Brand Archetype Models: A Guide to Positioning Strategy

By Joseph Gelman and Michael Dunn

Companies often engage in an analytical and creative process to develop or review their brand positioning, an exercise often triggered by the need to support a revised business strategy.

One of the risks they may encounter, however, is embarking on positioning development that lacks a strong enough strategic foundation. One way to offset this is by employing a “Brand Archetype” model, which helps define the space in which brands should play, providing strategic direction for the brand positioning.

The Brand Archetype model was inspired by the understanding that brand positioning is dictated by a company’s assets, business situation, and future strategy, as well as the “appetite” for category disruption.

The model has two axes:

  • Issues Addressed: This axis refers to the opportunities or issues that the brand wants to address with its positioning. These include “business issues” that are specific to the brand’s current situation, “category issues,” or situations that are typical to the category. Another, “changing the narrative,” means the positioning will address aspects that are not at the core of the current category thinking.
  • Message Focus: The second axis provides guidance on the messaging that the brand will want to pursue in its positioning. It might be around “established customer beliefs” that already exist in the category, or around “unclaimed, new territories” which are unexpected and in principle not commonly associated to the different brands in the category.

There are six archetypes that can be explored to help frame the options for positioning: 

Archetype 1

In Archetype 1, a brand will invest behind a single, key driver of choice in the category. This archetype is usually present in industries with very clear and stable drivers, and is pursued by brands that can credibly own these drivers today and in the future.

Brands in this space are typically incumbent or strong leading players in their categories. One example in the U.S. is Verizon, which consistently positions its brand around the quality, reach, and superiority of its network, the key driver of choice in the industry that can be fully owned and leveraged by the category leader. In Europe, Banco Santander has been able to win in the category by consistently owning key functional such as size, number of offices, global reach and financial strength, which are increasingly important during the financial crisis.

Brands that are in the position of owning key drivers of choice in their categories should definitely develop a positioning that anchors on Archetype 1. This entails reinforcing leaderships versus trying to force an “emotional positioning” and disregarding what is really driving consumer choice.

Archetype 2

Archetype 2 involves bringing together two seemingly conflicting ideas. It is usually pursued if established category trade-offs can be upended, and by any brand that can identify these “conflicting” ideas and make them work together.

The key challenge in this archetype is making these two conflicting ideas work together in a relevant and credible way. The traditional example of brands playing in Archetype 2 would be when the soda category developed diet or light versions, as at that stage refreshing cool drinks were associated with sugar and weight gain. Bringing those two aspects together was truly differential and resonated well with consumers. A more recent example in the U.S. would be the retailer Target, which successfully proved that shopping for the best prices does not conflict with a premium, and even “stylish” experience.

Archetype 3

Archetype 3 is a “high risk - high return” one. In it a brand will aim to destroy the established thinking of the category by basically commoditizing the key drivers of choice. Brands should pursue Archetype 3 if they don’t have the key assets to compete but they believe there is “another way” in their category.

Many new entrants in established categories embody this archetype. European insurer “Direct Line” has reframed the industry by basically commoditizing the product and delegitimizing the relevance of traditional drivers as the role of the agent and the need for a solid and established company behind the brand. Its brand is trying to convince consumers that car insurance is a commodity with no value added and it should therefore be acquired through a less time-consuming process and at the lowest possible price.

Established or market leading brands find it difficult to adopt this archetype, as it usually implies fundamental change in the dominant business model or a price war, which is achievable by new entrants but not by established players with a lot of business to lose if the category gets disrupted.

Archetype 4

Sometimes, a company can win by turning a disadvantage into an advantage. This requires the company to speak in a clear and transparent way, to recognize that it has failed and that has learned from past mistakes and re-emerged stronger and more confident. This archetype should be pursued if the brand believes that it can extract value out of an apparent liability.

The re-branding of Domino’s Pizza is one such example. It has involved explicit and transparent communications of all the negative aspects that the consumer experienced and a public commitment to improving. A more subtle and emotional approach is the Chrysler corporate story, admitting that the company has “lost its way”, but still promising a comeback in a very confident way. To win in this archetype, the brand needs to be able to publically acknowledge its flaws and commit to dealing with them. That’s not easy, and it requires transparent communications, long-term commitment, and internal desire for real change.

Archetype 5

Some categories, particularly in the service sector, generate a great deal of frustration in customers. Archetype 5 focuses on solving key category pain points that are widely known and suffered by customers. This archetype should be pursued if a brand understands that customers are open to a “new way.”

In Europe, insurance company Zurich Financial has positioned its brand in this archetype. Through extensive research it found that category customers felt that the industry was not getting the basics right. In particular, customers didn’t believe their insurer would be there for them if there was a problem or accident. Building on that key industry pain point, Zurich Financial developed the “Zurich Help Point” positioning. It was implemented successfully across all the relevant touchpoints of the customer journey, ensuring that customers believed that the brand will be there for them when needed.

Category pain points are often widely understood by key brands in the market, but not addressed because they either require high levels of investment or would negatively impact sources of revenues. When a brand commits itself to addressing category pain points, it needs to be aware of the financial implications of this move. To succeed with this type of positioning, it will have to act in a way that is not natural (or the norm) to its category.

Archetype 6

The most difficult archetype to tackle is Archetype 6: investing in a driver that it is unexpected for the category. This one can be pursued if there is a white space for differentiation that extends beyond category parameters.

Identifying that white space can prove challenging. A positioning around this archetype takes considerable out-of-the-box thinking that translates into new, bold and big ideas to anchor the brand. A small number of truly successful brands have been created around this archetype, but success takes internal comfort with an idea that cannot be “proved” up front via traditional research. It requires being comfortable with a lower burden of proof and making a final decision almost entirely based on existing information and instincts. When done successfully, it represents a long-term source of competitive advantage.

Camper, the Spanish shoe brand that now has a global presence, is anchored in Archetype 6. The brand basically looked away from all traditional functional and emotional drivers in the category, and has been positioning itself around its capacity to be different. This included claims/campaigns around things like “the walking society” and “a little big company.” A better-known example is Apple, with its focus on design, simplicity, and style in a category that at one stage was dominated by hard-core technology and performance.

There is no single “right” archetype and in principle, any brand could explore positioning in any of them. That said, as the descriptions suggest, certain models may hold more value for certain types of brands than others.

Brand archetypes are a helpful intermediate guide to inform thinking about brand positioning. By understanding the various spaces in which a brand can play off its essence, attributes, and customer experiences, businesses can more easily develop and refine their brand positionings with the benefit of a stronger strategic perspective. In doing so, companies increase the likelihood that they’ll win with customers and in the market.

Michael Dunn (mdunn@prophet.com) is the CEO and Joseph Gelman (jgelman@prophet.com) is a Partner at Prophet, a strategic brand and marketing consultancy that helps its clients win by delivering inspired and actionable ideas. 


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