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Archetypes and the Mentor Mistake

by David Altschul & Jim Hardison

Archetype analysis is a popular, and sometimes useful, tool for anchoring a brand in the metaphor of story, but the concept is easily misused because the role of archetypes in story is frequently misunderstood. Used poorly, archetype analysis can block the very thing it is designed to build: an emotional connection with the audience.

The archetype approach is based on the Jungian idea that there are universal, mythical character types that exist within our collective unconscious and represent fundamental human motivations. Because these archetypes are part of our collective unconscious, they are deeply resonant on an emotional level. So far, so good. But what often gets missed in a shallow application of the concept is that while we may tend toward one archetype or another, we encounter all of them in life. And we need all of the archetypal energies to lead a full and balanced life. If a person—or a character in a story—gravitates too powerfully toward one energy, he or she will invariably experience a need for the corresponding opposite energy. Life is a process of moving through and integrating all the archetypal energies as we struggle with the enduring, unresolvable conflicts that define our journey.

In a story, there is usually a point-of-view character who starts out rooted in a particular archetype. Because that archetype is insufficient for a full life, something goes wrong. An inciting incident occurs that throws life out of balance and reveals the need for something more. The point-of-view character then seeks out or encounters secondary characters who provide the wisdom and the tools that our protagonist needs in order to resolve the immediate conflict and become a more fully realized character.

In The Hobbit, for example, you have Bilbo Baggins, who is a combination of the innocent and ruler archetypes. The safe, orderly life he leads as master of his little domain creates an urge for something more and bigger, so the wizard Gandalf shows up and sends Bilbo on an adventure. That inciting incident sets up a tension between the opposing archetypes of the innocent and the explorer, the ruler and the outlaw. To survive and thrive, staid little Bilbo must explore new territories, and he must relax his desire for safety, order and control in order to become something of a thief and rogue. Bilbo is built on internal conflict. This is how archetypes are supposed to work. The tension between opposing archetypal energies is what drives the story forward.

Unfortunately, when it comes to brand building, marketers usually start with the idea that the brand should represent a single archetype. They want to crystallize a brand personality along easily recognizable and resonant lines. To be fair, settling on a single archetype can serve this purpose, but it comes at a high cost. Locking the brand into a single archetype relegates it to the role of a secondary character in its own story. Within stories, secondary characters frequently embody a single archetype because their role in the story is to provide a particular archetypal energy to the main character when he or she needs it. Characters that embody a single archetype do not struggle internally. We think of these characters as “resolved.” Gandalf, for example, represents the magician archetype. He makes things happen, he understands the fundamental laws of the universe, and he magically saves the day. He has some external struggles with the environment and other characters, but he is not internally conflicted because he represents a single, pure ideal. He always knows what’s right and is there to help steer the main character toward that choice. The audience will never be able to relate to him in the way they can relate to Bilbo. They may admire Gandalf and think he’s cool, but they will never think, “I recognize myself in Gandalf. I am just like him.”

Brands often pick archetypes like the sage or the magician because these are mentor characters and magical saviors. They have all the answers and frequently solve problems for the main character through science, wisdom or magic. Brands like to see themselves in these roles in relation to their consumers. They want to suggest that they have the magical solutions their consumers need to solve a variety of problems, starting with everyday, practical problems and laddering right up to the top of the Maslow hierarchy of needs.

There are three problems with this approach:

First, the brand relegates itself to a secondary role, and, as a result, the audience does not identify with the brand. Consumers may admire or appreciate what the brand does, but they don’t recognize themselves in the brand. In order to take full advantage of the power of story, the brand needs to present itself as the point-of-view character so that the audience members see the story through the brand’s eyes, recognize themselves in the brand and connect with it emotionally.

Second, there’s the money problem. The brand is playing the role of sage or magician, but it is charging money for the solution it offers, and that taints the archetype. Gandalf isn’t being paid in The Hobbit. If he were, he would not actually fulfill the role of magician. He would simply be in the business of selling solutions.

Finally, in story, the secondary characters do not generally just hand over the magic elixir—whether or not they are being paid. Their role is to provide clues or aid and to push the main character in the right direction (or sometimes to lead the character in the wrong direction for his own good). But the protagonist will not actually grow and learn if the answer comes too easily. If Gandalf simply sold Bilbo the magic sword, the magic ring and the dragon’s treasure at the beginning of The Hobbit, the story would be over before it begins, and Bilbo would not grow or change in any way. The point of The Hobbit isn’t acquiring the sword, the ring or the treasure. The point is the experience of being an explorer and an outlaw that Bilbo must integrate into his personality in order to stand against his natural tendencies. The point is to deepen and enrich Bilbo’s life.

Archetype analysis can be a valuable way to understand the internal conflicts that characters face. It can help focus attention on the opposing energies that must be integrated in order to make life richer and more interesting. For a brand, however, using archetype analysis in order to simplify the story is usually a mistake. A process that trades on the deep, unconscious resonance of archetypes but does so in a superficial way robs the brand of emotional depth and meaning. At its worst, such a process can turn a brand into a corrupted stereotype rather than helping it live as an engaging, emotionally resonant character.

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“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

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“Character’s approach to brand building is unlike any other in the business. Jim and his team use the timeless truths of human storytelling to unlock story potential and connect deeply with brand audiences. I’ve worked with Character throughout my career, and my experience with Tabasco was as fascinating, inspiring, and productive as ever. 

Character worked with our team not only to help us re-examine and re-articulate the elemental truths of our iconic global brand but also to develop and apply practical tools that make the brand story framework user-friendly for our entire organization. 

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Lee Susen, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Tabasco / McIlhenny Company