The Nike brand is all about pushing the limits of human performance, which is a perfect manifestation of the Achiever archetype. The company’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman, once observed, “If you have a body, you are an athlete." He was hinting at the nearly infinite potential they see for humans in sport (as well as their desire to bring performance-mindedness to a broad audience).
Nike talks about winning almost like a religion, which is appropriate given that Nike was the Greek goddess of victory. For example, their 2010 “Write the Future” campaign, revolved around a three-minute film showing some of the world’s greatest athletes in do-or-die situations. It portrayed the emotional extremes that can come from their performance in those decisive moments.
While the products themselves are high quality and detailed, Nike (wisely) almost never talks about that. Instead, trust that their fans will feel moved by the religious experience they create and will take the time to learn about the products later. Their $19 billion annual revenue would seem to indicate this focus on archetypes and emotional experiences over logical arguments has been successful.
Imagine what Nike would look like if they had simply promoted the features and benefits of their shoes. Would the company even still exist?
Victoria’s Secret (The Sensualist)
Most Victoria’s Secret customers don’t realize the brand is based around a fictional woman named Victoria. She was a manor-born Londoner who serves as a stand-in for the store’s customers: responsible women with boring lives who still (perhaps secretly) want to indulge in the physical pleasures they’ve been missing. This aspect of their customers’ everyday experiences is represented by the Sensualist, the archetype that discovers and maximizes physical pleasure.
Victoria’s Secret has ranged over the years from classy and sophisticated to outrightly sexual. Even their Chief Executive, Sharen J. Turney, agrees they have wandered too far from their roots. But the direction provided by their focus on the Sensualist archetype (consciously or otherwise) has helped turn Victoria’s Secret into a household name and set it far apart from its competitors.