A rookie mistake—or three.
Let me warn you about some rookie mistakes to avoid when using archetypes and tone of voice to differentiate offerings and organizations.

There are three common mistakes when using archetypes to guide your organization’s tone of voice. These three mistakes spring from a fundamental misunderstanding of the best use of archetypes. When used most effectively, archetypes reinforce your UVP (unique value proposition) from inside the organization. Your archetype colors and guides the external communication of this UVP through the tone of voice your organization uses. But the archetype isn’t the topic of the communication to external audiences.

The three common, rookie mistakes are:

  1. Sharing (or promoting) the label of your archetype to your external audiences.
  2. Sharing (or promoting) the attributes of your archetype to your external audiences.
  3. Choosing a label for your archetype that makes it harder to align your internal teams.

Rookie mistake #1: Promoting your archetype’s label to external audiences.

The first mistake is to publicly promote the label of your archetype to external audiences, as in: “Hey, everyone, we’re the Acme ScienceCorps Concierge.”The first mistake is unfortunately all-too common: promoting the label of the archetype to external audiences. I can understand the thinking here; organizations put a lot of effort into selecting an archetype, so they want to harvest this effort by communicating the label of the archetype to their external audiences, including potential customers.

This might show up in many ways; one common way is for the organization to promote publicly: “We’re the Acme ScienceCorps Mavericks” (or Concierge, or whatever label has been chosen).

This is a mistake. Your archetype’s label (Mavericks, Concierge, whatever) should be private.

Why wouldn’t we highlight that we’re the “Acme ScienceCorps Creative Caregivers” (or any other label)? There are lots of reasons. In fact, I was surprised as I started typing this list; it kept growing and growing. I’ll highlight the most important ones.

You can’t communicate the label of your archetype publicly, because the label then has to communicate very clearly and specifically the first time it’s heard.
  • The label is the least important part of the pattern. If we’re going to communicate anything to our prospects, we want them to understand our core Unique Value Proposition. This communication should have the right tone of voice, one that augments the UVP, because the tone of voice itself will communicate volumes about our approach. The most important thing to communicate is not the label of your archetype—this label can be almost anything, as long as it is memorable and meaningful to employees. The most important thing to communicate externally is your unique value, not some arbitrary label.
Your archetype’s label is the least specific part of the archetypal pattern.
  • The label is the least specific part of the pattern. As the research in a past issue revealed, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of potential attributes associated with any one archetype label. So while communicating that you’re a Citizen might help your public audience narrow down the set of potential attributes to several dozen, it’s just not very specific, so you’re wasting valuable communication bandwidth.
  • At one end of the spectrum, it sounds like boasting. This is more true with some labels than with others, but “We’re the Heroes,” “We’re a group of Sages,” “We’re the Rulers” sound like “we’re full of ourselves”—and better or more important than your own customers.
  • Your archetype’s label should be private. “We’re the Heroes” can sound like boasting.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, it can sound just plain silly: “We’re the Risk-takers,” “We are the Innocents,” “We’re the Everyman/Everywoman,” “We’re the Provocateurs.” Those are all very viable archetypes to differentiate organizations, clarify messages and align teams, but as public labels—well, do you expect to be taken seriously?
  • Requiring the label to do double-duty as part of the public messaging puts almost unbearable pressure on the label—because it is now required to communicate clearly the very first time it’s heard. This makes it hard to use a label like “The Acme ScienceCorp Clarifiers” (ironically enough) or some other useful, if hybrid, label. Don’t get me wrong; in our experience, these types of hybrid labels become incredibly powerful over time, but only for employees—those who are reminded on a daily or weekly basis of the desired attributes that are represented by the label. Your prospects don’t fall into that camp; they’re not in contact with you daily or even weekly. For those who are in constant communication, like employees, the right label can become a shorthand reference to a precise, specifically defined set of attributes. When deployed correctly internally, the label will act as a crystallization nucleus, helping your team coalesce around a specific set of behaviors. But this only happens over time. For external audiences, there is no such periodic reinforcement, which means that the label must communicate clearly the first time it’s heard. This would severely limit your choice of labels (see the third point above) and is counterproductive.
  • Contact with the label will unleash attributes in our audiences’ minds, whether you want it to or not. Archetypes are volatile compounds and must be handled with care—they require proper training and maintenance to control. And that’s just with internal audiences. For external audiences, if you’re going to reveal the label, you’ve got to go the extra mile and clearly define the attributes, because each label can unlock hundreds of potential attributes. Don’t waste marketing dollars and your prospects’ attention telling them what your archetype is; show them what attributes you want to convey by embedding those in your tone of voice and your team’s behaviors.
  • Once you communicate the label, the audience will ask themselves, “Okay, should I believe that?” Then you’d have to provide reasons to believe—support to bolster your claim. And getting the audience to pay attention to this type of marketing claim and the associated reasons to believe is much less important than getting them to pay attention to your claim of unique value, and the accompanying reasons to believe. You should put your focus on communicating the most important things (your UVP), not some minor sideshow (the label for your tone of voice).
  • If you communicate the label of your archetype publicly, it’s too easy for the audience to assume you’re talking about a mascot.
  • If you communicate your archetype’s label, it is too easy for the audience to mistake this for a mascot. This is not the intended function of an archetype. With a mascot, the label is more important than the attributes—“Go Tar Heels!” “Go Wolfpack.” “Go Blue Devils.” (An aside: While many mascots differ in shape and color, they share many other identical attributes: loyalty, teamwork, toughness, etc. Since archetypes are intended to differentiate, confusing them with a mascot with all-too-common characteristics is not helpful.) For an archetype, the attributes are much more important that the label.
  • In one sense, the label is akin to a nickname. And while nicknames can be very meaningful to a group of close friends, they often require a lot of explanation to outsiders. So too with the labels of archetypes. For employees, they come to stand for something much more meaningful than just the words would imply. But only to insiders. Outsiders require too much explanation.
  • In short, you shouldn’t promote the label of your archetype to external audiences (“We’re the Acme ScienceCorp Disruptors”). The most crucial part of your archetype’s pattern is the attributes, not the label. Don’t waste your time, or your external audience’s precious attention, communicating, promoting or focusing on the label. Your archetype’s label should be “for internal consumption only.”

    Rookie mistake #2: Promoting your archetype’s attributes to external audiences.
    Based on the list above, then, what you really want to be doing is screaming your archetype’s unique attributes in all your external communications, right? As in: “We’re the experts; we’re the careful, deliberate ones; we’re the precise ones.”

    Your archetype’s attributes should also be private, shared with internal audiences only.Well, no. If rookie mistake #1 is to publicly promote the label of your archetype, rookie mistake #2 is to publicly itemize and promote the individual attributes of your archetype. Many of the reasons I’ve given above also apply here. Go re-read that list; it applies almost verbatim.

    • Again, it can sound like boasting. “We’re the intelligent ones (we take pride in our rational, pragmatic mindset).”
    • Or it can sound just plain silly. “We take an innocent approach (where we’re always open to new experiences).”
    • If we’re going to communicate anything to our prospects, we want them to understand our core Unique Value Proposition, not some set of attributes.
    • Once you communicate the attributes, the audience ask, “Okay, should I believe that?” Then you have to provide reasons to believe—support to bolster your claim. And getting the audience to pay attention to this type of marketing claim, and the associated reasons to believe, is so much less important than getting them to pay attention to your claim of unique value, and the accompanying reasons to believe. You should put your focus on communicating the most important things, not some minor sideshow.

    The most important part of any archetypal pattern is the attributes. But these attributes are most effective as internal guides for language and behavior, not as external claims. Don’t waste your time, or your external audience’s precious attention, promoting claims like these to external audiences.

    Wait, I’m confused.

    While you shouldn’t promote the label or the attributes of your archetype publicly, you should use them to guide your external marketing. I can hear some of you asking: “Why should I take the time and trouble to define my archetype, and customize the attributes and the label, if I can’t use those in my marketing?”

    So let me clarify: You shouldn’t explicitly name (or promote) either the label or your archetype’s attributes in your external marketing. But that doesn’t mean you won’t use them to guide your external marketing. (And this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use these fully and without reservation in your internal marketing—known to many as employer branding.)

    Your label and your attributes are for your internal audiences. Your tone of voice is for your external (and internal) audiences.

    Your archetype’s label and attributes are powerful tools to align and guide internal audiences.When implemented well, your archetype—including both the label and the attributes—are incredibly powerful tools for internal use. Here at Forma we’ve gathered data from working with clients over the years which demonstrates that they can be powerful both in guiding employee action and in encouraging them to coach their peers. The result: significant increases in both employee alignment and team performance. I fully expect that we’ll find that they reduce employee attrition as well, but those data aren’t in yet.

    If you want to know more about any of the specific results we’ve achieved, please send me a note. In any event, archetypes are incredibly useful for creating internal employee engagement/alignment.

    Also note that your archetype is a very effective tool for keeping both your internal and external marketing efforts on the right track—in part by providing clear definition of your tone of voice. As I’ve said before, the more employees you have, the more varied your tone of voice tends to become, since more employees than ever are speaking for your organization on formal channels (like your web site) and informal ones (like social media). An easily remembered and clearly understood set of attributes, encapsulated in the shorthand of an archetype’s label, can help minimize the cacophony and promote consistency.

    Figure 1: The organization defines their positioning and the component parts, including (A) the Unique Value Proposition—UVP—and (B) the Archetype. This archetype is used to (C) align the entire team. The archetype and its attributes (including tone of voice, represented here by the orange color) help set the tone of voice (D) for all external communications. The touchpoints (E) embody this tone of voice. They are perceived by external audiences (F) and this helps build an image (G) in their minds. Note that the touchpoints are the dividing line between inside and outside the organization and that the archetype attributes and label are only used inside the organization, but the effect (through tone of voice) is felt outside the organization.

    Choose your UVP first, attributes second, label third.

    Choose and define your UVP, then your attributes, then your archetype’s label. Do this well and you’ve built a powerful set of tools. So, by all means, you should (first) clarify your unique value. Choose the attributes of your archetype to support and augment your UVP. Define them clearly. Then choose the label of your archetype clearly. Making these choices: the attributes and label of your archetype, all in support of your UVP, sounds simple, doesn’t it? But as I’ve written elsewhere, getting this just right is neither trivial nor quick.

    Anyway, one you’ve defined the attributes and label, use those definitions to clarify your tone of voice and steer your archetype’s implementation, teaching all your employees what the organization should sound like. You will then use this tone of voice as a platform for communicating your Unique Value Proposition to your external audiences.

    If you do this well, you’ll create an expectation in your audiences’ brains—a pattern of behavior that their confirmation bias (and your consistent behavior) will reinforce.

    But what you don’t want to do is proclaim to your external audiences either the label of your archetype or the attributes of your archetype. And this brings me to rookie mistake #3.

    Rookie mistake #3: choosing a label for your archetype that makes your job harder.
    I’ve said above that your archetype’s label is the least important part of the pattern. And I may even have said, in some circumstances, that you can name your archetype anything you want.

    Well, I’d like to amend those statements. You see, while these statements are technically true, they come with some very large caveats; ignore them at your peril.

    The label of your archetype is not as important as the attributes it represents, but it still matters. If you’ve been following along, you know that the power of archetypes comes from the patterns that are embedded in our brains. Choosing a label that unlocks the right pattern enables marketing and team-alignment efforts to be incredibly efficient. Choosing a label that doesn’t unlock the right pattern, or one that unlocks a different pattern of attributes, means that it is much more difficult to take advantage of the natural attributes that already exist.

    Four clarifying cases.
    There are four cases that clarify my point. Each of these cases involves a different relationship between these three components: your unique value, the personality attributes you want your audiences to associate with your organization, and the label of your archetype.

    Let’s explore these cases one by one. Let’s imagine that for your organization (which we’ll call Acme ScienceCorp), you’ve chosen a UVP (unique value proposition).  Let’s stipulate that Acme’s UVP is “world-class service” (and we’ll leave for another time the discussion about how ineffective a UVP this would be). You have also chosen some personality attributes to support this UVP—for example: attentive to detail, responsive, team oriented, expert, a positive outlook, etc. These are the attributes that you want your employees to exhibit, in their behavior and their tone of voice. Let’s call these the target attributes.

    To align Acme’s team, you need to train your employees in the UVP (“We’re the ones that provide world-class service”) and your target attributes (we are attentive to detail, responsive, team oriented, expert, etc.). Then, your team will use a tone of voice that embodies these attributes to communicate your unique value to your prospects.

    If you do this right, you’ll create a unified, consistent tone of voice, clarity in the marketplace, and differentiation from your competitors. In addition, you’ll see better team alignment and greater employee performance. Here at Forma, we’ve seen this over and over again.

    But for your team to stay on message and function at its best, they’ll need continued reinforcement about the target attributes. And this is where the choice of label for your archetype enters the picture.

    Case A: The label you’ve chosen for your archetype brings to mind attributes that align strongly with your target attributes and chosen UVP.
    If you choose a label that already stands for a set of attributes that has significant overlap with the target attributes you’ve selected, you’ll be reinforcing the target attributes every time you use the label.

    For example, the labels Concierge, Caregiver and Advocate all represent archetypes that have natural patterns of attributes that include many of the target attributes. Choosing one of these labels for your archetype would reinforce these target attributes every time it’s used.

    Case B: The label you’ve chosen for your archetype brings to mind attributes that align only weakly with your chosen UVP and target attributes.

    If the label of your archetype brings to mind attributes that align only weakly with the target attributes, you’ll be fighting against the natural pattern matching ability of your audiences.If you choose a label that stands for a set of attributes with only weak overlap with the target attributes you’ve selected, then every time you use the label, there will be some tension in the minds of your internal audiences.

    For example, the labels Firefighter and Warrior represent archetypes that have natural patterns of attributes that share a few of the target attributes, such as team oriented or expert. But there are other target attributes, including attentive to detail, responsive and a positive outlook, that are not the first attributes you might think of when you hear the labels Firefighter or Warrior.

    Choosing one of these labels (for example, Warrior) would necessitate that you train your employees that the word Warrior no longer stands for the traditional set of warrior attributes, but a new set of attributes.

    This can be done, but it makes your job harder. You’ll have to re-teach you employees again and again that the natural meaning of the label Warrior doesn’t completely apply inside the walls of your facility.

    While this can be done, you’ll be constantly swimming upstream.

    Case C: The label you’ve chosen for your archetype brings to mind attributes that align not at all with (or are diametrically opposed to) your chosen UVP and target attributes.
    If you choose a label that stands for a set of attributes with absolutely no overlap with the target attributes you’ve selected, then every time you use the label, there will be very significant tension in your internal audiences.

    For example, the labels Gang Member, Prima Ballerina or Evil Sorcerer represent archetypes that have natural patterns of attributes that do not share any of the target attributes.

    In this case, you have to retrain your internal audience that the label you’re using has a completely different meaning than normal. This will be almost impossible, won’t it? Training people that the label Prima Ballerina stands for team oriented, or that the label Mudfish stands for responsive and a positive outlook will be almost impossible.

    Case D. The label you’ve chosen for your archetype brings no attributes to mind.
    If you choose a label that brings to mind no attributes at all then your job will be easier than in case #3, but still difficult.

    For example, a made-up label (“We’re the Bentybanns”) has no natural associations. In this case, you’ll have to train your team that a Bentybann is naturally attentive to detail, responsive, team oriented, expert, and a positive outlook.

    Again, this is easier than case #3, but much more of a challenge than giving yourself the head start that comes with Case #1 or Case #2.

    Archetypes are powerful; choose the label, and use it, with care.
    I hope the previous cases have demonstrated the need to choose a label carefully. As much as possible, your archetype’s label should harness the natural patterns that exist in the heads of your employees.

    Archetypes are volatile compounds and require careful handling. At the same time, the benefits of using archetypes are many and varied. One of the most powerful benefits is their ability to stand for a set of attributes, and thus serve as guide to creating a coherent tone of voice.

    And that takes us back to where we started: Tone of voice can be a powerful differentiator, one that is often overlooked in the marketing toolkit. I hope this series on tone of voice in life science marketing has been useful. As always, I welcome your comments.