Here’s my take on branding — there’s no silver bullet one-way to do it right. Instead, we’re all benefitted by drawing on all the best thinking available. Knowledge is power. And systems of knowledge become systems of power and value.
The seminal work on brand archetypes is the book The Hero and the Outlaw (Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes) by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson. Reading this book in the early days of our agency was a revelation.
What is an archetype and why you should consider one
The basic premise of using a Jungian archetype to base your branding on is that it’s a system of 12 human motivations, and by aligning that motivation with your company, your branding becomes aspirational. You represent the version of your customer that they want to become, instead of who they are.
These 12 archetypes are found in characters you know and love, that play a role in every great story. The rebel or outlaw, the lover, the caregiver; we’ve all seen these people a thousand times in art, literature, and cinema. They are heuristics to feeling and motivation, and they force you to cohere your brand story (more importantly your customer’s story) around a single, base human motivation. Love. Mastery. Freedom. Fun. Knowledge.
Tapping into something so pure and close to the soul of your customer is what makes a great brand. Consider two legendary examples, almost so obvious as to be utterly trite.
Nike is the hero. Nike makes you a hero. Wearing those shoes is part of your path to athletic mastery. Go on, you can do it. You can be that version of yourself. Just do it.
Consider Apple — now Macs are in the hands of millions, from college students to accountants. But what do they sell? Creativity and innovation. If you use a Mac, you can be a professional photographer, video editor, musician. You can be the creator. You are innovative, you think differently.
See what I mean? These are the tenets of the most memorable brands. They connect with timeless desires that we feel deep inside.
Our move from the Magician to the Sage to the Explorer archetype
So, as we began to reconsider our own branding, the question of an archetype is one of the first we asked.
Since nearly the day this operation became more than just myself, I saw us as Magicians. A small team with a breadth and depth of marketing knowledge uncommon for our size, youth, and price, combined with a dash of alchemy in the form of an unrelenting heart. A SWAT team of tightly bundled energy and confidence for the smallest and scrappiest of startups that are sold on the vision of transformation — automated marketing, reduced CAC — the trappings of a venture, but ultimately not the sophistication of one.
The Magician, of nebulous background and vague but mystical tactics, fit our branding, or more accurately, our lack of it in the early days. Mysterious, difficult to pronounce, and could be relied upon when the going gets tough.
But today, we are verging on “institutionhood” just as some of our clients do the same, or better yet, are themselves literal public institutions. The founders that work with us long-term, that are fun and meaningful to work for, are not looking for magic. They have a plan to test, iterate and evolve. They are looking for partners. Five years in, we now have the team, portfolio, and case studies that empower us to not obfuscate our track record and hide behind magic. So fell my precious Magician and launched us on this journey.
We ran our own branding workshops on ourselves and debated furiously. Copywriters and Art Directors sent novels in Slack late at night, making valiant cases for their archetypes.
One frontrunner that seemed an obvious fit was the Sage — she is driven to pursue understanding, and her gifts are knowledge and an analytical, rigorous approach (things we very much identify with). It resonates with the agile method, with moving metrics further and further each sprint, iterating until we converge but never touch perfection.
But for me, it didn't land. A Sage is philosophically burdensome and incongruent with where we are as a company. We are the choice of heart, compared to a larger more established company.
In the age of content marketing, Sage is at least done better by others or even possibly overdone completely. Consider HubSpot, Neil Patel, every Medium pub or podcast telling you how to do things. I want to feel, not be told what to do.
For better and worse, I have a natural distrust of expertise and experience. It allowed me the brash choice of starting an agency, but also, truthfully and vulnerably, for a long time, I felt valued by others for intelligence when I never really valued that myself.
What it means to be an explorer agency
I suspect that our clients feel the same as me. They are dissatisfied or disappointed with our society’s so-called sages. They are starting their own practices, their own firms, their own care protocols, they are trusting a scrappy young agency with their public institution’s campaign because they want to expand their digital horizons.
They are starting companies and developing products so that they can know themselves, just as I did. Marketing something, taking it to market, is a process of exploration, not magic. Sure, it is also a search for truth, but it is performed by those crazy enough to leave the safety of books and knowledge and go out into the world with their humble widget.
To be an explorer agency is to not be so naive to think there is one Truth, capital T, or to burdened by the neverending search for that. We’re here to run, fight, claw, climb, and do whatever it takes to open the market to our clients. And we’re all here — the staff, but also the clients who are drawn to us — because that journey is what we live for. I think Paolo Bugatto, our art director, said it best in our internal Slack:
The explorer does not stake their purpose on the ideology of a singular, legendary, final destination such as the truth. Conversely the explorer is not bound by mythology or suffocated by philosophy, they are driven by courage, ambition and hunger of both the known and unknown, as they embrace the notion that it is indeed the journey itself that will nourish their souls. It is their experiences at every breath and with every step which informs them of who they are in relation to the world they explore, and the many diversities and challenges within it. They are a reflection of those explorations, always evolving, learning and forever enriching themselves and others along the way. That independence, that freedom from the constraints of trying to find one ‘truth’ is the liberation of knowing there are many. If they are willing to be inspired, excited, informed and engaged, the solution for our clients will be found in their own, particularly unique journeys with us. And, as far as ‘truth’ is concerned, we may just help them realize it was always right there along the way.
As one of my dearest clients would say, Sage is the math of it, but Explorer is the spirit we should look for in ourselves and our clients.