Help your customers bond with your business by building a brand strategy that represents something meaningful and compelling to them, and true and distinctive to you.
Brand strategy is the deliberate exercise of defining what you uniquely bring to your customer, why it matters, and how you show it. There is a “what,” a “why” and a “how.” The what is your value proposition, your brand promise – that meaningful and ownable benefit that you and only you bring your customer. The why is the customer’s ultimate reward for choosing to engage with you. The how is your character: your personality, the way that you show up, talk and deliver.
When I work with businesses, we define all of this. If you only define some of these but not all, you are not making it easy for your customer to see you and bond with you, and that is the whole point of positioning. Oftentimes for us left-brained folk, the what and the why feel comfortable, but the how – the character – feels squishy and maybe unnecessary.
I’m here to tell my kindred left-brained friends that character need not be squishy: I have a framework to help that squishiness give way to specificity and clarity. More on that later. First, let’s talk about why the brand character is necessary.
Why is articulating brand character useful?
Humans bond with humans. We are a highly social species with an affinity for story and storytelling.
Businesses are also human-to-human mechanisms. A customer likes a business because of the way they feel having interacted with that business, just like a person likes a person because of the way their interactions feel, on both rational and emotional levels.
When your business is yours alone, then the character of the business is likely your character. And for startups, the business character reflects the founders’ collective character. But when a business scales to an expanding team who may never have met the founders, then what? What is the character of a growing business when it’s now many, many people instead of just one or a few? What is the “how” of the business – its personality and tonality and style?
This is where the brand strategy step of articulating character becomes essential. By defining the how – your character – your business can embody that character as it scales, thereby building a genuine relationship with customers, cultivating like and trust.
How do I articulate our brand character?
If your business were a person, what would this person be like? What kind of person is this? How do they act and talk? The exercise of articulating character can be daunting. So I encourage you to make it graspable (and satisfying and fun) with a framework to guide you. My favorite lens here is that of Carl Jung’s character archetypes.
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung studied storytelling across cultures, time and distance. He found that no matter where you go in human history, and no matter where you go on earth, there are only a handful of stories that have ever been told. And in this handful of stories, there are only 12 basic types of characters. It seems that we humans are hardwired to bond with these 12 character archetypes, because throughout history and across the world, we all use them and recognize them in our stories.
In the late twentieth century, Joseph Campbell popularized and expanded upon Jung’s ideas in the United States. More recently, in The Hero and the Outlaw, authors Margaret Mark and Carol S. Pearson brought this set of ideas to the realm of marketing. They explored the idea that powerful brands embody one of the Jung archetypes and that they are powerful partly because they are embodying one of these primordial characters. When they analyzed the world’s most beloved brands, they found that, indeed, each of them was an embodiment of one of the 12 Jung archetypes.
And it makes sense. After all, a brand is a relationship between a business and its audience, much like a friendship is a bond between a human and a human. It is logical that brands would be human-like.
The 12 Brand Archetypes
Although the archetypes Jung identified are called a variety of names, and although all of them have numerous sub-types, they all roll up to these 12 overarching archetypes:
- The Innocent, whose goal is to show purity and simplicity (Coke)
- The Everyman, whose goal is to keep it real (Toyota)
- The Hero, whose goal is to save the day (FedEx)
- The Jester, whose goal is to spread laughter and fun (Geico)
- The Lover, whose goal is to indulge the senses (Godiva)
- The Caregiver, whose goal is to nurture and support (Volvo)
- The Ruler, whose goal is to call the shots (American Express)
- The Sage, whose goal is to share wisdom (Mayo Clinic)
- The Explorer, whose goal is to chart new territory (Starbucks)
- The Outlaw, whose goal is to destroy what is not working (Harley Davidson)
- The Creator, whose goal is to unleash creativity (Lego)
- The Magician, whose goal is to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary (Disney)
Thinking of your brand as a character archetype is useful because customers bond with people – with characters – more readily than they bond with a nebulous entity like a business or even a concrete but inanimate product. When you make your business less anonymous and more like a person, you are working with, rather than against, the way that people naturally bond.
Zig Against Your Competitors’ Zag
Now, here’s the really exciting part. Brand character can be another source of differentiation, and therefore, a key competitive advantage, for your business. You can be different not only through your value proposition – the promise that you bring your customer – but also through your personality. Being the same personality as your peers is blah, undifferentiated, edgeless, and therefore hard for your customer to see (much less love). Embodying a character that is distinctive from the other options your customer is considering is a breakthrough and therefore is itself a competitive advantage.
When choosing your character archetype, first consider the archetypes in your category – your competitors, both direct and indirect. Identify the white space, and select from that white space. Armed with this, you can act both genuinely and against type.
An Explorer in a Caregiver World
Here’s an example. When Starbucks began selling coffee in 1971, most coffee brands were either the Caregiver or the Lover archetype. A woman created a morning for her husband in which the best part of waking up was Folgers in his cup (Caregiver). Dear girlfriends reminisce the cute stranger from their visit to Paris as they sip International House of Coffee (Lover). The Caregiver and Lover were so pronounced in the coffee category that they’d made the category cliché.
Enter Starbucks. Starbucks bucked this cliché by embodying the Explorer archetype, beginning with naming the business the name of the first mate in Moby Dick. By drinking Starbucks coffee, customers discover new things, explore new worlds. Starbucks zigged when the others zagged, allowing its brand to be both meaningful and distinctive at the same time.
In contrast to the coffee category, which is mostly Caregiver and Lover, the car category cliché archetype is the Explorer (Jeep, Ford, Subaru, and so on). Note how the most compelling car brands are not the Explorer archetype, just like Starbucks did not show up as the Caregiver or Lover archetype. In a category of Explorer blah-ness, you can show up as a Caregiver (Volvo), a Lover (Volkswagon), a Jester (Mini), a Hero (BMW), a Magician (Tesla), or a Ruler (Mercedes). Among a group of Explorers, being adventurous means being something other than adventurous. You can take advantage of the fact that your category is cliché by pushing away from that archetype to be more distinctive, more different, more fresh – more human.
4 Steps to Finding Your Type
Remember that your brand character is the way that your brand acts and talks. It is the how. It does not replace your brand promise or end reward (the what and why). It gives that what and why its personality, panache and bond-ability. So first define your what and why, and then ice that cake with your how.
Here are 4 steps to articulating your brand character:
- Review what you know about your customers and your category. What do customers think of this category, want from this category, hope for from this category?
- Map the brand characters for your competitors. What characters do each of them embody? Do this for direct competitors, but also for indirect competitors (whatever your customers are doing instead of purchasing your product).
- Review insights about your brand. Talk to your team. Talk to your customers. Be reflective about your business, your origin story, what feels true about your personality, how you like to show up. Are you fun-loving? Earnest? Wise? Charismatic? Are you kind? Down-to-earth? Rebellious?
- Select an archetype that is open in the category and that resonates for you. Try that archetype on. Does it seem like you? Try others on until you find one that is different from the crowd, and that rings true for your business.
Brand positioning is about making your business easier to see, buy from, have a relationship with. So positioning, done well, is multifaceted. It includes the logic argument (your brand promise and reward). It also includes a personality and tonality (your character). A differentiated promise and reward plus a distinctive brand character are the foundation of a powerful brand. Drawing inspiration from the 12 archetypes can make everything that you do in your business come alive with heart and soul.