With declining trust in traditional institutions, people today are increasingly using brands and consumption to express their identity and signal their values. Tribes come together under what they imagine are a shared set of values or emotions. An astute marketer can often help the tribe to link those shared values or emotions to its brand and its products or services.
The first step is to understand what the group values, what its rituals are and how people in the group behave when they are together. It is also important to understand how the tribe views the world and their place in it. This includes uncovering their beliefs and their hopes, fears, anxieties and aspirations. This requires intense ethnographic research – interviews, observation, and even spending significant time interacting with the group. From this, you discern patterns. Once you have refined and validated the group patterns, you can then determine how your brand might be able to link to or reinforce one or more of those patterns.
Brands that have the potential to become tribal brands (or that already are tribal brands) include Harley-Davidson, FOX News, Patagonia, Star Trek, Tesla Motors and MINI Cooper. It is important for people not only to have shared values and an intense interest in using the brand to signal those values, but also to seek each other out and share at least some aspect of the brand experience with each other.
Harley-Davidson is all about the experience of freedom of the road and comradeship of kindred spirits. FOX News is for people who share a very specific conservative view of the world and of how they would like to see the US operate as a nation. Patagonia is for people who really care about maintaining a healthy environment and who are passionate about the outdoor recreation that occurs in that environment.
People use brands as badges, but more importantly, some people are connecting with brands in ways that they traditionally would have with their churches or hometowns or alma maters. The brands are important signals to their identities but are also components of their shared activities and social lives.
An important aspect of tribal branding is co-creation. Once your brand becomes tribal, you lose some element of control over your brand. You can suggest brand usage or rituals, but it will be up to the tribe to decide if those uses or rituals make sense to them.
Some brands are well on their way to going tribal in unexpected ways. Burberry was a conservative luxury brand with a country feel. Various sources talk about the brand being taken over by “chavs” and “chavettes.” It all started when people traveling for football games liked the clothing they saw the locals wear and adopted them for themselves. Similarly, rappers and hip-hop artists have adopted the Helly Hanson brand.
The bottom line is that consumers are now using brands not only to signal their identities and shared values, but (with the help of astute marketers) also as a sign of tribal membership and as an integral part of the tribe’s activities and rituals.