Archetypes are patterns
It is at the overlap of differentiation, clarity of messaging and team alignment where tone of voice comes into play. Archetypes are most often used in marketing to clarify and differentiate the external articulation (sometimes called “the brand”) of an organization. At Forma, we have gone far beyond using archetypes for external articulation only. In addition to using archetypes for differentiating (from competitors) and clarifying (messages), we’ve learned that archetypes are incredibly powerful tools for aligning internal teams and improving their performance.

It is at the overlap of all these areas—differentiation, clarity of messaging, and alignment of teams—where tone of voice comes into play. Remember, archetypes are expressed in many ways; one of the most important is through tone of voice.

Figure 1. Archetypes contribute to three key marketing functions: differentiation, clarification of messages and alignment of employees and teams. As we’ll see, tone of voice is a key component of an archetype.

To understand archetypes, first understand that they are patterns.
As I’ve mentioned before, archetypes are patterns that we all carry in our heads. There are thousands of these patterns, planted there by our culture. Each pattern has three main components: the label, the attributes and examples. See Figure 2.

Figure 2. There are at least three components to any archetype. The main ones are shown here: the label, the behavioral attributes and examples.

To understand archetypes, first understand that they are patterns, with a label, some examples and a set of attributes (including tone of voice).One important attribute of any archetype is tone of voice, which is one part of the behavioral attributes. Just as a Detective behaves differently than a Lover, so too, will they communicate differently.

Why pay so much attention to tone of voice? As I’ve pointed out in previous issues, tone of voice represents an underutilized implement in the marketing toolkit. It offers many benefits, including augmenting the differentiation between you and your competitors.

Before we get too deep into tone of voice, I’ll first examine the archetypal patterns in greater detail, and look at the results of some research about the self-reinforcing nature of these patterns. Then we’ll be ready to discuss tone of voice as part of the pattern and reveal why, if you’re going to add tone of voice to your marketing toolkit, consistency is so important.

Archetypes are highly efficient marketing tools.
My hypothesis is that archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns. If this hypothesis is true, it means that archetypes are incredibly efficient as marketing tools.

Figure 3. Your audiences’ ability to match patterns is not limited to archetypal patterns. Letterforms are patterns, aren’t they, ones we’ve all learned to recognize? Our pattern matching ability—our desire to look for and recognize patterns—ensures that we’ll take incomplete information, look for the pattern embedded within, complete the pattern on our own, and get meaning from it. The same thing happens with archetypes.

The proper use of archetypes allows us to harness our audiences’ pattern matching ability.If we incorporate an archetypal pattern into our marketing, and if it is recognized by our audiences, they will “complete the pattern” (just as you completed the pattern of the incomplete letterforms shown above). As they do so, they will ascribe to us other attributes that are part of the pattern. Since our audiences are filling out the entire pattern on our behalf, it’s as if we sent them the entire pattern. In other words, we can harness our audiences’ pattern-matching ability to help them lodge in their heads the attributes that we want them to associate with us.

The proper use of archetypes helps our audiences do some of our marketing work for us. This makes archetypes incredibly efficient. But this only works if archetypes are really self-reinforcing patterns. The primary question then is this: are they?

Hypothesis: Archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns.
The research projects I’ve conducted on archetypes, a few of which I discussed in the last issue illuminate the idea that archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns. My hypothesis is that this reinforcement happens in three ways (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns. My hypothesis is that this reinforcement happens in three ways. The presence of the some of the attributes brings to mind other attributes (A), the presence of attributes brings to mind the label (B), and the presence of the label brings to mind some of the attributes (C). Each reinforces the other. Each of these mechanisms happens independently, that is, people don’t have to start at A; they could start at C, or B. The question is: is this hypothesis correct?

Archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns: attributes reinforce attributes.
One way that archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns: attributes reinforce attributes.The presence of some attributes brings to mind other attributes. When people see specific behaviors and attributes reminiscent of a particular archetype, they’ll expect to see other behaviors and attributes that are consistent with the archetypes that contain those attributes. In other words, if people see behavior that lines up with the Detective (e.g., inquisitive, smart, curious, detailed), they’ll expect to see other behaviors consistent with that particular pattern (for example, observant, persistent, analytical, attentive and nosy). In fact, they’ll go looking for these other attributes. It’s as if the presence of part of the pattern predisposes them to look for the rest of the pattern.

This first mode of reinforcement consists of “attributes reinforcing attributes.” The presence of part of the pattern (some attributes) brings to mind additional parts of the pattern (additional attributes). See arrow A in Figure 4.

Archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns: attributes reinforce label.
One way that archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns: attributes reinforce the label.Second, the presence of attributes is associated with the label of the archetype. When people see specific behaviors and attributes reminiscent of a particular archetype, they’ll associate those with a label—the name of the archetype. In other words, if people see specific behaviors (e.g., curious, smart, detailed), they can identify words that labels this behavior, including Detective.

This second mode of reinforcement consists of “attributes reinforcing the label.” The presence of part of the pattern (some attributes) brings to mind the label of the pattern. See arrow B in Figure 4.

Archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns: label reinforces attributes.
One way that archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns: the label reinforces the attributes.Third, the presence of the label brings to mind the attributes and behaviors of the archetype. People associate the name (label) of the archetype with a set of particular behaviors and attributes. In other words, if people see the word Detective, they’ll expect certain behaviors and attributes that align in their mind with that pattern.

This third mode of reinforcement consists of “a label reinforcing the attributes.” The presence of the label brings to mind specific attributes and behaviors. See arrow C in Figure 4.

Let’s test the hypothesis that archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns.
This three-part hypothesis is easily testable. I’ve conducted surveys with US adults to answer the following questions.

  1. If respondents are shown a part of an archetypal pattern, will they correctly identify other parts of the pattern?
  2. If respondents are shown a (part of the) archetypal pattern, will they be able to correctly label the pattern?
  3. If respondents are given the archetypal label, will they be able to correctly identify parts of the pattern?

Spoiler alert: All three parts of this hypotheses are confirmed by the research projects I’ve conducted. People are good at pattern matching, and they recognize the patterns related to archetypes. This has powerful implications for marketing, which I’ll talk about in a bit. First, let’s look at the experiments I conducted to test my three-part hypothesis.

Experiment 1: If respondents are shown part of the pattern, will they correctly identify other parts of the pattern?
I surveyed 100 US adults, aged 25 and older. I asked this question:
Imagine someone displays these personal characteristics: discipline, courage, goal-oriented, strength, and agility. What other characteristics would you expect? Please select all that apply: 

  • Sense of wonder
  • Persistence
  • Ability to make others laugh and cry
  • Appetite for pleasure 
  • Honor
  • None

The characteristics listed in the question are those typically associated with archetypes from the Hero family. The possible answers were chosen from several families:

  • Sense of wonder (Innocent family)
  • Persistence (Hero family)
  • Ability to make others laugh and cry (Jester family)
  • Appetite for pleasure (Lover family)
  • Honor (Hero family)

(In this experiment, as in all those that I discuss in this issue, respondents were presented the possible answers in random order—to remove any possible bias related to position or order of presentation.)

Archetypes and families of archetypes often share attributes, in a process I call “blurring” or “overlap.”Please note that these attributes are not limited to these families. To give you two specific examples, honor is also an attribute present in the Sovereign family, and many of the specific members of that family, such as the Ruler and Patriarch. A sense of wonder is an attribute that can also be found in the members of the Creator and Explorer families.

Archetypes and archetype families will often share attributes, in a process I call “blurring” or “overlap.” I’ll speak more about the importance of this to marketing in a subsequent issue. For now, let’s find out whether my hypothesis is supported by the results of the experiment. Are archetype patterns really self-reinforcing?

Hypothesis confirmed: pattern reinforces pattern.
The results are clear: the respondents choose the other attributes associated with the Hero family to a much greater extent than they chose attributes from other families.

Figure 5. If respondents are shown part of the pattern of attributes for the Hero, will they correctly identify additional attributes from the pattern known as the Hero? Yes.

The conclusion is clear: archetypal patterns are self-reinforcing.

Experiment 2: If respondents are shown part of the pattern, will they correctly identify the name of the archetype?
I surveyed 100 US adults, aged 25 and older. I asked this question:
Imagine someone displays these personal characteristics: discipline, courage, goal-oriented, strength, and agility. Pick the one word that would best describe them.

  • Clown
  • Romantic
  • Dreamer
  • Warrior
  • Athlete
  • None of the above

Both the Warrior and the Athlete are part of the Hero family, and share the characteristics listed in the question. If archetypal patterns are self-reinforcing in the way I believe, then the labels Warrior and Athlete should be chosen more frequently.

Hypothesis confirmed: attributes reinforce the label.
The results are clear: the respondents choose the names associated with the Hero family to a much greater extent than they chose names from other families.

Figure 6. If respondents are shown part of the pattern of attributes for the Hero, will they correctly identify a label associated with this pattern of attributes? Yes.

The conclusion is clear: archetypal patterns are self-reinforcing.

It’s worth noting that this experiment reveals the “blurring” I spoke about earlier. Both the Warrior and the Athlete share many characteristics, and respondents chose almost equally the labels that share these attributes.

Experiment 3: If respondents are shown the label, will they correctly identify the attributes of the archetype?
I surveyed 1500 US adults, aged 18 and older, asking this question:
What attributes (positive personality traits, negative personality traits or other characteristics) would you associate with a person who is a detective?

This was an open-ended question. Not surprisingly, I got quite a few nonsense or scatological answers. After removing these, the results are plotted in the word cloud shown below.

Figure 7. This word cloud shows some of the answers to the question: What attributes would you associate with a person who is a detective? The most common answers are shown here.

Hypothesis confirmed: attributes reinforce the label.
Given only the label of an archetype, respondents most often provided attributes consistent with this label.

The conclusion is clear: archetypal patterns are self-reinforcing.

What’s happening in our brains?
Our brains are built to see patterns; it’s the result of evolution. There are many names for this tendency: pattern matching is one. “Patternicity” is another—a term coined by Michael Shermer in 2008.

This overwhelming tendency to seek and identify patterns is a positive feature—at a very basic level, it allows animals to survive: “Is that the shadow of a lion? I should be careful.”

Our brains are hard-wired for pattern recognition. Archetypes are patterns, which means that our brains are hard-wired to recognize them.But the best evidence of the overwhelming desire of our brains to find and identify patterns comes from those times where pattern matching is not a feature, but a bug. This occurs so often that it’s been given many names. Pareidolia is one. Apophenia is another—the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things, like seeing the shape of an elephant in the clouds or the face of the Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich. We’ve all got apophenia/pareidolia, to some degree.

Figure 8. We’ve all got apophenia or pareidolia, to some degree. Do you see the face of the Virgin Mary in this grilled cheese sandwich?

Examples of pattern matching abound. In science, a Type 1 error is a false positive, and can be an example of our brains’ desire to find and complete patterns, even where they don’t exist. The Gambler’s Fallacy (in which a gambler believes that if a random event has happened more frequently in a given period, it will happen less frequently in the future) is a classic example of our tendency to seek and find patterns. The “hot hand” in basketball (the belief that if a player has made several shots in a row, s/he is more likely to make the next shot) was shown to be a fallacy by a 1985 paper by Amos Tversky, T. Gilovich and R. Vallone. And then was refuted (as was pointed out to me by my brilliant editor) in a more recent paper. Whether the statistics bear out fact that the pattern of a hot hand exists or not—and frankly, academia has not yet settled the question—the important point is that we are innately all predisposed to believe the pattern exists.

These examples are proof that the desire to find patterns is so strong that it convinces us that patterns exist, even when they might not. Archetypes are patterns. We can harness our audience’s patternicity to help our own marketing efforts. If we do it carefully.

What does this mean for tone of voice (in particular) and life science marketing (in general)?
Once we recognize part of an archetypal pattern, we’ll complete it on our own.Since the experiments I’ve discussed in this issue bolster the idea that archetypes are self-reinforcing patterns, what does this mean for marketing? There are some clear implications.

First, archetypes, when used well, are incredibly powerful and efficient marketing tools.

Let’s break this down. Archetypes are patterns. Our brains want to find, identify and complete patterns—everywhere, all the time. Which means our brains are hard-wired to find, identify and complete patterns, including archetypal patterns. We don’t have to send the entire pattern for our audiences to receive and interpret the pattern. They’ll perceive some of the pattern, and fill in the rest on their own, as I showed with the first experiment described above.

The fact that audiences will complete the pattern on their own implies that archetypes are incredibly efficient. As I’ve been saying for years, harnessing archetypal patterns helps us enlist our audiences to do our marketing work for us. (And as an aside, how great is that, eh?)

Figure 9. Archetypes stimulate our audience’s patternicity instincts, compelling them to complete some of our marketing work for us. If they see and identify part of the pattern we’re sending, they’ll complete the rest of it on their own (even if we haven’t sent the entire pattern). If we harness this mechanism adroitly, they’ll ascribe to us the personality traits we desire. And so we can have significant influence over their impression of our “brand.”

Archetypes are very efficient, very powerful marketing tools. You can harness them to differentiate your offering, drive consistency in your marketing efforts, create resonance with audiences, align your internal team, improve their performance, and even increase your profitability.

What’s not to like?

One of the most important tools? Tone of voice.
Your audiences will examine every touchpoint as they look for clues that will help them identify patterns. One of the most powerful clues is tone of voice. Why?

Well, for one, it’s so subtle. Audiences are incredibly sophisticated consumers of communication. And yet tone of voice will sneak in, almost undetected.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s omnipresent. Tone of voice, if it’s consistently expressed, shows up everywhere in your marketing communications.

The hidden pitfall—inconsistency.
Achieving all these amazing and powerful benefits begins with a pattern—a pattern that can be recognized by an audience. But it’s easy to destroy all these benefits by not being clear and consistent in communicating the pattern.

Consistency is crucial, particularly with tone of voice.

In fact, consistency is so important that it’s the topic for my next issue.

(For those readers who remember that I wrote at the end of the last issue that consistency would be the topic for this issue, I apologize. The results of the experiments I conducted brought to light the patterns and relationships shown in Figure 4, which I needed to cover first. But I promise: consistency and archetypes will be the next topic, unless of course I get distracted by the face of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast. You see, I’m hostage to the pattern-matching tendencies that are hard-wired into my brain.)