If we’ve ever talked about branding, then you might know just how fascinated I am by the use of archetypes in messaging and positioning various aspects of communication. That’s because archetypes are universal; they’re the common ground of understanding humanity that we share across cultures, age, race, gender, and most other identifying factors that seem to divide us on the surface.
But the really cool thing about both branding and archetypes is that they transcend any single application or modality.
So even though branding is usually tied to marketing and business, and archetypes to psychology, today I’m going to weave in how all this relates to politics, social movements, and the charged emotional atmosphere we’re in currently.
Now we’re having fun!
So what exactly is an archetype?
Archetypes are a concept that comes from psychology, or more specifically our understanding of the psyche (soul/mind/spirit/core of who we are both individually and collectively) developed by brilliant psychoanalyst Carl Jung. You can think of archetypes as the characters we all have in our subconscious minds. Examples of archetypes include the Hero, Sage, Temptress, Pioneer, Rebel, Angel, Healer, Creator, etc.
I bet you already have a sense of exactly what I meant as I listed those off just now. Yes? That’s because they’re in your, and everyone else’s, subconscious. Archetypes also extend to archetypal events such as birth, death, and marriage, and archetypal motifs, such as patterns in storytelling that include star-crossed lovers, teacher and student, or the epic journey. These are all things that are nurtured into us through culture.
Archetypes are used in branding all the time.
Most of us don’t realize it on a conscious level (we don’t think “oh there goes Nike portraying “the Athlete” again” or “oh Starbucks, you are indeed my Muse”), but we resonate subconsciously, and our brains organize the brand’s information in a particular way that is (generally) favorable to the vibe or style that brand wants to evoke.
Archetypes are like shortcuts to understanding. When done right, we get a feeling, the kind of feeling that is conducive for us to buy or enjoy a particular product.
Here are some examples of archetypes in branding from the environmental nonprofit world (because branding isn’t just for conventional businesses!):
Stand for Trees – forest and wildlife conservation = Protector archetype.
Greenpeace – bold environmental action and defense = Rebel archetype.
Earthjustice – legal organization to enforce environmental laws = Advocate archetype.
Want more examples? Apple = Creator, Sesame Street = Child/Innocent, Rei = Adventurer, Facebook = Networker, Epicurious = Hedonist, HBO = Entertainer, NASA = Explorer, Barnes & Noble = Mentor.
I’m not sure if all of the above would agree with my assessment, but these are the archetypes they convey through their function, marketing, design, and/or products. The archetype is right at the very core of their reason for being or their mission.
Once you become aware that brands channel these underlying archetypes, you’ll see how ubiquitous these patterns really are, and you can recognize a good brand by how well they can create the full experience of the many layers to that particular archetype. The consistency and authenticity to that persona would permeate everything from the imagery and design, to the copywriting/messaging, and the sensory experience of a physical space. Everything is clear, consistent, and usually awesome in some way.
Take a moment, right now, to ask yourself if you can clearly identify the archetype of your business. Does this archetype permeate every aspect of what you offer and how you offer it? If not, it’s worth exploring further so that everything can click into place with a stronger and more holistic strategy.
One more thing, keep in mind that we’re being impartial here, so this is smart communication strategy that can be used for good… or for shallow consumption. I aim to inform, let your conscience guide you.
Ok great. So what does this have to do with politics?
I’m glad you asked.
If you’re reading this it means you have access to the internet, and so have likely been a witness (if not participant) to the emotional upheaval that has taken over our political and social lives in the United States since the new president has taken office. I’m going to remain a neutral observer here and comment on the response and strong resistance from many who are not so thrilled with the new head honcho or his policies. That response has come in the form of massive protests, marches, petitions, donations, pressure on political leaders of all levels, social media feuds, and groups organizing to discuss and take action.
This, my friends, is the Activist archetype rising. Collectively.
The truth is that we ALL have ALL the archetypes swirling around in our subconscious minds all the time, although usually we operate with one or two as our dominant archetypes and pull from the others when it’s needed based on the situation. For example, you can be a Creator or Artist in your personal and professional life, but when your kid gets sick you quickly shift to being the Caregiver, and then later when you go to a yoga class you’ll be a Seeker for a while. Get it?
But sometimes, archetypes are activated in entire groups of people because a situation calls for it. That’s what’s happening now. We are uniting as Citizens and Activists in opposition to what we see as an attack on our core values. The political situation has gotten so intense that our other archetypes are pushed to the sidelines as this one comes to dominate our attention, and our actions. Regular people who have never been into “the whole activism thing” are suddenly taking to the streets, organizing, have their government officials on speed dial, and planning rallies left and right. Even children are talking about fighting for equal rights.
Suddenly, we are all Activists.
By the way, it’s happened before, so it’s not a liberal or conservative thing, although the group’s sensibilities and moment in history comes with it’s own idiosyncrasies as to how this all unfolds.
In the consumer world, we’re seeing this result in certain businesses being boycotted, a substantial rise in donations to nonprofits, some business closing for a day to illustrate their value, and advertising becoming more political.
Here’s a description of the Activist archetype, from the book Archetypes in Branding:
This archetype is defined by it’s intentional efforts to affect social, environmental, economic or political change. A champion of various causes, the Activist seeks to persuade people to wake up and change their behavior. The activist is motivated by wanting to do some good in the world and to radically transform the conventional order. Driven to truly experience change, this archetype deploys a range of tools that enable action for achieving results. Working within various areas of value to society, the Activist possesses a strong belief in the power of the collective.
Willing to take a stand, the Activist initiates a universal refusal to obey what is wrong and awakens a vision for what is right. Brimming with new ideas for change and problem solving, the Activist can ignite a revolution.
Blatantly critical of old paradigms, this archetype thrives on the high that comes from winning against all odds. The Activist is an outgoing, communicative, ingenious, persuasive, motivating, invigorating and tireless fighter. Passionate and disposed toward sharing the responsibilities and rewards with others, today’s Activist is equipped with digital tools and people power to effect change.
It’s just one description, but it rings a bell doesn’t it?
This is what’s in the air right now. We’re breathing it in, talking about it, sharing it, getting distracted by it, and planning our lives around it. Like it or not, whichever political side you’re on, this archetype is coming to the forefront in the minds of millions.
So what do you do with this information?
When the air is charged with something powerful, YOU - as a business, nonprofit, entrepreneur, or otherwise human who I presume is interested in communicating ideas in a way that will resonate with people – can harness this energy.
How? Recognize it, channel it, but don’t be too overt or you’ll the run the risk of inviting criticism for being opportunistic, shallow, or off-putting. Talk about the values you stand FOR, rather than against, and make sure those values are aligned with your business and existing fundamental message, but in a fresher, updated, more direct, or more connected way. Consider how your business can touch upon the things your audience might be thinking about, such as:
- Equality and justice for all
- Protecting the environment
- Ending corruption
- Changing our economic system
- Elevating the messages of peace and love
- Taking care of each other on a global scale
The point is not to insert yourself into politics, or to become an Activist because it’s trendy, it’s to take a step back and assess whether to engage in something that is already happening, whether your business is ripe for engagement in this way, at this time.
Another interesting approach, could be to determine which archetype is aligned with you or your business, that is complementary to the Activist, meaning an archetype that the Activist would be naturally drawn to, such as the Advocate, Alchemist, Ambassador, Artist, Hero, Idealist, Innovator, Liberator, Reformer, Mentor, etc. If your archetype works to empower or support the Activist then what are ways to make that message stronger, bolder, and clearer? Again, the Archetypes in Branding book is very helpful if you’re interested in exploring these ideas further.
I’ll leave you with one last thing to ponder.
Some scientists have pointed out that history repeats itself through violent social upheavals in 50 year cycles, and that we’re due for one right around now. So like it or not, change is in the air. The only question is whether you and your business will participate.