Archetypes and the Fate of Your Business

THE BIG IDEA: All businesses are run by archetypes. Some know it. Most don’t. When you understand how archetypes work, you can better position your business in the marketplace, attracting the right employees and loyal customers.


Why do tens of thousands of riders flock to Milwaukee for Harley-Davidson’s annual rally?

Why do hundreds of customers camp outside of IKEA’s latest store opening?

Why do over a thousand Motorers drive over 5,000 miles across the United States in MINI’s Take the State tour?

What are these brands doing to create cult followers? And what can it teach us about creating customer loyalty?

Needs: The Biological Drivers of Human Behavior

These unusual businesses—Cult Brands as we call them—achieve this unusual level of loyalty because they do more than just sell products or services.

They help fulfill their customers’ human needs, creating experiences steeped with emotion.

These human needs stem from instincts and operate at the deepest level of our biology.

Much of human behavior is a consequence of our attempts to meet these needs.

As you’ll recall, psychologist Abraham Maslow arranged these human needs in a hierarchy, with higher-level needs less likely to be fulfilled.

These needs, in ascending order, are biological/physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, cognitive, aesthetic, self-actualization, and transcendence.

The lower level needs, sometimes called existence needs, are fundamental and essential to daily life. Humans focus on meeting these needs first.

Higher Level Needs: What Cult Brands Do Differently

While most businesses help customers address lower level needs (as a supermarket provides food and water at the biological level), Cult Brands leverage higher-level needs to develop mutually beneficial relationships with their customers.

Cult Brands like Harley-Davidson, Vans, and Linux play to the esteem needs for freedom.

Nike and Under Armour hit on the esteem needs for dominance and mastery.

Apple supports the aesthetic need for creative self-expression. Oprah champions the self-actualization need for personal growth.

Maslow’s hierarchy helps explain why customers love their favorite brands, but it isn’t the whole story.

Archetypes: The Psychological Drivers of Human Behavior

In addition to the biological motivations categorized by Maslow, there are also psychic influences. In psychology, psyche means the totality of the human mind, including both conscious and unconscious processes.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung observed that the psyche consists mainly of images. Many of these images are of a collective nature. They are found all over the earth in our myths, dreams, fairy tales, and legends. He called these primordial images archetypes.

Archetypes explains consumers’ love for their favorite brands at the level of the psyche.

Archetypes are universal mental images. They set the patterns of behavior for our interaction with the world. We inherit these images in our brain structure.

Instincts: The Forces Behind Archetypes

Jung described archetypes as “instinctual images” or “the forms which the instincts assume.”

Instincts are physiological urges. Our senses perceive them. But simultaneously, instincts come alive in fantasies and in symbolic images, that is, in archetypes.

This means that archetypes and instincts go hand in hand. For this reason, archetypal images trigger set patterns of behavior designed to actualize the images.

No matter what image of the Hero you hold in your mind, for example, certain patterns of behavior and personality traits come to mind like bravery, valor, persistence, and action.

Examples of archetypes include the Mother, Father, Warrior, Sage, Hero, Caregiver, Genius, Outlaw, Magician, Mentor, Actor, Athlete, Philosopher, Peacemaker, Prostitute, Artist, Adventurer, Maverick, Monk, Entertainer, Jester, Villain, and Vampire. But, ultimately, every word or image can represent an archetype.

When you think of archetypes, think of instincts or set patterns of behavior shared by all of humanity.

Archetypal Clusters: Nike and Under Armour

Archetypes don’t operate in a vacuum. Archetypal images tend to cluster together, like a constellation of stars. These archetypal clusters share certain personality traits.

The archetypes of the Warrior and the Athlete, for example, share many of the same qualities, including strength, endurance, courage, and fearlessness.

But each archetype also emphasizes certain traits: The Athlete has a disciplined mindset with a persistence toward a certain achievement. The Warrior, in contrast, emphasizes conviction and dominance.

Both Nike and Under Armour play to this archetypal cluster. In the ads of both brands, you’ll find serious, rugged expressions; Warriors and Athletes aren’t jovial and lighthearted.

Nike predominantly capitalizes on the Warrior archetype by using battle imagery in its depiction of athletes. They tend to use top professional athletes in their campaigns, playing on the projected ideal of the dominant Warrior archetype.

Under Armour hits on the Warrior, but focuses more on the Athlete. Instead of using celebrity athletes, Under Armour uses everyday athletes in their advertisements (which arguably make the brand more accessible to its customers).

Ultimately, customers who buy Nike and Under Armour products associate themselves with both the Warrior and Athlete archetypes, to varying degrees. They are also fulfilling their esteem needs of dominance, mastery, and achievement.

Remember, human needs and archetypes dance together, one supports and uplifts the other.

Long-term Success: Know Your Business’s Archetypes

Knowing your business’s archetypes is like knowing the DNA of your organization. It is from these fundamental symbolic images that all of the desired behavior for employees and customers spring.

Under Armour’s Baltimore, Maryland headquarters houses a 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art gym that hosts group fitness classes and competitions. Athletic warriors need a training ground. Under Armour is a company of athletic warriors serving athletic warriors. (They call them “empowered athletes.”)

Creating an irreplaceable position in your customer’s mind takes conscious effort and consistency. When you know your archetypes, you can ensure consistency throughout all of your marketing efforts, including product development and communication.

Your goal is twofold:

  1. Uncover the symbolic images and emotions that best express what your business is about in the context of your customers’ lives.
  2. Determine the humans needs your customers are trying to fulfill when your archetypes are active in their minds.

These are key consumer insights that can transform the future of your business. Once you have these insights, find creative ways to consistently play to and express these images and needs in ways that are meaningful to your customers and your employees.


P.S. Listen to BJ Bueno discuss the future of retail with SAP’s Global Vice President’s Nancy Case and best-selling author Scott McKain, titled, Retail Relevancy: Distinction Trumps Differentiation.

Previous Post Next Post