If you Build It, They Will Come: Brand Tribalism

IMG_1207Even though “brand tribalism” is a term that’s bandied about, few businesses understand what it is besides “something we need to get.” In this article, we’ll explore a definition, purpose, and implementation of brand tribalism.

In a traditional marketing paradigm, using a top-down approach, a producer creates a good or service and informs the consumer about its attributes. If the consumer finds those attributes attractive, the consumer uses the product. Tribal branding is focused on a new kind of consumer—one that isn’t a consumer, but a prosumer, helping to form the direction for demand and innovation rather than absorbing the new direction created by the producer. Think about companies like Lululemon, Urban Outfitters, and Harley Davidson—the relationship between consumer and producer control of identity is extremely fuzzy and cyclical. This can, indeed, backfire at times depending on your market; however, with careful planning and an open, engaging line of communication, you can work with your market to build something stronger. Establishing this line of communication is a crucial step in implementing a tribal branding strategy.

Additionally, product attributes aren’t as relevant a selling point to new companies as the new angle is no longer, “what does this product do for me?” but, rather, “how does this product affect my role in my tribe?” Marketing that isn’t product-driven is a hard idea to sell to most producers; however, it is not merely a short-term trend. Investing the time and making necessary changes to rally your tribe will ensure stability and good customer relations in the long run.

One of the strongest reasons to use tribal branding strategies is the extreme loyalty. One of Michel Maffesoli’s sociological criterion for a tribe is ethnocentricity which is best explained, in the business context, as an “Us vs. Them” mentality. For example, a small investment in giving limited edition, high-quality branded material to your supporters can help promote a clan ideology and even court others to your cause, showing your loyalty to those who help you. Building a relationship is a key step in marketing “ethnocentrism.” Once a tribe rises up in defense of your brand, there is very little that other competitors can do to court them away. Additionally, members of your tribe will essentially pick up where you leave off in marketing. The person-to-person nature of tribal marketing is its greatest strength, but therein lies its greatest challenge.

A key factor of all tribes is the lack of united management or administration of the tribe. It is self-governing and, therefore, must be organic. This is the trickiest part of brand tribalism—you can’t create a tribe, you can only jumpstart it and see what happens. One of the most overlooked steps to inculcate the spirit of a tribe in your brand include is to show that you are committed to their community. You can do this through striving for ethical business practices and encouraging a culture of volunteering within your business.

This will also help fulfill another criterion of Maffesoli’s features of tribal identity—sharing and advancing goals. A tribe, although primarily devoted to its members, unites around a concept; apply this feature of a tribe to your strategy by carefully thinking about your audience. What are the ideas they support and the values they have? This is nothing new in marketing, but rather than thinking about how your product can help achieve those goals, think about how your company can help further resolution on those issues.

Hopefully this exploration of brand tribalism will give you some launching off points—building an open line of communication, providing for your tribe, and getting actively involved in your tribe’s interests—for rallying members to your group. What have been your experiences or observations on tribal branding? What has been successful and what hasn’t?

Allysia Lowe is a master’s student studying digital marketing. When she isn’t prowling the internet for new marketing methodology, you can find her digging through cookbooks.


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