A brand is not a person

Brand Archetypes are a powerful way to start thinking about how to position your brand. But don’t oversimplify archetypes and brand positioning: it’s not just about characters and personalities.

Last weekend I bought a gift for a friend who enjoys Scotch whisky. There were a few brands on the shelf that could be described as having very similar personalities: traditional, confident, sophisticated and masculine. I chose the Lagavulin because I know that my friend particularly enjoys the peaty flavour of Islay malts.

Does that mean brand personality is irrelevant to whisky positioning? No, just that it is only one element in building a successful brand and how well a product or service ‘does the job’ (in this case, delivering a very recognizable flavour profile) is equally important. When I think about peaty Islay flavor, Lagavulin comes to mind. Lagavulin has positioned itself very well by ‘owning’ that link in my memory.

The power of the subconscious

Ries & Trout’s made the point very well 30 years ago in their book Positioning: brands should ‘own’ a position in the customer’s mind and ‘get into the collective subconscious of the market’. That advice is now supported by evidence from neuroscience and psychology that shows how our decision-making is mainly non-conscious and driven primarily by emotional triggers.

Inspired by the idea of non-conscious decision-making, for many years we’ve been using Brand Archetypes as a way of developing brand positioning options. We base our frameworks on the 12-archetype model described in Mark & Pearson’s The Hero and The Outlaw. That model has the great advantage of being grounded in psychology and recognizes the power of the collective unconscious that Ries & Trout emphasized.

Archetypes and the subconscious

The origins of archetype theory lie in the notion that we all collectively share innate understanding of certain types of ideas and meanings, including the meaning of recognizable ‘characters’. These characters are found, for example, in folk tales where we can recognize the hero, the baddie, the lover, the wise sage etc.

Thinking about brands as similar to ‘characters’ (such as a Hero, an Outlaw etc.) is a quick way into positioning territories and a clear guide for all those words that need to go into the “Brand Personality” box on brand positioning documents: so a Hero brand might be brave, disciplined and tenacious whilst an Outlaw brand might be provocative, unconventional and rebellious. This focus on personality has been especially helpful in guiding thinking about advertising and brand communications.

Beyond Brand Personality

Obviously a brand isn’t really a person or a character or just a set of personality dimensions. As in my malt whisky example, two brands can have very similar personalities but one might just do a better job of being a welcome gift. That’s not about personality: it’s about the product and its sensory character. Recent neuroscience tells us that deep, meaningful, non-conscious brand associations are built from many inputs including sensory inputs, bodily experiences and emotions.  All of these (and more) create a brand’s positioning and meaning.

We’ve taken brand archetypes beyond personality and character for 3 reasons:

  1. Focus on personality has often led people to pay too little attention to how product and service quality influences meaning. In real life, brands need to not only have an appealing personality, they must perform effectively, play a role in customers’ lives and ‘do the job’.
  2. The idea of brands as characters talking to customers is outdated. As Doug Scott of Ogilvy Entertainment recently emphasized, technology changes mean that storytelling is no longer one way; audiences are active in brand creation. Scott argues that agencies need to offer Transmedia Storytelling, creating storyworlds rather than storylines. My choice of Lagavulin is no doubt influenced by its association with a romantic storyworld of Islay: the ruined castle, the illegal stills and the men who fought with Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. I don’t need to know the stories to choose Lagavulin but there is a brand world that adds richness to my ideas about the brand if I wish to enter it and provides creative inspiration for Lagavulin’s brand management.
  3. Strong brands do not just exist as characters in people’s lives; strong brands create a conscious and non-conscious brand ‘world’ that is composed of a network of many different types of associations: personality associations, but also sensory, experiential and other associations. The job of the marketer is to build those associations over time to be stable and resilient – just as the Lagavulin brand managers have done with a collection of flavor, place and storytelling associations.


Creating your brand world

Brands owners need to create worlds in which customers feel welcome and able to participate. That doesn’t mean falling into the trap of being blandly ‘nice and approachable’ or unchallenging; one lesson of thinking about brands archetypally is that powerful meaning comes from realistic nuances.

So, the Lagavulin world depicted (from our analysis) below contains all the cognitive aspects with which we are familiar about price, brand name etc. It is also a world of sophisticated and challenging sensory associations, populated with natural objects such as mountains and water and delivering challenging experiences of exploration. In archetypal terms, this is a world of heroes and chieftains but also of family and community.

Lagavulin Brand World.png

We use this model within the brand archetype framework to guide the type of Brand World that could and should be built by each archetype. There are many different types of Hero world and many different types of Outlaw world. As marketers, our job is to build those worlds and keep them vibrant and alive and also to trigger the customer’s evocative memory of our brand world at the point of purchase decision.

Putting it into practice

At opento, we've been using these ideas in our brand positioning frameworks with many different types of brands and in many markets.

We've now put together a system of products to help you with building brands based on archetypes. Find out more and explore our products by visiting our store.

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