On Hero Branding

Photo credit: Jess Lewis under license from Stocksy.com

“Is our brand the hero or is the consumer the hero?”

I am asked this seemingly philosophical question more and more. It hinges on a desire to understand more about how archetypes work in the context of branding. Much has been written about archetypes and some of it is actually useful. But a lot of the material circulating the business press about archetypes and brand strategy causes more confusion than assistance. The reason: much of it focuses too much on the least important way in which archetypes can help a brand convey a personality and a story. And the question I used to open this post illustrates the point.

Every good story has a protagonist—a hero. At the highest level, there are two types of stories in the world. In the first, the hero goes out into an unknown world. In the second, the external world comes into the hero’s domain. In either case, the protagonist has a goal, and the substance of the story is about finding out whether the hero achieves the goal or not. In many stories, the emotional meat of the narrative is discovering what happens after the hero accomplishes the goal.

On the hero’s journey, other characters are introduced. There are antagonists (villains) and love interests, mentors and warriors, tricksters and shape-shifters. Each and every story employs one or more of these stock character types to challenge the hero, to help them, or just to move the story along to its next milestone. These character types are indeed a kind of archetype. But using this variety of archetype on its own can lead a brand manager towards an endless loop of philosophizing.

To illustrate the challenge, consider The Wizard of Oz. In this story we have some clear-cut character archetypes. Dorothy is our hero protagonist. She finds herself in a strange new world and the story is all about whether or not she achieves her goal of getting back to Kansas. To dramatize that story, we meet some additional character archetypes. She meets the sidekicks of Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow. She is guided by Glenda, the mentor witch. The Wizard is the perfect representation of the trickster. And, then there’s Elpheba, the Wicked Witch of the West—our antagonist. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Except that Elpheba could easily be portrayed as a hero in another version of the story. In fact, that’s exactly the substance of Wicked, the best-selling book and Broadway musical. In Wicked, Elpheba is the hero.

Hero, mentor, trickster and villain are contextual roles. In the context of one story a character can be the hero, but in another story they may be a sidekick or a mentor … or even a villain.

Hero, mentor, trickster and villain are contextual roles. In the context of one story a character can be the hero, but in another story they may be a sidekick or a mentor … or even a villain. This is why using these broad definitions of archetype confuse brand managers. Your brand may indeed be the hero in the story of your product or service category, but in the context of your consumer’s daily life narrative, the brand may be a mentor or an ally. It can get more complicated than that. If your brand portfolio has a hybrid brand architecture, wherein some products share the same identity as the corporate brand, is the character archetype the same throughout? Is Toyota a hero as a brand of vehicle and a mentor as a corporate brand? What about Nike and Air Jordan? Which, if either, is the hero? The correct answer is that it depends on the context of the story we’re telling right now.

There’s a better use of archetypes in branding. The archetypes that work best are not tied to functional roles in a story, they are a shortcut for understanding a brand’s personality and expected behavior. They work through our brain’s constant use of pattern-matching. Here’s an example. You’re walking down the street and you meet a complete stranger that looks just like your Aunt Sallie. She’s about the same age and bears a striking resemblance to your favorite aunt. You convince yourself she even laughs like her. From that moment on you begin layering personality traits and expectations about this perfect stranger, becoming fascinated by the similarities that are probably obvious to you only because your brain is looking for them. Your brain is using what it knows and expects from Aunt Sallie to make assumptions about the stranger. You are relying on an archetype.

This transfer of traits and expected behaviors is pervasive in our brains and I’ve written about it many times before. It is the same mental machinery that leads us to the ugly biasing practices of stereotyping and profiling. It exists because our brain has to process a huge sum of information quickly and it has to bridge gaps in our knowledge.

This form or archetyping is a powerful branding tool because it does not require you to presuppose an eternal narrative role.

This form or archetyping is a powerful branding tool because it does not require you to presuppose an eternal narrative role. In other words, you don’t have to decide whether or not your brand is the hero. You might decide instead that your brand’s archetype is related to an adventurous journalist like Anderson Cooper. You can picture Anderson in many narrative roles. Sometimes he is the hero of the story, but in others he is helping simply to tell the story and to serve the story’s hero. Regardless, you have a mental expectation of Anderson’s behavior and the characteristics that will make him recognizable to you in any story in which he appears. This helps you channel the right brand voice and consider how to shape a brand experience.

The more traditional archetypes of hero, sidekick, mentor, etc. have a role in your branding activities, as well. They are particularly useful in campaign development and in messaging. To one audience segment you may wish to portray the brand as a hero, while to another it might read as a magician. Similarly, one of your audience might perceive that they are the hero that happens to use your brand, while another audience might perceive your brand as the hero that saves the day. When using the role-based archetypes, it is useful to consider whether the brand story being told is about the consumer’s inner life (with the world descending on our consumer hero) or if it is a projection (with the consumer hero escaping their reality to explore an aspirational world inhabited by the brand). Both types of narrative and archetype can lead to strong brand attachment. That’s why we are focusing on archetypes in the next wave of development on our Brand Dependence research platform.

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