In Consideration of Archetypes (In Reverse)
One of my most formative business experiences was learning how Folger's discovered the “code” for coffee (Home, as in“ Mom’s in the kitchen, all’s right with the world”) and the “cue” (aroma). Cool enough. But the Great Aha! was the discovery that this code/cue, or Archetype, was most powerful when it was reversed, as witness the staying power of that perennial Christmas season ad: The son coming home on military leave, sneaking into the house, starting the Folger's brewing; the mother waking up to the smell and says “He’s home.”
I was reminded of the profound business (and more) impact of archetype reversal this week through several news stories.
First up, the amazing sales of Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. If there’s a stronger fictional archetype than Atticus Finch, I can’t think of one. So many boys named for him over the past half-century. A staple of school reading lists. Atticus has prevailed in our minds and imaginations, the exemplar of the Good and Decent Man.
And now he is reversed.
And now Harper-Collins has the fastest-selling book of this year and arguably many years.
I think too of Bill Cosby. Surely an archetype reversal. The marketing power of this moment may accrue mostly to tabloids and entertainment news, but the blow to our certainty about his meaning in our culture is undeniable.
And, of course, there’s Donald Trump’s attempt to reverse John McCain’s War Hero archetype. It remains to be seen if it damages Donald’s brand. Pretty certain it doesn’t impact McCain’s reputation at all.
What’s clear is that archetype reversal carries an outsized wallop. Perhaps a bit of its impact is embedded in the “man bites dog” notion of news. But it’s more than that. Brands like Folger's upend the category archetype and become imbedded in the culture. I’m thinking what matters most is who does the upending. Who is in charge of the reversal?
Harper Lee’s cultural footprint and sales are reinvigorated by a version of her story she told first and published last. Surely the timing is just; certainly she is the architect.
Bill Cosby’s standing has been reversed, indisputably not on his own terms, by those who feel themselves his victims and by a judge who was angered by Cosby’s betrayal of his one-time cultural identity as Fair, Funny and Benevolent Father.
John McCain’s status remains intact and perhaps enhanced, most probably because the attacker has not earned the right to comment.
Note to culturally resonant Brands: Own your archetype. Consider the business potential of its reversal.