Brand Archetypes: How to Tap into Universal Story and Emotion

brand archetypes cards
>>Sample cards from the Archetypes in Branding™ deck.*

One of the biggest things most everyday companies are struggling with, in terms of branding, is how to “tell their story.”

If you’re there, you’re not alone. Most everyone struggles with articulating their brand and its narrative.

These are actual comments from recent rebranding clients:

  • “Frankly, we just don’t know how to talk about ourselves. And that’s embarrassing.”
  • “How are we supposed to ”˜get the word out’ when we don’t know what ”˜the word’ really is?”
  • “Even when people initiate and ask about what we do, it’s so hard to describe. We’re complex and people start to zone out.”

See? And you thought you were the only one.

Why is it important to have a “story” to become a stronger brand?

Well obviously, first because you’re finding opportunities to talk about what you do and then kicking yourself for not having a short and compelling message to share. Or having everyone in your organization telling a different story. Or wandering along to glassy-eyed stares, not knowing when to stop. But brand story is even more important than having an elevator pitch ready to go.

The fact is, people don’t just buy products and services, they buy the story about and behind those products and services, and they buy into the emotion and personal relevance to them that comes hand-in-hand with these stories. That’s how we, as humans, relate personally to inanimate things like companies and brands.

To be a differentiated brand, obviously your brand story needs to be truly unique, not just an imitation. However, built into every one of us on the planet is a series of stories and motivations that are pretty universal, transcending borders and countries, even transcending culture and language.

If we can tap a vein of meaning and emotion—already locked inside people’s brains and experiences—we can be telling our new story that listeners magically feel they already know in some way and already identify with.

How many times have you felt like you already recognized, and resonated with, a new brand you’ve encountered? That it somehow “struck a chord” that felt big and meaningful?

This is the power of unlocking archetypes.

What is an archetype? Literally: a recurring symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology.

Traditionally, archetypes and their related stories, personalities, drives, and emotions have been identified with the work of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Joseph Campbell. The basic idea behind archetypes is that they are universal stories, journeys, ideas, values, or characters that exist across the globe and human condition as a part of our “collective consciousness.”

If you look into almost any culture’s ancient legends, mythologies, childhood fables, and current movies or drama you find your basic cast of recurring characters: heroes, magicians, lovers, sages, innocents, rebels, explorers, etc.

Jung and Freud used the concept of these and other recurring archetypes to unlock associations and symbolism from dreams that gave insight into the subconscious and people’s hopes, motivations, and fears.

Joseph Campbell used them as a way to unite all of the world’s great mythologies through his theory of “The Hero’s Journey.”

George Lucas admittedly tapped Campbell’s hero’s journey and the power of the major archetypes to power the Star Wars movies. Look at the partial list in bold a couple paragraphs above and you can likely map all of Star Wars’ major characters firmly to their archetype, as easily if they were “archetype trading cards.” Now choose just about any great movie, play, or book you love and do the same. Very unique stories, all of them, I’m sure. But built from the same archetypal DNA.

We get swept up in stories that we “recognize;” ones that tap into our understanding of ourselves, our mythology, and the world around us. And because of that, we can embrace the innate encoding and instinctive appeal of archetypes to build stronger and more compelling branding and marketing.

Leveraging “the Force” for your brand.

You laugh, but in Star Wars the Force was “an energy field created by all human beings that surrounded, penetrated, and bound the galaxy together.” In this far-away galaxy’s reality, whether you were aware of it or not, or whether you wanted it to or not, you were an elemental part of the Force and impacted by it. Archetypes are essentially the timeless global story archive embedded in humanity that serves the same conscious or unconscious purpose.

Identifying the “archetypal” story, or character, that most closely links with your brand can go a long way to helping you unlock, jumpstart, or super-charge your narrative, or brand story. Or it can simply serve as a tool to help flesh out your considerations; refine your language and emotional appeal; or test the assumptions and tone of your brand articulation. (Hint: Knowing which character or archetype best represents your clients, customers, or competitors can also be a wealth of knowledge.)

If it sounds like tarot card reading or drama club geekiness, think again.

The fact is, major brands are tapping into the zeitgeist of branding archetypes whether they know it or not (you can bet the smart ones do.) Just take a look at this correlation of the 12 fundamental branding archetypes, a brand example that is commonly identified with each archetype, and an expression as simple as the brand’s tagline (or tagline history.)

Can you honestly say that these taglines don’t clearly express these archetypal “characters?”

Some well-known brands and their fundamental archetypes.*

The Hero

Nike—“Just do it.”

The Rebel

Apple—“Think different.”

The Magician

Disney—“Where dreams come true.” (prior) “The happiest place on earth.”

The Explorer

Jeep—“Have fun out there.”

The Sage

Oprah’s OWN Network—“It’s your life…own it.”

The Innocent

Coca-Cola—“Taste the feeling.” (prior) “Open happiness.” “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.”

The Creator

GE—“Imagination at work.” (prior) “We bring good things to life.”

The Ruler

American Express—“Do more.” (prior) “Don’t leave home without it.”

The Caregiver

Campbell’s Soup—“It’s amazing what soup can do.” (prior) “Mmm good.”

The Lover

AXE—“Find your magic.”

The Everyman

Charles Schwab—“Own your tomorrow.” (prior) “Talk to Chuck.”

The Jester

Ben & Jerry’s—“Change the world, one scoop at a time.”

There are some evil archetypes (the Villain, the Trickster, the Bad Mother, etc.) in the broader study of archetypes, and every archetype has it’s related weaknesses, or “shadow side.” But hopefully, like Google’s informal slogan—“Don’t be evil”—the Dark Side isn’t really something you strive to fully embrace as a brand.

It can be helpful, though, to identify an enemy when telling your story. Battling an enemy alongside your customers, and on their behalf, can be infinitely more compelling than simply addressing the “competition.” After all, how strong would the Star Wars trilogy be without Darth Vader? I take that back…without Darth Vader, Star Wars wouldn’t even exist.

Intriguing idea, but why use them?

As these big brands understand, anchoring a brand to a universal story already embedded in humanity makes a brand easier to identify, know, and care about.

Archetypes help us in identifying the people who will respond to our story the most…and their needs, pain points, and emotions. Aligning with an archetype, we stand out from the mediocre and sound more relevant and compelling than the competition. They can help us tell our story in a way that customers can more easily grasp and identify with; express our philosophy and worldview; and identify the values we share with our customers.

Archetypes allow us to connect to personalities (human characteristics) rather than abstract principles. They humanize brands and help make us relevant and trustworthy. And in today’s globalized, connected, and digital economy that is everything.

Beyond that, one of the most compelling arguments is the power and speed with which unlocking archetypes engages people and activates your brand. Think about it. Used effectively, the skeleton, meaning, and import of your story does not need to be created for your audiences from scratch, it just needs to be activated with cues, and fleshed out with your unique details. This helps you get to strong emotion and understanding quickly. To essentially start the conversation in the middle.

Now, that’s a force to be reckoned with.


*Some archetype tools and disciplines use more than the fundamental twelve archetypes listed above. I like using a card deck from Archetypes in Branding by Margaret Hartwell and Joshua Chen that has 60 “dialed in” and detailed archetypes. It expands the basic 12 archetypes into 12 families of five fundamental qualities, but with a “pivot” or shift that makes each distinctly unique.

For example: Traditionally, we think of fundamental Rebel energy as stereotypically “disruptive for disruption’s sake,” however the expanded Rebel family in this deck includes: the Activist, the Gambler, the Maverick, and the Reformer. You can see how each of these concepts is a type or mode of rebel…but showing up in a different way. A nonprofit taking on the status quo in education might feel a lot more in sync as a Reformer than a Rebel. That nuance can not only help the organization truly identify with and “own” the archetype, it might actually show up in the organization and in its philosophy. Say, working for change in a way that doesn’t simply “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” leveraging more discernment and balance, and working the system from the inside out, as opposed to championing true all-out rebellion. That’s a key, and valuable, difference from a branding perspective.