Four Rules for Creating User Archetypes


By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

Every so often, one runs into a marvelous confluence of avocation and vocation. I love cars. So, I was reading the blog at Car and Driver and discovered a long discussion of the stagnation of the Honda brand. Cars AND marketing. I couldn't resist. Toward the end of the piece, Dave Marble described an example of how Honda got in the position of creating underwhelming products.

"The [Honda planning] department concocts customer abstracts so interchangeable business drones can comprehend the intent of a new vehicle. In the case of the first-generation RDX, this abstract was "Jason," a young, upwardly mobile, urban-residing male that needed a turbocharged engine, "Super Handling All-Wheel Drive," and room to transport all his lifestyle accouterments. Yeah, okay. As it turned out, there weren't many "Jasons" buying the RDX. Planning got that part wrong--really wrong."

I was sympathetic. It reminded me so much of the experience shared by many qualitative researchers of being asked to assemble a focus group composed of members of a specific customer segment (usually the product of a very sophisticated segmentation analysis) only to discover that the particular combination of demographics, psychographics, and behavior apparently does not exist in the real world.

But, I also know that user archetypes can be incredibly valuable. I have helped develop some. They focus the minds of marketers and new product developers. You may not be able to have an actual customer with you 24/7, but you can have the user archetype of your product taped above your desk.

So, here are four guidelines for creating user archetypes that work.


  • Make sure that "real users" drive the process. Accurate user archetypes are based on close observation of real users -- their needs, their wants, their behavior. This may seem self-evident, but I suspect that the "Jason" had his genesis not in the lives of real car buyers but out of the need or desire on the part of Honda to assure that the RDX was true to their vision of the Acura nameplate and that the RDX was clearly distinguished from the similar Honda CR-V. To convince themselves that a member of their vehicle portfolio was distinct, they created a "vision" of its buyer that was also distinct, and self-fulfilling. And, evidently, inaccurate.

  • Recognize the difference between real and aspirational users. For marketers, their products have two kinds of users -- the real flesh and blood user and the person the real user aspires to be by using the product. Understanding both users is crucial to marketers, but confusing them can cause problems. For example, the media behaviors of real and aspirational users can be different. Building a media plan on the tastes of the aspirational user may not reach the real target. Again, Honda may have erred in this direction. Jason seems much more like someone to whom an RDX user might aspire.

  • Recognize the difference between a user personality and a brand personality. The marketers or new product developers often have two touchstones to guide their efforts -- the brand personality and the user personality. I have known brand managers with two different types of consumer-created collages in their offices. One collected images of users and what the stood for; the other revealed images of the brand's personality. There can be overlap between the two, but there is rarely identity. A car, such as a compact SUV like the RDX, might well have the personality of a magician which enables the user to have the personality of a superhero.

  • Be "real" yourself. Do not overly idealize your user. He may have flaws, but these flaws may be essential to how he or she relates to your product.

Ultimately, take your user archetype out for a test drive. Once you have created the archetype, see if you can actually find real representatives. Talk to them; listen to them. Does the archetype resonate with them? Remember, the archetype is a construct to guide your actions, so they are unlikely to play it back literally and verbatim. But, if the archetype is well constructed, it should reflect their needs, desires, hopes, and fears.

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