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The Meaning of Marketing: Introducing Archetypal Brand Identity

Written By Lindsay Isler

January 10, 2020

Humans have long looked—individually and collectively—to stories for their sense of order and meaning. The world is, in essence, governed by narratives, whether they be the small spatial stories our brains rely on to construct thoughts or the belief complexes that make up our worldviews and guide our decisions, behaviors, and morals. Yuval Noah Harris points out, “This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language … But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively.” Stories give us the strength to clamber out of bed each morning while also dictating unity and collective meaning across familial, racial, economic, and geographical lines. Indeed, every community and society is founded upon some assumed set of narratives and beliefs.

As technology and globalization have increased, the role of meaning-making has shifted away from sacred, traditional stories to brands. Brands have largely become, for good or ill, some of the loudest beacons of meaning in today’s culture. The reason? 

Brands draw on the same deep, archetypal patterns which populated their mythic predecessors. 

Psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung first popularized the term archetype and defined it as the content of what he terms “the collective unconscious,” those ideas, patterns of thought, and images that form the substrate of all human nature. Subsequently, archetypes are universal images which compose this indefinable foundation of human nature. 

And yet, despite the power and prevalence of brands today, there are no systems in place to govern and maintain their meaning consistently and concretely throughout a company’s lifespan. Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson describe this lack of “meaning management” as akin to sailing under a starless sky without a compass. Their book, The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, provides that compass. The Hero and the Outlaw explores and highlights observed archetypal patterns in the branding world. Pearson and Mark write, 

We have written The Hero and the Outlaw to communicate the first system—ever—for the management of meaning … Whether through conscious intent or fortunate accident, brands—be they candidates, superstars, products, or companies—achieve deep and enduring differentiation and relevance by embodying timeless archetypal meaning. In fact, the most successful brands have always done so. 

Drawing patterns from a thorough, international study—Young & Rubicam’s BrandAsset Valuator (BAV)—Mark was able to study the correlation between brand growth and adherence to archetypal identity (and vice versa). She determined in conjunction with Stern Stewart, a financial consulting firm, that “Identities that succeed at striking an essential human chord affect the most fundamental economic measures of success.” Brands which embody an archetypal identity experience the greatest coherence across all company facets, from workplace environment to product/service consistency; they are most likely to leave the deepest impressions and command sustainable success. 

From their research, Mark and Pearson identified 12 recurring, primary archetypal identities: the Innocent, Explorer, Sage, Hero, Outlaw, Magician, Regular Guy/Gal, Lover, Jester, Caregiver, Creator, and Ruler. The Hero and the Outlaw outlines the inner workings and outward manifestations of these 12 identities by categorizing each one’s core longing according to a motivational theory drawn from the combined work of Kegan, Wilbur, Erickson, and—most notably—Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  

In our next post, we’ll explore how the 12 archetypes arise from this theory and manifest in different brands.