‘Archetype’ is a word coined by the psychoanalyst Carl Jung to describe a primitive mental image that is readily attributable to people or organisations. Archetypes are the heroes, villains, jesters and lovers in the stories we are told (and tell ourselves) to help us make sense of the world. They are universal stereotypes that are instantly recognisable because we have grown up with them in fairy-tales, detective novels and blockbuster movies.

Each archetype has a ‘typical’ range of behaviours for certain circumstances, representing specific values and motivations. So, for example, heroes are often perceived as driven by a noble higher cause, and as self-sacrificing in the pursuit of a better future.

The use of archetypes presents B2B organisations with a unique opportunity to gain competitive advantage in an increasingly crowded marketplace. But the “off-the-peg” archetypes as promoted by traditional marketing literature are flawed. The well-known book ‘The Hero & The Outlaw’ suggests that there are 12 archetypes. This is a misreading of Jung, as there are many more and they are not as sharply defined as implied.

A different way of considering archetypes

An archetype is a fuzzy, imaginary example of someone we aspire to be or imitate. An archetype is not as ‘fixed’ as a ‘personality’ or ‘persona’ – but is far more reliable in terms of understanding and predicting buyer behaviour.

Personas are usually built on the assumption that those being profiled are rational, and that one rational ‘characteristic’ is a reasonable basis on which to pull one type of buyer apart from another. The problem with this, as the work of Kahneman and many others has illustrated over the last 30 years, is that buyers are fundamentally irrational. Far too often we have seen seemingly credible personas built around factors such as price or convenience hunting, only to witness actual consumer behaviour being driven by a wholly different set of priorities.

Conversely, archetypes have to be identified and analysed in a more fluid way than is usually possible with traditional survey questionnaires. As I’ve already mentioned, the idea that there is a fixed number of archetypes is one that we don’t buy into. Instead, we believe that it’s more useful to examine the motivations behind the archetype. The question should not be: which archetype? Rather, the investigations should focus on “What motivations lie behind the Jester? And which values are driving the Hero?”, and so on.

So contemporary archetype research programmes set out to determine the answers to a number of key questions:

  1. What is the current archetype of your organisation? Is there a set of values and motivations that support an archetype within the current culture/climate of the business?
  2. What are the archetypes(s) perceived by current clients in your marketing message(s)?
  3. What archetypes do your competitors embody, and how effective are they likely to be?

Practical applications of archetype research

Using insights from archetype research, action can be taken to give your business a strong character that influences how other businesses relate to it. Using archetypes to develop a strong and consistent marketing message is a way of making your business interesting to others; it is like telling a story whose primary purpose is to engage your clients.

The stories that your business tells its clients shouldn’t be ad hoc or haphazard. They need to be planned and developed so that they have the possibility of achieving real and meaningful change. The stories have to represent the real values of the business, and be linked to measurable outcomes.

An archetype-driven strategy is about the ‘big picture’. When carried out with commitment and creativity it will form the core of your marketing. Using archetypes, you will be able to identify the clients that your message will speak to and, most importantly, set the goals and objectives for changes and developments in your marketing strategies.

How to start thinking about archetypes

The process begins by asking yourself (as a business) a series of strategic questions:

  1. Who are the clients most likely to benefit from our products/services?
  2. What are the values, ambitions and aspirations of those clients?
  3. What problems are our clients experiencing that prevent them achieving their long-term goals or aspirations?
  4. In which ways is our organisation able to address these problems and offer concrete, tangible solutions to help our clients improve their businesses?

Each of the stages of this process are heavily informed by archetypes. The right research will tell you the values and motivations of your business (which might be different from what you think they are). It will also establish how your business is currently perceived by your clients. Finally, it will identify the hopes and aspirations of your clients – and which archetypes they embody.

Archetypes in action

In late 2016, we worked with a client in the B2B marketing space. Our research revealed that there were two dominant archetypes in positions to buy our clients’ services: Leaders and Teachers. At the time, our client only had Leaders as clients, yet more than 30% of the market were Teachers.

Simply put, Leaders are motivated by their own reputation and progression. They care about winning, about hard success measures and about looking good. Teachers are motivated by the progression of their companies and teams. They care about working in a collegiate style, about best practice and about contributing to the greater good of their industry.

Everything about our client – their website, their credentials, their pre-pitch, pitch and post-pitch processes spoke to the Leader archetype. They were losing pitches to Teachers because their messaging put them off.

We taught our client to recognise the archetypes of potential buyers, to couch their website, credentials and entire pitch process in terms that would appeal to the archetype they were selling to. Within weeks, our client had won their first Teacher client, having flipped their messaging and approach to the sort that spoke to the hidden, emotional needs of a different buying audience.

Archetypes – evolving best practice?

Many forward-thinking organisations such as IBM and Intel are using archetype-driven research and strategy to gain an advantage over their competitors. The benefits of using archetypes in a strategic way are readily seen in their ability to differentiate their businesses, and provide guidance for the alignment and consistency of their marketing messages.

The correct use of archetypes presents B2B organisations with the ability to get ahead, and stay ahead of competitors. It helps companies understand themselves and their customers. And, when strategically applied, archetype research ensures that marketing and sales messages resonate in deeper, more meaningful and more successful ways.

Richard Fogg

Richard Fogg

Richard Fogg is CEO of Aperture, a consulting and advisory firm for B2B organisations seeking to transform sales and marketing performance. The firm offers two things. The first is disruptive insights into buyers and markets. The second is practical advice about how to turn those insights into action.
Richard Fogg