How marketing broke brand archetypes 

a man visiting the museum of candy floss and tasting one.

The problem with Brand archetypes. Let’s go! 💥
[a 2.5 minute read]

Archetypes have become toxic because the industry tries to force them to do things they can’t do.

Let me break it down:

1. Use archetypes as a starting point or exploration tool, but never as an answer or model. People will obsess over them in meeting rooms for hours, but they are a blunter instrument than that would suggest, and their creep into broader brand strategy tasks is where most of the damage happens.

2. Even used carefully, archetypes introduce dichotomies and are contaminated with oddly specific, often dated, biases. They lack nuance, reducing complex ideas and bundling them into “buckets”.

3. They offer weak analysis and, at the same time, discourage ground-breaking synthesis.

4. They create an illusion that competition falls into neat categories. Conveniently — in opposition to your choice. But competition is more nuanced than that.

5. Similar dynamics happen in other use cases. Yet, they are used to inform positioning, portfolio, brand architecture, and even plot consumer needs and segmentation.

6. Archetypes trap you in a literal meaning matrix. Each quadrant suggests a clear territory but is a multidimensional spectrum rather than a “box”. Consequently, it includes elements of other quadrants, yet the format encourages you to ignore this.

7. This “matrix trap” is highly harmful to STP (segmentation, targeting, positioning). Neither competitors nor audiences work this way. Archetypes encourage solipsistic thinking and oversimplification of your market.

8. “The meaning matrix” is a conceptual flaw of many 2×2 models. I love a good 2×2, but we must stay on our toes. Remember — “all models are wrong, but some are useful.”. Furthermore, “thanks” to the influence of the archetype model, 75% of positioning matrixes you’ll come across use the same X / Y axis oppositions, thinly veiled but thoroughly Jungian (e.g. regressive/progressive). Sometimes it’s right because of deep universal patterns; more often — it’s just lazy.

9. Being too focused on archetypes reinforces brand essentialism, which can lead to bad strategy and weak creative work. The dangers of brand essentialism to advertising are described in detail by Feldwick in “Why does the Pedlar Sing?”

10. We cannot repeat this enough: although they aspire to do so, brands rarely “own” conceptual spaces, themes, and attributes outright. Don’t treat abstractions as concrete and metaphors as literal. This is weak thinking and bad strategy. It goes not only against common sense but also against dominant marketing science.

Despite all the above, Archetypes still influence brand strategies from positioning to campaign ideas, tone of voice, to portfolio architecture. My experience working with/alongside them for over 20 years is that they offer more traps than opportunities.

Yes, brand archetypes are not dead, but they sure smell funny.

Don’t: Never use them for what they can’t do. And that’s pretty much everything that isn’t preliminary brand personality exploration.
Do: When you use them as your starting point, remember — you have a whole universe of tonality and narrative tropes if you want to explore personality. So go beyond and stay closer to market dynamics.

Do you have any stories about archetypes? 🤓 (Horror/Success)

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