The Pitfalls of Archetypal Research: The Hero and The Outlaw (Book Review)

The Hero and the Outlaw is an introduction to the world of archetypal research as it is used in market research circles. It's a much more interesting read than most business books, and in this sense I can recommend it. On the other hand, most business books seem explicitly designed to bore their readers to death, and a recommendation in that context is really more like an insult.

The problem with the ideas presented in The Hero and The Outlaw are the same problems that plague archetypal research in general. The authors take the business leader or market research analysts to the door that opens the possibilities for psychologically informed marketing strategies, but they never actually open the door. Instead, they just make vague descriptions of their guesses about what might exist on the other side.

On Consumer Motivation and Archetypes

It's important for the reader of this book to understand that consumer motivation operates simultaneously at many levels. Just as the pyramids in Egypt stood halfway buried in sand with only their tops visible for centuries, so too the foundations of consumer motivation are usually hidden from casual observation. Most of the time, only the concrete attributes of consumer behavior and the rational needs that appear to motivate the behavior are visible to business decision makers. Many assume that those two top levels of motivation are all that exist.

Other decision makers perceive the inconsistencies between consumers concrete behavior and the rational needs that they say motivate that behavior. They search for a level of deeper meaning in an attempt to make sense of the inconsistencies of purely rational explanations of consumer behavior.

Using the tools of symbolic research, they dig down to discover the level of archetypes.

Archetypes are metaphors that liken the complicated behavior of consumers to other forms of behavior or things that are believed to be simpler and thus easier to understand. For example, the results of a symbolic research project on automotive brands could include the finding that one automotive brand is like horse, whereas another brand is like a rhinoceros. Another project might be concluded with the assignment of different products or brands to particular archetypes, such as The Hero, The Fool, or The Caregiver.

Such metaphors are useful to the extent that they unite disparate concrete consumer behaviors and rational motivators into a single idea. They also encourage decision makers to go beyond traditional explanations for consumer behavior and give creative teams imagery to work with.

On the other hand, as metaphors, archetypes do not actually extend understanding very far beyond the level of concrete behavior and rational motivation. Archetypes and other symbolic characterizations are ultimately just new ways to talk about what business decision makers already know about their products and brands. In the example given above, for example, the knowledge that a certain brand of car is like a rhinoceros would be based upon the concrete perceptions of consumers that the car is big, tough and reliable yet lacks fine maneuverability. Such information about consumers' concrete perceptions can be readily measured by traditional market research. In this sense, archetypal research merely adds a symbolic name to what is already known.

Archetypal research is also problematic in that the metaphors it produces are limited in the extent of their accuracy. Metaphors are easily misunderstood and stretched beyond credibility when they are not supported with a thorough familiarity with the deeper psychological dynamics that give them their true power. For example, some cars may well be like rhinoceroses in that they are big, tough, reliable and hard to maneuver, but rhinoceroses are unlike any car in many ways as well. Rhinoceroses live exclusively in the plains and forests of Africa and Asia. In America, Rhinoceroses are kept in small cages to be looked at but never touched. Rhinoceroses have fine hair all over their wrinkled bodies, breed with each other, feed their young milk, eat grass and leave big messes behind them wherever they go. Rhinoceroses are close to becoming extinct because their habitat has been greatly reduced in the last century. An automotive corporation might think that it understands the meaning of the rhinoceros metaphor for its brand, but chances are the original meaning of the metaphor will be forgotten as it is interpreted and applied more literally with the passage of time.

Furthermore, a metaphor, archetype or any other kind of symbolic attribute is static because it merely describes what already is. Archetypical research does not inform a company about how to identify opportunities for growth that will occur in the future because its findings are rooted in the present.

Most importantly, archetypal research does not possess a theoretical framework capable of explaining the metaphors it identifies. Archetypal research may say that Coca Cola is the father figure of cola brands, but it cannot explain what causes this association to take place. Archetypal researchers may say that the ESPN cable channel appeals to the hero archetype, but they cannot explain why it does. That is to say, they cannot tell what psychological factors underlie the metaphor of The Hero in the case of ESPN. Therefore, they will be unable to provide any practical advice to ESPN other than to follow the model of the Hero archetype without understanding why they should do so.

The Shallow End of the Deep End

Don't get me wrong. Archetypal research of the sort that is promoted through books like The Hero and The Outlaw add some desperately needed depth to the superficiality of traditional market research. The trouble is that archetypes are not psychological deep enough. Even at the end of The Hero and The Outlaw, the reader is left with the sense that great depths exist without understanding what actually lives at those depths.

Archetypes exist at the border between the rational and the profoundly emotional. They represent the entry into the realm of ultimate psychological motivation, but are not deeply psychological themselves. Read The Hero and The Outlaw as an introduction to the realm of strategy beyond the flip wisdom of market segmentation and focus groups, if you like. Just don't believe the hype presented by the authors, who would like you to believe that the archetypes are as deep as marketing analysis can get.
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