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The Meaning of Marketing: Determining Your Brand’s Archetypal Identity

February 27, 2020 | By: Lindsay Isler

Unless your brand embodies a core set of consistent values, you cannot communicate it successfully. In The Hero and the Outlaw, Carol S. Pearson and Margaret Mark write, “Too often, even the most sophisticated marketers feel totally at sea as they try to manage the meaning of their brands because they lack any meaningful reference points or framework to provide a system or a structure.” 

Archetypal identities serve as the navigation you need to ground your brand in concrete values and to inspire belief. They enable your brand to tap into reservoirs of meaning that are “fundamental, timeless, universal ‘reference points.’” They provide your brand with a stable core so you can engage your target audience in meaningful, valuable ways, as well as cultivate an internal culture of consistency, organization, and sustainability.

Pearson and Mark outline the process of discovering your brand’s archetype in five primary steps: 

  1. Discerning Your Brand’s Soul
  2. Discerning Your Brand’s Substance
  3. Discerning Your Competitive Leverage
  4. Discerning Your Target Audience
  5. Nourishing (and Managing) Your Brand Identity

Each of these steps requires time and a willingness to ask tough questions that will extricate the realities of your brand. If you are prepared to do so then, without further ado, let’s dive in. 

1. Discerning Your Brand’s Soul

To begin, you must have a firm grasp on the essence of your brand. What is the brand’s soul? What gives it life?

So take your brand out for a cup of coffee or linger with it at the dinner table. Be curious and ask blunt but sincere questions, then sit back and listen. 

Mark and Pearson liken this process to writing a biography on your brand, where you might ask questions such as: “Who created it, and why? What was going on in the broader culture at the time? How was it first positioned? What was the best or most memorable communication ever created for it? How have customers related to the brand over the years? How do they relate to it now? What within its essence or equity makes it stand out from the competition?”

With time and space and a humble willingness to see the reality (and history) of your brand as it actually is—not how you think or want it to be—you will find your brand’s soul.

2. Discerning Your Brand’s Substance

Once you have identified the brand’s soul, you must clothe it in more “tangible” realities, namely the nature of your service or product.

What are the characteristics of the service or product you provide? The type of relationship your customers have with it?

Each of the above questions involves close and thoughtful examination not only of who your products/services are attracting but the nature of what those products/services are. 

Below are several of the questions Mark and Pearson ask in order to help you jumpstart the digging: 

  • Is the brand’s role functional or value expressive for its users?
  • Is the brand part of a high-involvement or low-involvement product category?
  • Is use of the brand episodic or routine?
  • Do consumers tend to use the brand exclusively or as their dominant brand, or is the brand part of a portfolio of brands that consumers find equally acceptable?
  • What is consumers’ level of attachment to the brand?
  • Are you trying to hold onto your current franchise, or are you trying to expand use of the product category overall by way of attraction to your brand?
  • Do you simply want to increase frequency of use of your brand among those who already use it?

3. Discerning Your Competitive Leverage

In this step, your job is to test and refine the emerging archetype identity of your brand by situating it in potentially unique and competitive ways within the brand’s “product category.” Mark and Pearson write, “Relevant differentiation is the ‘brand engine’—the quality that keeps a brand vital and strong.”

Some helpful questions to ask concerning potentially competing brands are: 

  • Have any brands stumbled into archetypal territory? If so, which archetypes? Are any clearly related to the archetype most suited to your brand?
  • How well are the competitors supporting and living up to their archetypes?
  • At what level are the competitors expressing the archetype? Is there an opportunity to move to a deeper, more relevant, or differentiating level?
  • Is everyone in the category expressing the same one or two archetypes? Is there an opportunity for a truly new archetype in the category?

This stage of the identity process may require you to do some head tilting as you think about your brand from new angles. Perhaps you have already established a consistent archetypal presence within your product/services category, but what if a competing brand holds the dominating position?

To establish your brand as the leading voice, tease out your archetype—are there deeper meanings you can extricate and emphasize that often get overlooked? Or perhaps, as Mark and Pearson point out, try positioning your brand as a foil or “challenger” archetype to the current category leader (i.e., as Pepsi is to Coke) to differentiate your brand in a clever, fresh way. 

Peel apart the various strategies competing brands are using and ask how your brand can tackle the core desires of your archetype in enduring ways.

4. Discerning Your Target Audience

Good marketing necessitates a thorough knowledge of your target audience. By this step, you have most likely sketched out your brand’s rough archetypal identity. However, you need to evaluate this hypothesized sketch by holding it up to the identity of your target audience. Does your brand meet them in their life goals and longings? Answering this question in turn necessitates answering another question: Who is your target audience? (Not who do you think the audience should be, but who are they actually. If there is an unintended discrepancy in who your brand attracts and who you want it to target, chances are your brand is embodying an archetype different from what you initially thought. In that case, head back to the drawing board, because, trust us, it’s worth it.)

As you explore the desires and goals of your intended audience, do not assume they want to see exact reflections of themselves in your marketing campaigns. Rather, invite them into something deeper and more enduring; invite your target audience into the story they are longing for. Archetypal marketing espouses this approach by assuming “that unfulfilled yearnings might lead people to respond on a deeper level to what’s missing, as opposed to what’s already there.” 

Pearson illustrates the importance of knowing your audience’s desires by examining a group of women who manage busy households. Their various commitments and obligations usually mean these women are pigeon-holed in the Ruler category. Marketing campaigns that look no farther than their hectic schedules and responsibilities miss out on an opportunity to really connect with these women. Indeed, Pearson found many women like them actually resonate on a much deeper level with the characteristics of the Creator, Magician, or Sage (among others). When brands (think Martha Steward, Oprah, Athleta) focus on the deeper desires and “dormant urges” of these women, they meet with great success. For a helpful resource, check out Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development.

Effective brands captivate their audience because they know what the audience is hungry for. Successful brands pay attention.

5. Nourishing (And Managing) Your New Brand Identity

Establishing your brand’s archetypal identity and target audience is a critical starting point, but the process of nourishing your newly framed brand still remains. You must carry your archetypal identity throughout your company, both internally and externally, and this requires cohesion and consistency.

Margaret Mark likens nurturing brand identity to managing a bank. Pearson writes, 

Beyond being sure that we have consistently nurtured a strong identity, we have to be sure that actions which “withdraw” from the Brand Bank are accompanied by commensurate actions which “deposit” the desired meaning into it…. The process of managing the brand is given equal weight with the process of managing the business, an imperative if the archetypal identity is not to be squandered.

Each of your decisions, from the way meetings are run to your marketing campaigns, must stem from the brand’s archetypal roots. You cannot inspire belief in your brand if it does not garner people’s trust. Credibility is composed of authenticity, honesty, consistency, and coherence. As the brand grows and looks to establish new brand extensions, these values become ever more imperative.

In order to uncover and discern your brand’s true essence, you must undergo a sort of pilgrimage. You must be willing to ask sincere questions that unearth the honest realities of your brand’s history, the value of your products or services, and your target audience. Be curious, and listen intently to what you hear because this is essential.