Over 10 years ago, Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson wrote a masterful book, The Hero and the Outlaw, which showed how the most successful brands were those that effectively corresponded to the fundamental patterns in the unconscious mind known as “archetypes.” My reading of the book wasn’t the first time I had thought about archetypes, but it was the first time I had considered their application to my chosen profession. The idea that, regardless of time, location or culture, people have told stories that essentially repeat the same story lines and character types over and over again was a powerful one. For me, it explained why people everywhere could relate to a Hero who overcomes great obstacles, a Magician who transforms dreams into reality or an Outlaw who rebels against the status quo.
Over the years I’ve successfully used Pearson’s 12 Archetypes to inspire coworkers and clients to think about how they can give their brands greater meaning. Recently, however, I’ve begun to wonder if those 12 archetypes aren’t in need of a couple of additions. As I watch TV with my own daughter, there appears a new set of repeated character patterns that are shaping her view of the world that are very different from when I was a kid. Yes, Disney still delivers a steady stream of Innocents, Heroes, and Jesters (in both human and animal form), but they, like many of the other major childhood content providers, have evolved.
Here are six new character archetypes I’ve observed (through co-viewing with my daughter) and corresponding products and brands that either enable or use the archetypes in marketing efforts:
The Instant Celebrity:
Carly Shay from iCarly and Austin Moon from Austin & Ally are the most prominent examples of this archetype. They both live the lives of normal teenagers, but are also aspiring celebrities who become famous almost by accident. Carly becomesfamous when her friend Freddie posts a video of her and friend Sam acting funny at a school talent show audition and then decides to start the iCarly web show. Austin becomes famous after he secretly records one of his shy songwriter friend’s songs, creates a video for it, and then posts it.
Several brands and products are tapping into this archetype and enabling the Gen We belief that the world is a stage and that all it takes is the right person to see your performance and you’ll be famous. Products like the Just Dance and Guitar Hero series of video games and Radio Disney (which constantly encouraging kids to call in and perform) speak to the latent desire this archetype represents.
The Cool Geek:
Phineas Flynn of Phineas and Ferb embodies this archetype. In every episode of the show, Phineas is the mastermind that comes up with a brilliant and often technologically complex idea for a project that he and his friends will complete to stave off boredom for the day. He uses his superior intellect to achieve an outcome that maximizes the fun of summer for all while staying conspicuously under the radar of his parents. When I was a kid there were ton of geeks and nerds on TV (Steve Urkel from Family Matters stands out,) but it was rare that someone got to be smart and cool at the same time in the way Phineas does. The mindset that the two things aren’t mutually exclusive has infiltrated today’s youth. Geeks are now chic.
AR Drone offers an amazing array of remote control flying devices that can be controlled via iPod, iPhone, iPad or Android. The come complete with video feed cameras and games that let almost any tween boy play the role of cool geek.
This archetype has become so prevalent that Disney actually created a TV movie entitled “Frenemies.” Gunther and Tinka Hessenheffer from Shake it Up are my favorite example of this. In the show Shake it Up, they for the most part serve as antagonists to the main characters Rocky and CeCe, making fun of their dance moves and wardrobes at every turn - but at the same time they frequently have to be friendly toward and work with the main characters in order to accomplish some larger common goal.
Sour Patch Kids has used this archetype as the backbone of their ‘Sour. Then Sweet’ campaign for the last few years with great success.
The Animal Savior
Perhaps it’s because kids have such a natural attraction to animals, but Gen We starts to be exposed to this character archetype at as young as age two via Diego Marquez. Diego and his sister Alicia are the animal rescuers at the heart of the cartoon Go Diego Go. This archetype has also been at the heart of some of the last few years’ biggest kids’ movies, Hotel for Dogs and Dolphin Tale. In both of these movies, alienated tweens found their purpose taking care of injured or unwanted animals.
Fur Real Friends taps into this archetype with its line of newborn animals that come to life with your touch. Newborn lambs, ducklings, rabbits, and piglets give kids a chance to nurture their own inner Diego.
Andre Harris from Victorious and Chyna Parks from A.N.T. Farm are great examples of this. Both are musical prodigies that go on multiple adventures that allow their talents to, in some way, be used to their advantage. Beyond music, this generation is also exposed to characters that are prodigies in art, computers, and even sports. The most interesting thing about the prodigy archetype is that all the characters have relatively normal social lives outside their one magnificent talent. This is very different from Doogie Howser, M.D., a similar character from early-’90s TV.
An example of a product that helps the young prodigy to advance their skills would be the U Draw Studio Instant Artist game and tablet for Wii. The product lets kids advance their drawing, painting, and sketching skills then share their creations with others.
The Naïve/Family Idiot
For those familiar with Pearson’s 12 archetypes, this one is best described as a combination of the Innocent and the Jester. Three characters immediately come to mind for this -- Max Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place, Cameron from A.N.T Farm, and Boz from Pair of Kings. Each of these characters is frequently confused or clueless about what is really going on with their friends and family. Even very basic things like how to craft a cool nickname are often beyond their grasp, and thus they often become the target of ridicule.
Marketed as “slippers with personality,” Stompeez appeals to the fun and inner goofiness of this archetype.
At this point if you’re not thinking to yourself, “ Wow, she sure watches a lot of kids TV,” I’d be amazed. I will admit I am a kid at heart. Perhaps that is why I love stories so much and believe the best brands typically have one thing in common -- they are great storytellers. As humans, regardless of age, culture or geography, the one thing we all connect with is stories and the foundational archetypes within them. As such, I encourage you to pay close attention to the stories and archetypes that this next generation of consumers is growing up with, because those archetypes will be a key to continued connection with them as they grow into adulthood.