What Band is Your Brand? Pop Icons Provide a Language for Brands.

April 7, 2018

Brand Archetypes are nothing new.  That’s the problem.  They need a refresh. 

Marketers have long used mythical archetypes to fashion brand stories.   Mythic archetypes appeal to the values of audiences by explaining how a brand enables participation in a heroic story.  For instance, in an article for the Content Marketing Institute, Bryan Rhoads explains that the archetypal “Overcoming the Monster” story line follows a prototypical “David vs. Goliath” structure that places customers as the quintessential “underdogs” in a fight against a “larger evil”: 

To defeat this evil or overcome fear, the protagonist requires great courage and strength… A brand using this archetype makes the customer the hero (and has the customer join its revolution, such as Apple did with its 1984 video), or the brand becomes the tool or weapon to overcome the monster. Some examples? California Milk Processing Board’s Got Milk?, Allstate’s Mayhem, and Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.

Rhoads is right, and he makes a compelling case for the ubiquity of the heroic “overcoming the monster” archetype as the narrative premise already at work in some of the most successful brand stories.  

There are, of course, all manner of archetypal figures that can serve as useful models for brands.  The idea is not to simply to turn your brand into some derivative reiteration of an ancient myth.  The idea is that these mythical archetypes provide tools, model and frame of reference, for how to think of your brand story.  

The Story Behind Brand Archetypes: 

This specific method of using archetypes dates back to the work of the famous American mythologist, Joseph Campbell whose extremely influential 1949 book The Hero with a 1000 Faces changed how people think about myths. His argument is that identity is rooted in storytelling.  Simply put, for Campbell, the stories people tell themselves, as well as all of the myths they retell, follow a few basic themes, and that those themes correspond to the fundamental conflicts and values that shape our sense of identity.  

Campbell’s theory boils all stories down to 8 fundamental archetypes:

  1. The Hero
  2. The Mentor
  3. The Ally
  4. The Herald
  5. The Trickster
  6. The Shape Shifter
  7. The Guardian
  8. The Shadow 

I won’t go into the specifics of each type–you can read up on the details here.

My point is, rather, that the influence of Campbell’s vision has influenced some of the most popular storytelling of the past century: From Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books, to Star Wars, The Harry Potter series, and as mentioned above, a lot of brands–including Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.  In terms of audience appeal, that’s a pretty impressive pedigree.  

As powerful as it is, Campbell’s is not the only model.  Many adaptations exist.  Some, drawing on the work of the psychologist Carl Jung, have expanded the list to 12 archetypes–a list that includes figures like “The Innocent” and “The Creator.”  

What’s the final, authoritative list of archetypes? That’s the point–there isn’t one.  The problem is, as “archetypes,” they often get treated in marketing as established law: These are the options.  Now choose your voice!

In fact, these archetypes have been influential because they provide very helpful tools, not absolute designations.  (In fact, sticking to a strict list can often limit your options–especially when it comes to developing a brand story.  I’m not sure there are many “shape shifter” brands out there.  Maybe.  Let me know if you think of any–seriously, I love this stuff!)

The point is, when developing your brand story, archetypes are extremely useful tools. To make them still more useful, consider ways in which to expand your “archetypal palette.” One such option involves reference to popular icons–for instance, actors, musicians and bands.  Whatever models you use to tell your story, always consider ways to expand your pallet of potential archetypes: When it comes to brand archetypes, the possibilities are endless.

Expand your Brand-Story Palette: When it Comes to Brand Archetypes, the Possibilities are Endless

I was reminded of these possibilities after getting some very useful feedback on a blog.  A colleague reviewing my piece told me that it was a bit too “Radiohead” for a particular brand.  I love Radiohead, so I took the feedback as a personal compliment.   Of course, I also made the necessary changes.  After all, I wasn’t writing for my personal brand.  This wasn’t my voice.  In fact, the feedback helped me clarify how my own style and voice might shape my sense of another brand.  As I say, I love Radiohead.  Maybe I try to sound like Radiohead. Maybe I should beware of that tendency.  

My reviewer took it a step further: “Try going a bit more Kings of Leon.”  It was very useful advice—I knew exactly what he meant.  I can’t explain why.  Or, actually I could–if I wanted to invest hours into developing a compare-contrast essay on something like the “Cultural Semiotics of Radiohead and Kings of Leon.”  I was trained for years to explain that kind of stuff.   The point is, the simple reference to those two bands communicated all the necessary details of tone, connotation, audience, and context in the space of a sentence: “Less Radiohead, more Kings of Leon.”  That’s it.  Got it.  As a reference for understanding the appropriate brand voice, those two bands were all I needed.  

Also, the advice did not only provide a means of modeling a brand voice on a particular reference.  By providing me with two references, my reviewer guided my understanding of the brand voice through both contrast (less Radiohead) and identification (more Kings of Leon).  In other words, references to popular icons serve as tools for modeling similarities and differences in your brand identity. 

References to famous actors work in the same way.  My bet is that family-oriented brands would veer more Tom Hanks, less Al Pacino.  Maybe mix in a bit of Jimmy Stewart? The point is, references to iconic figures like bands and actors can provide a very useful, efficient, point of reference for your brand. After all, these icons function as their own mythical, brand personas. 

Whatever tools you employ to conceptualize and communicate your brand, carving out your brand identity fundamentally involves determining your impact: The complex blend of ideas, values, and ideas you want to impress on your audience.  As you experiment with possibilities, discuss what sounds best and why.  Take notes–your notes will serve to carve out a progressively clearer sense or your brand’s voice and personality.

Your brand is everything your are–your entire offering, your products, your values, your story; it’s the total-sum experience of your meaning for and impact on existing and potential clients. Your brand also shapes the internal experience of your employees. That’s a lot. 

Shaping your brand thus deserves time, cultivation, maintenance, and expert support–that too, is a lot! 

For more on how to further clarify and communicate your brand, visit our website.  Or feel free to get in touch!

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