They are the universal themes that dominate human consciousness everywhere on earth: the lens through which we understand ourselves and the other people that we encounter. From the Lover to the Ruler, the Caregiver and the Sage, archetypes are hugely important to our sense of identity and the way that we interpret our motivations, emotions and behaviour.
Any individual is likely to identify aspects of most if not all of them, within themselves, at some point in their life. And as a result they are hugely important to brands attempting to connect to audiences on a deeper psychological level.
Archetypes are idealised concepts of behaviour and personality that resonate across every culture on earth because they map closely to particular emotional need-states. Through our NeedScope psychological framework for understanding emotion, TNS is able to reveal the deeper emotional needs that each archetype corresponds to – and therefore reveal the most powerful and effective roles that they can play for brands. However, our understanding of the nuances of different cultural contexts provides another form of insight that is just as important to brands’ understanding of the archetypes they use.
Archetypes may be universal but the way that they are expressed and the form they take can vary dramatically between different markets. Identifying the characteristics of your chosen archetype in the culture you are targeting is crucial if the brand strategies built around them are to succeed. Identifying the characteristics of your chosen archetype in the culture you are targeting is crucial if the brand strategies built around them are to succeed.
It’s one of the most recognisable of humanity’s universal archetypes – and occupies an emotional space that many brands aspire to. But taking on the Hero role requires a very different approach depending on the market you are operating in.
India versus China: Confronting the system – or upholding the community
Analysts are fond of bunching together rapid-growth markets in the form of handy nouns or acronyms: BRIC, MINT or Chindia.
A closer look at the expression of the Hero archetype in India and China proves just how dangerous this approach can be where marketing is concerned. In fact, it’s harder to imagine deeper and more instinctive cultural differences when it comes to what the Hero stands for, and how he is expected to behave.
In India, the Hero looks very similar to the subarchetype of the Outlaw. In a rigidly hierarchical system where wealth and power appear out of reach to most, it is extraordinary success against overwhelming social odds that distinguishes a Hero – and he or she is expected to have to fight and beat a malfunctioning or corrupt system in order to achieve it. Street smarts are celebrated, bending the rules winked at as a natural response to the unfairness of life and an affirmation that the lowly man or woman in the street can, through assertiveness, take power from those abusing it.
Using bribery to push through a driving license or passport application is never treated with shock, since it is “justified” by the barriers confronting most Indians. They see their Outlaw-Hero instincts projected onto the screen in the form of the Bollywood characters played by Amitabh Bachchan or Sanjay Dutt, who personified the Hero archetype as the character Munnabhai, famously beating up a doctor to ensure a patient receives medical attention.
Such open confrontation of the system is likely to be hugely counter-productive for a brand operating in China. Here the end never justifies the means if that means involves undermining others or the national community as a whole.
Perseverance and going the distance to win within the rules are key characteristics of the Hero archetype, and this inherent bravery and determination is most widely celebrated when it involves bringing larger, non-Chinese rivals down to size and winning against the odds. In the sports arena, the Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang took on Hero status when winning at a sport never before considered a Chinese strength; however, he gave up some of this hard-won respect when he later withdrew from a competition through injury.
Many fans felt that he should have toughed it out and continued – even with little hope of winning and at risk to himself. In the business world, the ascent of Ali Baba or the resurrection of once-bankrupt, state-owned Haier embody the Hero archetype: inherently Chinese brands that have smashed western competitors at their own game, such as Google, have done so through classic rags-to-riches hard work.Chinese brands that have smashed western competitors at their own game, such as Google, have done so through classic rags-to-riches hard work.
Marketers cannot afford their brands to fall through the wide divisions between the different expressions of the archetype in these two countries: the idea of effort overshadowing rewards is heroic in one culture, but weak-willed in another; selfishness may be celebrated, or may wholly undermine Hero status depending on which market you are operating in. But if these shifts in emphasis feel difficult to negotiate, there are plenty of examples of brands that have been able to do so successfully. Nike is hugely recognisable as a Hero brand in both countries, yet its creative themes are subtly different.
The idea of effort overshadowing rewards is heroic in one culture, but weakwilled in another; selfishness may be celebrated, or may wholly undermine Hero status depending on which market you are operating in.
A Nike ad in China showed Liu Xiang smashing through barriers representing lazy western stereotypes about Asian people and culture: a determined human battering ram and embodiment of national pride.
In India, arguably the most famous Nike ad of all shows street smart youngsters rising above the chaos of Indian traffic when they decide to start a cricket game on the roofs of stationary buses: a joyous subversion of the rules that’s celebrated by the Indian cricket team who just happen to be passing.
Watching for the evolution of archetypes
Because the roots of the Hero’s different cultural expressions go back a long way, it can be tempting to see them as rigid and unchanging. The reality is very different. The expression of archetypes constantly evolves, emphasising different aspects at different times although never breaking completely from the tradition. In China, the bad-boy blogger Han Han is the Hero spokesperson for footwear brand, VANCL, boldly declaring that he represents nobody but himself. In his courage to think independently, he reflects a new dimension of the traditional Chinese version of the archetype – although it is noticeable that there is no sense of defying a corrupt system, or getting one over on others in order for Han Han to get ahead.
Other versions of the Hero have evolved too – and they will continue to do so. British heroes have become increasingly counter-cultural over time; the everyman nature of American heroism was hugely reinforced following the attacks on the Twin Towers; whilst German culture has put far greater emphasis on finely tuned minds questioning authority in the second half of the 20th century.
For brands, the key to mastering such a rich and powerful archetype lies not just in understanding how it is expressed at one point in time; but how that expression has evolved – and the direction it might take in the future. Anticipating these subtle shifts can hold the key to owning the Hero space.
The expression of archetypes constantly evolves, emphasising different aspects at different times although never breaking completely from the tradition.