Tribal marketing

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By Bob Bailly

My recent posts have looked at how our evolutionary past has shaped our modern business behaviour. Recently I looked at the desire to live and work in a tribal setting –  a feeling so powerful that many of our business practices are based upon a tribe’s primitive functioning. I also looked at the notion that tribes demand strong leaders, and these leaders must inspire their followers (through fear, heredity or action). Followers must also understand and accept their roles for the tribe to be successful.

I pointed out that there were other conditions necessary for us to want to belong. Here are three I noted, with some comments about implications for modern business.

  • Tribes have a strong culture and are prone to develop and use cultural symbols.
  • Tribes develop stories, sometimes magical and sometimes mythical, that define their values.
  • Tribes have enemies, and the stronger the enemy the stronger the loyalty to the tribe.

Cultures, stories, enemies and brands

I’ve mentioned before that one of the current thinkers arguing for a tribal interpretation of modern business is Seth Godin, who has written and lectured extensively about the similarities between tribes and associations, teams, companies, brands etc. His book, “From Monologue to Dialogue – The Purple Cow,” looks extensively at how modern tribes share common values, and these are expressed by their costumes, symbols, mascots, uniforms and even the way they describe themselves.

When you think of a baseball or football team such as the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys, or consider a corporate icon such as Mickey Mouse or the red maple leaf that adorns a Canadian flag, you can see without too much trouble how these symbols anchor and exploit the core values of their tribe members – owners, customers and citizens alike.

For Yankees baseball fans, their symbol is the fabled intertwined NY logo. They value winners. And they do win. They have won 27 world championships and the stories of the team and its players fill untold volumes of books. Their heros are revered in a memorial to themselves ­called “Monument Park” visible at field level. They have a stadium named after themselves. (By naming it Yankee Stadium, the team is perhaps one of the only modern major sport franchises that is in effect its own corporate sponsor.) Their symbols include the pinstripe jerseys they wear with no names on them. As part of their culture, they play Frank Sinatra’s version of New York, New York following every home game. Fans feel obliged to jeer at their arch enemies – Boston Red Sox fans – at any opportunity with a “Red Sox Suck!” taunt.  And their legions of fans are distributed world wide – sometimes outnumbering hometown followers when the Yankees are on the road.

No different than the banners of ancient kingdoms or the war paint of aboriginal warriors, we use symbols to indicate our tribal loyalty. Consider the tattoos and colours of a biker gang, the cheese heads worn by Green Bay Packers fans, or the logos on our shoes and shirts – tribes are naturally forming and they love to create and use artifacts, devices and symbols to represent who they are and what they stand for. Tribal warpaint or an Apple with a bite out it – same thing really. Brands in effect are the modern manifestation of our desire to represent our tribal values through symbols, stories and culture.

A key factor in looking at tribes is that they know what they do. Their culture is defined by their values and they will display symbols to demonstrate that they belong. Some obvious tribes of interest include churches, businesses, community associations, sports teams and political parties. In a sense, any special interest can also be considered a tribe.

Hells Angels a tribe? Hell yes. Terrorist cells? Of course they are, just badly aimed for the rest of us. It’s like the distinction between a cult and a religion. (A cynic once said that a cult is a religion without any power.) They are indeed one of the same – tribes are an association of like minds.

Implications for modern times

So what should we make of these modern tribes? In a paper published in 2002, Bernard and Veronique Cova put together an argument for considering a tribal model when looking at specific business practices such as marketing. “People are ‘re-rooting” because of progress,” the Covas write. “But our observations indicate they are seeking shared emotions, and, to use an anthropological term, are exhibiting classic values associated with tribalism – local sense of identification, religiosity, and collective behaviour that is replacing kinship, lineage and other blood-related attributes. The link is around non-rational and traditionally archaic elements – loyalty, kinship, emotion and passion.”

However, the Covas point out postmodern tribes differ from archaic tribes (such as aboriginal groups) because:

  • They are ephemeral and non totalizing groupings. Archaic tribes were permanent and totalizing;
  • A person can belong to several postmodern tribes. In an archaic tribe a person could only belong to one tribe; and
  • The boundaries of a postmodern tribe are conceptual. They were physical in archaic tribes.

The members of postmodern tribes are related by shared feelings and (re)appropriated signs. Members of archaic tribes were related by kinship and dialect. But these connections are no less powerful than allegiances of old; modern tribes, linked by modern technology, display their powers over us daily.

And as much as any modern-day tribe, we can learn a lot from the Yankees and their legions of fans about how to nurture the power of symbols, stories, values, and enemies to foster untold loyalty.

To be successful, it’s necessary to reinterpret our thinking to include tribal influences in our marketing and business efforts.

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