Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

 

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Myth Cycles and the Ad

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are not what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges.

The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and/or the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be hero/heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she/he not only vanquishes the problem/monster, but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. Why do they work? Because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

Retail Archetypes: IRDC Blog Interview

http://www.irdconline.com/2011/blog/qa-two-west-chief-anthropologist-gavin-johnston

While quotes from blog interviewers grossly oversimplify the ideas and musing we give them, the core idea still comes through.  We will be presenting a new theoretical construct we have been working on at this year’s International Retail Design Conference. Here is the teaser:

One of the most intriguing sessions in this year’s program is Retail Archetypes, an exploration of the role archetypal settings such as “the shrine,” “the bazaar” and “the void” play in shopper behavior.

“You could say archetypes give shopping missions emotional context, and context gives shoppers a clearer sense of purpose,” says Ethan Whitehill, CEO of retail design consultancy Two West, Inc. “If you’re shopping for an engagement ring at Tiffany, a store suggestive of a fairy tale castle, then you assume a certain role with a certain sense of duty. You are a knight in shining armor.

Sociologist Erving Goffman called this dramaturgy, and it’s an important part of archetypal experience.”

We asked Whitehill’s co-presenter, Gavin Johnston, chief anthropologist at Two West, to delve further. Here’s a preview of their September 7 session:

IRDC: Tell us more about the role of archetypal settings in retail. How do they subconsciously draw shoppers into a store, then prime them to buy?

GJ: Whether we like it or not, human beings need symbolism and metaphor to function properly. Every ritual we have, every religious ceremony, every myth, every iconic figure is tied to subconscious archetypal structures we can’t escape. This pattern applies to brands and retail spaces as well. Archetypal settings prime people to buy because they are a balance between what is known and comfortable and what is new and exciting. This emotional tension results in feelings of arousal and pleasure, so customers are encouraged to approach, explore and experience wonder. Beyond this cognitive stimulation, retail archetypes can trigger biological responses, too. It’s no coincidence that we feel relaxed at Nordstrom (“the cathedral”) and invigorated at Ikea (“the bazaar”).

IRDC: Give us an example of a retail brand that draws on a specific archetype, and explain why it’s successful.

GJ: Anthropologie is a perfect example of “the garden.” It projects an idyllic, Eden-like atmosphere, setting people at ease by using organic forms, natural light, colors and sound. This motif is very tactile and leads customers to want to touch the products, which increases the likelihood of buying. Picking a shirt is like picking a flower. It’s wild but safe, open and breezy but closed off from the chaos of the outside world. The result is a retail environment that makes sense to us culturally and biologically.

IRDC: How do you determine which archetype is appropriate for a given audience?

GJ: The fact is that you’re going to have multiple audiences coming into a retail environment throughout the day. Assuming you will appeal to a single group—or that demographic segmentation schemes matter in a real, live space—is unrealistic. It reflects what we want as retailers and marketers, not what really matters to people.

The important point is that the brand and the retail archetype align to engage shoppers in a complete experience. For example, if you look at the Disney Store, every element of the retail design helps moms, kids, fathers, etc. feel like they are part of the story line, regardless of income, age, gender or anything else. “The theater” archetype, which is clearly present in the Disney experience, gives shoppers permission to pretend and play on a stage that happens to be a store.

IRDC: Why do archetypes matter now?

GJ: According to the Richard Ellis Group, 92% of retailers plan to increase store openings in 2011. More stores means more opportunity win customers—or to lose them. In such a highly competitive, highly demanding landscape, there is little margin for error and a short time to market. Retailers need a decision tool that will help them balance the growing quantity of stores with the quality of the environments created.

There are certain basic characters and storylines that appear regularly in myth, fairy tale, literature and film—archetypes that represent core aspects of the human condition, and tap deep into our motivations and worldview. This pattern goes beyond individual people in narrative and myth; it applies to brands and retail spaces as well. It’s why Disney Store employees are “cast members.” If you want to establish real loyalty in an age where procuring goods is simply a matter of an internet connection and a couple of clicks, you have to speak to these deeper needs and symbols.