The Catalyst (Archetypes #6)

Dec 15 2012

“You’re familiar with the phrase ‘Man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie. Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve. The only limits on scientific progress are those imposed by society. The first time I changed the world, I was hailed as a visionary. The second time I was asked politely to retire. The world only tolerates one change at a time. And so here I am. Enjoying my “retirement”. Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier, what you want is simply expensive.”  – spoken by Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006)

“To be a catalyst is the ambition most appropriate for those who see the world as being in constant change, and who, without thinking that they can control it, wish to influence its direction.”  – Theodore Zeldin

Although Martim Luther and Martin Luther King Jr were separated by almost 500 years, they shared more than their names. Both were catalysts in their own ways, making big changes happen. They both transformed society and culture in hugely significant ways, the former inspiring the Reformation and having a huge influence on Protestant and Lutheran teaching, the latter a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a civil rights activist which transformed America. As Martin Luther King Jr said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Although  both men were Idealists (the subject of a future article), they made their impact as Catalysts of change, reaching the highest levels of actuation of this archetype.

Several brands have used the Catalyst archetype, with perhaps Mastercard the best known, with their “Priceless” campaign, which has successfully over time connected many ‘priceless’ moments to the brand, and also distancing the brand from the reality of the product. It communicates the magical quality of using a credit card to obtain instant satisfaction, while forgetting that you will eventually have to pay a bill. It also very cleverly recognises the ambivalence that many have towards the more materialistic aspects of modern culture, by letting their customers appreciate that their is more to life than money and consumption (the ‘priceless’ moments are always free).

Catalysts want to understand he fundamental laws of the universe, and to harness this knowledge to make dreams come true. Their greatest virtue is the ability to transform situations, although when this power is abused, it turns into the vice of manipulation.

The Catalyst archetype also appears as the Sorcerer, Shaman, Healer, Witch/Wizard, Magician and Visionary. Harry Potter is an instant hit with kids today in the same way that watching The Wizard of Oz or Mary Poppins and reading The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings and The Sword in the Stone (the King Arthur and Merlin story) were when I was growing up. (And I love the modern take on Merlin too). Merlin looks into his crystal ball to see the future of Camelot, has a vision for a peaceful and just society, developing his own talents and using magical objects to help achieve those goals (such as the round table, Excalibur and the Grail).

The Latin American novels of magical realism have developed this tradition too (watch Like Water for Chocolate) as has the modern interest in more metaphysical ideas (especially in science fiction).

The Catalyst is all about transformation, whether the change is physical, mental or spiritual. The Catalyst achieves this by harnessing their knowledge and energy to bring change to the world.

The Catalyst is intuitive, masterful, confident, magical, charismatic, transformative, turns visions into reality, values metaphysical solutions and expands consciousness. Prospero in The Tempest and Gandalf in The Hobbit (which I will watch tomorrow) and The Lord of the Rings play this role, in helping the real hero of the story achieve their goals by changing situations in positive ways. You can think of Montgomery Scott (better known as “Scotty”), the engineer in Star Trek, who could always fix a problem or make the Enterprise fly faster than it should, or R2D2 in Star Wars, who was the robot catalyst who would always open the locked door or switch off the tractor beam so Luke could escape the Death Star. [He was teamed up with an Idealist robot – there may be a pattern here.]

The Catalyst is a great archetype for a brand (product or service) which is inherently transformative, is consciousness expanding, user friendly or has spiritual connotations. It is also appropriate for new-age brands and very new and contemporary products. Brands should always beware of the danger of not delivering on the promise of transformation.

Many other brands have used the Catalyst with varying degrees of success, including Smirnoff, Axe, DuPont and Disney (which mixes the Catalyst with the Idealist as in the examples of Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr).

DuPont’s slogan is “The miracles of science”, focusing on the power of technology to transform lives (a very modern reading of the Catalyst, and they have also used the tag line “dreams made real”. One of the older manifestations of the Catalyst is as the Healer, Shaman or Medicine Man or woman, and now we have miracle drugs.

In a very different way, Smirnoff focus on the ability of their brand to transform any situation, visualising this through the prism of the clear bottle of vodka (notice the emphasis on purity which yet again teams the Catalyst with the Idealist).

A final and slightly different example is the way that Axe (or Lynx in some markets) use the Catalyst archetype to communicate the brand’s ability to transform interactions with the opposite sex!

The Catalyst is highly intuitive, relying on instinct or even extrasensory perception to provide the hunches which trigger actions for change. At the most basic level Catalysts provide magical moments and experiences, but at more advanced levels can fulfil the feeling of being in the moment and ultimately can help the development from vision to actualisation (providing miracles).

If your brand helps provide magical moments, or even transform lives, the the Catalyst could be the archetype for you. Just be sure that you can always deliver on your magical promise.


The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero and the Outlaw by Margaret Mark & Carol Pearson

Brand Meaning by Mark Batey

2 responses so far

  1. Could you please tell me where this image 124976013.jpg came from? And, possibly, who it is? For some reason, it has me intrigued…
    Brian (aka a catalyst for change)

  2. Brian

    This is a stock image and posed picture. I don’t know who the person is.

    Thanks for reading,


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