Why Every Ag Brand Needs an Archetype

Think Shift

Superbowl XLVII (Ravens 34 - 49ers 31) on Feb 3, 2013 was notable for a number of reasons (only one of which is relevant to this post): it was among the few truly exciting Superbowls; it marked the first time two brothers, Jim and John Harbaugh, had coached against one another in an NFL final; the game went dark for 34 minutes in the third quarter when the Superdome experienced a power outage; and Dodge Ram debuted a powerful ad called Year of the Farmer.

The ad featured still images of farm life accompanied by a recording of the late, iconic radio legend Paul Harvey’s speech at the Future Farmers of America Convention in 1978. By celebrating farm life and the rural ethos, the ad connected emotionally to a subset of the 100 million or so viewers who shared similar values, therefore creating positive associations with the Ram brand. The ad worked well, not only because of its deft creative touch, but because of its explicit use of an archetype — in this case, the Caregiver archetype.

An archetype is any universally recognized pattern, often found in stories, characters, plots, imagery and many other modes of representation. They exist because human beings are storytelling creatures and, in searching for ways to express our ultimately universal human experiences, we tend to find analogous interpretations. Over time these related representations get laid down like wagon tracks on the storytelling trail, grooved into our collective subconscious as archetypes. They become, as Margaret Mark and Carolyn Pearson say in their seminal book about archetypes and advertising, “powerful attractors of consciousness.”

Finding relevant and authentic ways to bring archetypes to brand expression offers ag marketers a powerful way to differentiate themselves. We’re all familiar with the challenges of differentiating products based on feature sets or service levels. Because they are easily matched, whatever advantage even the best innovation might gain is most often temporary. Archetypes however, give marketers a kind of scaffolding upon which to connect and therefore differentiate on an emotional rather than functional level. Finding and selecting an appropriate archetype gives marketers a framework to use – a roadmap to navigate over what is ultimately a very subjective decision-making terrain.

We all shop rationally, but buy emotionally.

The Caregiver archetype expressed in the Year of the Farmer reminds us of the importance of sacrifice and putting others before ourselves. In the same way farmers are stewards of their land, family and community, so too do we have our own stewardship responsibilities (the implied association here is that buying a Ram truck will help us better fulfill the caretaking obligations in our own lives).

Of course, not every ag product needs to be expressed using caregiving motfis. In this spot for InVigor Hybrid Canola, BASF has done a great job of channeling the Hero archetype, an archetypal treatment that began before Bayer divested the brand when they purchased Monsanto. The Hero motif speaks to the underlying motivation all of us have to achieve mastery – to strive to become the best versions of ourselves. In these ads, InVigor is presented as a brand that will help growers overcome the challenges Mother Nature throws down and become the best farmer they can be by “outfarming the field.”

While Archetypes and their use are universal, this does not imply they are used consciously by advertisers and other storytellers. Perhaps BASF and Ram’s agencies intentionally channeled these motifs, or perhaps, they bubbled up subconsciously from the intuitions of their creative teams. Equally, we may not be consciously aware of the effect of a particular archetype on our motivations. Are you sure, for example, you purchased Old Spice because of its scent or the coupon you had in your pocket, and not because of the subliminal connection you made with the brand’s Jester personality attributes?

According to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, over 95% of purchasing decisions are subconscious.

Understanding these archetypes and consistently applying their themes is an under-used tool in the ag marketer’s toolkit. The opportunity exists to be conscious and intentional about deploying them as you tell stories about your brand. In our work with Genuity Roundup Ready®, for example, we’ve consistently used the Ruler archetype to channel one of the principle motivations of the motif – the desire for stability and control (see our Real Life Ready spot).

We are big believers in archetypes and recommend their use to all our clients. And while their power lies in the ability to cut through traditional, rational messaging tropes with expressions that resonate subconsciously, their utility is equally important. Intentionally electing to use one archetype versus another gives marketers and creative teams a common frame of reference. It makes evaluating visual direction and messaging copy easier, while also offering an unlimited source of inspiration found in humanity’s collection of art, culture and literature.

When thinking about which archetype to use, there are three questions to consider:

  1. Is it relevant?
    As you dig deeper into archetypal expression, it becomes immediately obvious that there is always more than one option to consider. The art is in selecting the one or two archetypes most likely to resonate and resisting the temptation to blend multiple story motifs together.
  2. Is it authentic?
    Organizations don’t really select an archetype so much as they uncover it, as it’s very likely already latent in the culture and expressed (albeit inconsistently) in the brand, As noted above, because they are universal and part of our collective subconscious, archetypes exist whether we’re aware of them or not. For this reason, it’s important to resist the temptation to force an aspirational archetype, as the probability of consistent execution is drastically diminished.
  3. Is it different?
    This is not to say that two product brands can’t channel the same archetype, only that they must do so in different ways. Both Axe and Old Spice, for example, have very effectively used the Jester archetype, as in this now iconic, breakthrough Old Spice ad for bodywash and a similar gambit from Axe’s bodywash product. In fact, in many ways archetypal differentiation is easier than traditional differentiation is because of the rich trove of motifs to draw from.

Want to learn more about archetypes? While there is certainly no shortage of resources available online, we highly recommend Margaret Mark and Carolyn Pearson’s The Hero and the Outlaw as an excellent and comprehensive place to start. Bringing an archetypal paradigm to your brand and marketing discussions will give you a richer and deeper reservoir from which to derive and communicate meaning that will create connections with not only your customers, but your employees as well.


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