Fleshing out a metaphor

Archetypes in Branding

Are 60 archetypes better than 12?

If you’re into archetypes and/or branding, Archetypes in Branding is a new piece of eye candy you might find interesting. The physical book is an impressive thing. Over-sized. Uniquely bound. And filled page to page with colorful visuals. When I saw one of these sticking out from a shelf in the art section of Barnes and Nobles, my heart leaped.

But soon my enthusiasm waned. After flipping through the pages, I felt that the authors, Hartwell and Chen, had taken an idea that was beautiful in its simplicity and made it intimidating.

In the branding sense, this book is really an extension of the work by two other authors, Carol S. Pearson and Margaret Mark. In their earlier work, The Hero and the Outlaw, Pearson and Mark are able to distill the storytelling narratives of dozens of “cult” brands into a straightforward framework of 12 archetypes, each positioned on a perceptual map to help you understand one brand’s story in relationship to others. In the new work, Archetypes in Branding, the authors had taken a relatively simple metaphor and exploded into more nuances that I felt were necessary. (Especially since Pearson and Mark already establish that each of the 12 archetypes would allow for countless sub-motifs and character names.)

harley davidson

Harley’s story is that of the outlaw.

Of course, we should probably give Hartwell and Chen a break. They acknowledge Mark and Pearson in the same way they acknowledge Jung and Joseph Campbell. Perhaps their work is meant to be an esoteric riff on archetypal branding, ideal for those already familiar with archetypal ideas, much like jazz is a medium best understood by musicians.

One wonders, however, if adding complexity to accessible foundational ideas benefits the author or the reader more?

We can apply this question to a variety of ideas that begin with simple insights, but then become intricately complex. Take, for example, the most popular religion in the US, Christianity. At its roots, Christianity seems to be a simple metaphor: a personification of basic truths (or at least, tendencies) about human nature:

  • Humans often harbor feelings of being incomplete or flawed in some way (humans are born with “original sin”);
  • But when a person stops obsessing solely on their own needs and begins to consider the needs of others, this has a tendency to relieve some of the psychological burden of feeling flawed (Christ died for humankind and took away that sin);
  • As we continue to focus on both our needs and the needs of others, and adjust our behavior accordingly, we begin to change the world and people around us (the path to “heaven” comes from embracing God through the teachings of his son).

I’m no theologian. I know these Biblical examples are crude. But the narrative elements are accessible. We get it. And yet, if you were to open any holy book, I suspect that you’d find a bit more content than the three bullet points above.

Which begs the question, why?

Many of my religious friends bristle at the notion that their faith’s narrative is a series of metaphors gone rogue. They insist that their beliefs are based upon historical events. Some go so far to say that their books are infallible — every word on every page is a literal description of the physical world (and supernatural world, too).

But every defense attorney will tell you that the more complex the prosecution’s case, the more opportunities there are to poke holes in it. I believe that my generation is turning to atheism more, not because the religions of our parents have nothing to teach us, but — in this message-soaked world — we are craving simplicity. Some religious belief systems are so complex and detailed, that they no longer serve to instruct. Young readers realize a flaw here and there, and the Rube-Goldbergian device falls apart. But while the pieces noisily fall, and the clouds of comical dust fly into the air, the simple foundations of truth that lay beneath become invisible.

Whether it’s tomes about archetypal branding or religious works intended to provide clarity, we humans sometimes (unintentionally) hide the truth as we flesh out the metaphors. That’s a shame.  Because beneath the now-broken stained-glass panels of complexity, the truth is still there. It’s just that no one can see it.