Unlocking your accountancy firm’s brand identity with archetypes

by | Nov 4, 2020 | Strategy

There are various tools and strategies available when working on branding for accountancy firms. One of the most powerful is the idea of the brand archetype, from outlaw to caregiver.

Now, I’ll be honest – I’ve worked with clients who don’t get this at all. How can an accountant be an outlaw, for goodness’ sake? They’re all about compliance.

When it does click, though, the results can be amazing. For example, I’ve recently been working on a marketing and brand strategy with a startup accountancy firm whose management team saw themselves as sage and caregiver. This unlocked a whole world of ideas and concepts, and got the client fired up, too:

“Before I started working with Alex and PracticeWeb, I wasn’t even aware of brand archetypes. I struggled at first to really describe my style, my USP and how I want to present myself and my brand. Through a number of clever, thought-provoking exercises in the brand strategy workshop, I soon discovered my identity. Knowing what my brand archetypes are and what they represent reinforces my marketing, my messaging and defines my USP with clarity I’ve never had before. It has rightly formed the backbone of my content and marketing plan.”

What are brand archetypes

Brace yourself – this is heavy stuff.

The modern idea of archetypes derives from the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung. He argued that all humans share a “collective unconscious” – a whole set of ideas and images that we carry deep in our minds, formed in the earliest days of human evolution.

During the 20th century, this concept filtered through into the creative arts. For example, when George Lucas wrote Star Wars he was heavily inspired by Joseph Campbell’s concept of the Hero With a Thousand Faces – the idea that every story ever told is about the same handful of archetypes, undergoing the same archetypal journeys.

Luke Skywalker is Odysseus – the hero. Darth Vader is Sauron – the shadow. Gandalf is Dumbledore – the mage. Han Solo is Aragorn. All those Agent Smiths in the Matrix are Blofeld’s henchmen (“threshold guardians”). And so on.

You might think, oh, so archetypes are just cliches. Those who find the idea useful will argue, no – they’re eternal truths or enduring myths. I do know that once you know about them, it’s hard to watch any film or TV show without mentally filing each character into the appropriate category.

The idea of the archetype crossed over into the world of advertising, marketing and branding in the past couple of decades – probably, if I had to guess, because after Star Wars they reprinted Joseph Campbell’s book and suddenly his idea of the hero’s journey was everywhere.

What are brand archetypes used for?

One of the great challenges in the work PracticeWeb around branding for accountancy firms is getting clients into a creative headspace.

I’ve been running brand strategy workshops for years and they often go a similar way: a bit awkward at first as people warm up, then the buzz builds until, four or five hours later, everyone’s full of ideas and excited about where things are going.

Archetypes help us get from stage one (awkward) to stage two (buzzing) – part ice-breaker, part starter-for-ten.

Once we’ve decided in the workshop and subsequent discussions which archetype or archetypes work best for your firm, their second use is in the creative process at our end.

When I talk to Mark, our lead designer, or to Ray, our head of content, archetypes are part of our common language. If I tell them a client identifies strongly with the ‘explorer’ archetype, it immediately gets us on the same page and sets ideas sparking in their minds.

To put it another way, archetypes are about efficiency.

What are the 12 brand archetypes?

There are generally reckoned to be twelve brand archetypes:

  • The innocent – upbeat, optimistic, youthful.
  • The everyman – down-to-earth, sensible, decent.
  • The hero – brave, inspiring, takes risks, focused on a goal.
  • The rebel/outlaw – idealistic, questioning, doesn’t follow the rules.
  • The explorer/adventurer – loves to travel and discover new things.
  • The creator – thoughtful, inventive, constructive.
  • The ruler – grown-up, in control, order from chaos.
  • The magician – does the impossible, delights and surprises.
  • The lover – passionate, romantic, emotional.
  • The caregiver – protective, compassionate, nurturing.
  • The joker or jester – irreverent, funny, mischievous.
  • The sage – wise, insightful, calm and supportive.

They can seem a bit abstract until you start to match them up with specific real-world brands. For example, the Financial Times is a good example of a sage brand and Disney is often cited as a classic example of the magician.

Sometimes, I end up mapping brand archetypes against real people who clients have said they identify with. Russell Brand came up in one workshop conversation – he’s a classic example of a jester, with perhaps a touch of the rebel.

How accountants can use brand archetypes

One of the best ways to use archetypes is to think about which apply to your competitors and how you can stand out in the market.

It was latching onto the idea of the ‘rebel’ that unlocked the brand identity behind Rise Audit, for example. It’s disruptive, almost aggressive in tone, and so established itself as really distinctive. It won’t be for everyone but those who like it will really love it.

UK Landlord Tax, on the other hand, is much more the everyman. It speaks in plain English and presents itself as a practical, easy-to-use service. There’s also a bit of the ruler mixed in there – don’t worry, we’ve got this under control.

Finally, look at Diamond Accounts. It’s based around the idea of the outlaw and the caregiver – a really nice combination. That gave Mark the confidence to do something edgier with the graphic design and helped Ray land on a tone of voice that’s both challenging and supportive.

They can also be useful in getting partners on the same page. It can be quite revealing – like therapy! – when a group of accountants admit to each other that each had a different idea of what the firm was about. By discussing, debating and deciding, you can end up with a more coherent shared vision, which is the bedrock of a strong brand.

Win more clients by working with Alex to define your firm’s unique identity with a brand strategy workshop.

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