Daddy, where do archetypes come from?

Do you remember these? I got mine in 2005. The sleek design, the click wheel, the battery that lasted 12 hours, and the ability to listen to thousands of songs! Boy, was that a big deal at the time.

I loved my iPod and carried it everywhere with me. But there was a problem. Although I had 5,000 songs on my iPod, it would start playing similar songs after a while when I put it on shuffle. Granted, it wasn’t repeating a particular song, an album, or a playlist over and over again. But after a few dozen songs, it would eventually stumble upon the same songs. I was curious why.

A strange idea attracts me

My then-operations management professor told me that it was normal for the iPod to stumble on similar songs because sooner or later any algorithm that generates random numbers would start following a particular pattern. That’s how I got introduced to the strange concept called “Strange Attractors.”

Let’s say you have an equation that infinitely generates numbers. When you plot the equation’s results over time and connect the dots, you will see a strange pattern that repeats itself over and over again – as if the results are “attracted” to a certain point. What makes those attractors even stranger is that -even though they look similar- they never repeat! The result is a complex, self-similar, non-repeating pattern. As it happens, that’s exactly how the universe -and the shuffle function on my iPod- work!

There is order -even in chaos! 

Complex systems, like the weather and the economy have hidden patterns, which make create things like a hurricane or a business cycle. But, even though those events happen randomly, they always follow certain rules. 

For instance, every hurricane has an eye, a spiral, and a path. Likewise, every economy would undergo periods of growth (boom) and contraction (bust) over time. During a boom period, people spend more money on luxury goods and travel, while during a bust period, they cut back on these expenses and focus on more essential purchases. 

Magnets of the psyche 

We cannot predict the future of those patterns with complete accuracy, but we can anticipate how those systems will behave. The secret recipe that shapes how things behave in these complex systems are called Strange Attractors. 

The best way to understand strange attractors is to think of them as magnets that pull things toward them in a system. For example, my iPod’s “shuffle algorithm” eventually pulled 5,000 songs towards a few hundred songs.

What is true for weather and the economy also applies to the psyche – the complex system of the human mind, which includes our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and experiences. 

Self-similar yet never-identical narratives 

Psychologist Carl Jung showed universal patterns, symbols, and images in myths, dreams, and stories. He referred to them as archetypes. Jung believed these archetypes were not learned but rather part of the collective unconscious, a shared pool of symbolic images and patterns inherited by all humans from our ancestors. In a way, psyche creates strange attractors, which we call archetypes. 

For example, every culture that was, is, or ever will be has the hero archetype. The hero is not a personality trait but a complex thought structure that activates certain words such as courage, determination, and selflessness. Moreover, it typically follows a universal narrative in which a character sets out on a journey, faces challenges and obstacles, and ultimately overcomes them to achieve a goal. We can say the psyche is attracted to the hero archetype!

fire fighter wearing black and yellow uniform pointing for something
Photo by Pixabay on

Remember the fundamental property of strange attractors: they are self-similar but not repeating. This means that although all cultures have the hero archetype, none are identical. For example, Gilgamesh from Mesopotamian mythology is a warrior with immense physical strength, -similar to Captain America. In contrast, Maui from Polynesian mythology is a trickster who cleverly achieves his goals. Sun Wukong from Chinese mythology possesses magical abilities that he uses to transform himself from an underdog to a great hero.

That means -even though each culture works with the same concept- the hero archetype manifests itself differently. After all, the values and the imagination of the imaginer are part of the psyche, too!

Limitation or a source of endless inspiration

Let’s switch to marketing. Some marketers discredit Carol Pearson’s 12-archetype framework, saying it is too limiting. They say that the model goes against the fundamental premise of brand strategy: differentiation. After all, how can you differentiate your brand if you have only 12 options? The self-similar yet never-identical property of strange attractors could help. 

By embracing the idea that archetypes can be self-similar yet never identical, marketers can find inspiration in these fundamental patterns without being confined to a rigid framework.

For instance, the heroic narrative can take the shape of a warrior, an underdog, or an anti-hero. Likewise, the archetypal narrative of the innocent can be interpreted as a magical child, a dreamer, or a survivor. These are just a few of endless possibilities. Such an approach would allow for infinite creativity and innovation, as each brand can express a unique version of an archetype that shares the DNA of its creator’s imagination.

Today’s actionable tip: Archetypes are like strange attractors: they are self-similar yet never-identical. Instead of dismissing archetypes as limiting, marketers could embrace them as a launchpad for creativity. You can unleash your imagination, dive into the endless pool of subcategories, and weave a brand story that stands the test of time. Here’s more on that subject.

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