Marketing Consultant & Fractional CMO

Creating People-Powered Experiences for Your Customers with Tribal Marketing

by | Aug 11, 2011 | Marketing

The typical modern consumer generally assumes quality and functionality as given, so what they’re really seeking are experiences that help them to fulfill their psychological needs (affiliation, aspiration, and identity).

A key way to satisfy all of these needs is to cultivate a “tribe” around your company. In this context, a tribe is a group of people sharing interest and experiences related to a specific company or product, complete with unique values, rituals, vocabulary, and hierarchy.

While no single party can really control the tribal experience, the business providing the products or services around which the tribe is based can help to incubate and steer the tribe in positive ways. As Richard S. Tedlow pointed out, “There was no such thing as the Pepsi Generation until Pepsi created it.”

Thinking beyond “us and them”

Traditional marketing philosophies divide people into two groups: “Us” (executives, employees, etc.) and “Them” (customers, leads, etc.).

A tribal approach to marketing removes these distinctions. Everyone involved with the experience is a member of the tribe, whether you’re the CEO or a new customer.

With this in mind, it’s worth noting that tribal marketing applies not just to consumer-facing marketing but also to internal business operations. It’s just as important and relevant to paid employees as it is to paying customers.

Even if everyone’s part of the same tribe, however, there are differing degrees of membership in your tribe:

  • Chief: single individual ultimately responsible for guiding and protecting the tribe; should be fully dedicated to preserving and promoting the tribe’s roots (purpose, values, etc.); typically a CEO
  • Elders: group of individuals responsible for advising and assisting the chief in guiding and protecting the tribe; usually comprises executives or managers
  • Priesthood: individuals who are responsible for developing and promoting the beliefs and values of the tribe to its followers; typically paid employees of an organization
  • Evangelists: tribe members who may not be formally responsible for promoting doctrine, but who do it out of personal love for the company; can include engaged customers, dedicated fans, contractors, strategic partners, and others
  • Followers: individuals who are not actively engaged in promoting the doctrine of the tribe, but who appreciate and support its roots; includes customers, potential customers, and new fans
  • Inactives: members on the outside edge of the tribe, who may not yet be fully converted (or even aware of ) its beliefs and values; may include low-engagement customers, potential customers, vendors, etc.

(Not every tribe follows this structure, of course. Some tribes are formed spontaneously by Evangelists and Followers, for example.)

In tribal marketing, the lines between “us” and “them” ideally are blurred. There should be one unified tribe around your company, with people engaging with it in a wide variety of ways.

Sharing a higher authority

Strong values are the key to forming and preserving a tribe. They become the “higher authority” that the tribe worships, talks about, and works together to promote.

For example, the tribe of the United States was formed on a foundation of freedom and individuality, and these values remain the key identifying characteristics of American culture even today. Every day people are debating, singing, questioning, praying, fighting, pondering, and writing about them as passionately as they might any religious deity.

When writing about the most successful tribes, journalists and authors often use phrases like “religious zeal,” “cult,” “idolize,” and “worship” to describe customers’ interactions with the company. While some of this is literary spice, there’s a good amount of reality to it as well. Religious preferences aside, the human brain tends to treat these tribes in basically the same way it treats religion. Though the passion may vary in degree, its nature is essentially the same.

Why we need tribes

Tribes satisfy the need for affiliation by providing a way for like-minded individuals to share ideas, information, and stories related to a company’s products or services. Just as whole fan communities grow around sports teams, so too can these affiliation-based tribes sprout up around your company.

They also satisfy the need for aspiration by offering varying degrees of involvement, validation, success, etc. Your engagement in the Apple tribe may extend solely to your iPhone, but it could also include fully outfitting your house with Apple products. Canceling your cable and using only Apple TV isn’t just a checked-off to-do item. It’s a tribal accomplishment that members want to share with others.

Tribes also satisfy our need for identity by providing a framework that helps us understand and express ourselves. If you live in the United States, you have a framework for expressing your appreciation of freedom and individuality. If you own a Harley Davidson motorcycle, you have a framework for challenging the establishment, questioning traditional assumptions, and asserting yourself. And if you use a Mac, you have a framework for demonstrating the values and preferences associated with that choice.

In addition to all this, tribes give us an audience, without which we might feel alone and isolated. When these tribes communicate together, they celebrate their affiliation, they recognize and praise aspirational accomplishments, and they understand (if only superficially) something about you that those outside the tribe don’t seem to understand.

Through meeting our primary consumer needs and providing an audience that gives positive feedback on progress, tribes have become an essential and engrained part of our everyday lives.

Tribal doctrine (the Roots)

In tribal marketing, a tribe’s doctrine is the consistent set of beliefs and ideals held (and promoted) by its members.

From a tribal perspective, the elements of doctrine can include:

  • Purpose: The core of the tribe’s doctrine is a simplified, one-sentence statement that summarizes the tribe’s goal or reason for existing. This could also be described as its creed.
  • Values: Values are specific, personal, and attainable attributes that members of the tribe strive to live out. They should reflect, among other things, the ideal traits characterized by the tribe’s archetype or metaphor.
  • Commandments: The commandments are specific actions that, when executed diligently, will bring members of the tribe closer to achieving their purpose and values. They are signposts directing individuals down what the tribe believes to be the most correct path.
  • Vision: Every tribe has a conceptual image of how they will improve the world and what that world will be like when they are done. This vision serves as a unifying reminder of what the individual members are working for.
  • Demons: In its efforts to promote its doctrine, the tribe must necessarily come into conflict with other individuals, ideas, or competing companies. Every tribe has natural enemies, and it’s prudent to identify and understand them as part of the tribes overall strategy for survival and growth.

It’s worth sitting down and working out each of these elements of tribal marketing for your company. You’ll be surprised how naturally they can come once you start thinking about your company and its customers as a tribe unified around shared ideals and values.

Tribal mythology

Every tribe has stories and concepts that reinforce its doctrine, all with an eye toward describing and defending the tribe’s roots. These collectively form the mythology of the tribe.

While these stories can serve to explore or clarify any aspect of the tribal doctrine, some common patterns include creation myths, morality tales, and metaphors.

Creation myths

The creation myth describes the origins and early struggles or successes of the tribe.

In late 1979, Steve Jobs of Apple visited Xerox PARC, the research and development arm of Xerox Corporation. There, he saw some amazing innovations they had made, including a mouse, on-screen windows, word processing, emails, etc.

While Xerox eventually withdrew from the world of personal computers, Steve Jobs saw the potential in these innovations and shamelessly integrated them into the Macintosh, which became one of the greatest successes ever to come out of Silicon Valley.

This creation myth portrays Jobs as a man of vision, seeing things nobody else saw. This became a fundamental part of Apple’s mythology for years to come.

Morality tales

Morality tales recount real-world experiences that challenge and reinforce the values and commandments of the tribe. They serve as case studies, illustrating the reasons for following the tribe’s doctrines and the perils of ignoring it.

Fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers (an American Football team) are familiar with tales of woe associated with the mistreatment of their beloved sacred object, the “Terrible Towel.” Stories abound of mocking opponents who, prior to a game, stomp on the towel, blow their nose on it, wipe their butt with it, rip it up, etc., and then lose by humiliating margins.

(The towel’s creator, radio broadcaster Myron Cope, said “I did not see the Terrible Towel as witchcraft to hex the enemy. It would be a positive force, driving the Steelers to superhuman performance, but if it experienced a yen for mischief and created fatal mistakes by opponents, I would tolerate that.”)

Metaphors

Metaphors are comparisons that help members of the tribe understand and interpret the world around them. They simplify or clarify topics in order to encourage alignment of thought and effort.

For example, radio host and motivational speaker Dave Ramsey has built a tribe around his teachings of how to live a debt-free lifestyle. He describes the attitude required to get out of debt as being “gazelle intense.” It’s one thing to tell someone to get out of debt, but it’s quite another to tell them they should run from debt like a gazelle trying to escape a pursuing cheetah. The metaphor makes all the difference.

Sacred objects

Every tribe has sacred things that help its members relate to the abstract concepts of the archetypes and the doctrine. They can be symbolic representations, memory triggers, evocative themes, or components of the tribe’s mythology.

Icons

Icons are the symbolic visual representation of abstract concepts, usually related to the beliefs and values of the tribe. They can take the form of specific images (such as logos, graphics, photos, symbols, letters, or numbers) or more general visual elements (colors, typefaces, patterns, etc.)

People

The sacred people of a tribe can take a variety of forms:

  • The Leader: Some tribes have a well-known, charismatic leader (e.g., Steve Jobs for Apple) who personify the company.
  • The Representative or Role Model: Other tribes have a non-leader or symbolic spokespeople, who can be either real (e.g., Michael Jordan for Nike) or fictional (e.g., Coke’s “Max Headroom”).
  • The Ensemble: Moving beyond individuals, some tribes can follow the ensemble model, emphasizing multiple related characters rather than a particular individual (e.g., the players on a sports team).

Animals

In tribal marketing, animals are often used to represent the tribe’s ideals or characteristics. Disney has Mickey Mouse, Budweiser has clydesdale horses, and Merrill Lynch has its bull. Animals create strong symbolic responses in consumers, which makes them an ideal vehicle for promoting the tribe’s beliefs and mythology. For some companies (usually more lighthearted ones), these animals can also serve as fictional representatives, such as the Geico gecko.

Words and Phrases

With the power of language to conjure images, emotions, and memories, the exact words used in tribal marketing are vital to its overall success.

  • Jargon: Every tribe has key words, sometimes unintelligible outside the tribe, that serve to unite the members and provide shortcuts for common concepts (e.g., Starbucks’ “venti”).
  • Emotional triggers: Certain concepts can evoke an emotional reaction for members of the tribe, reminding them of their aspirations and motivations within the tribe (e.g., Nike’s “Just Do It”).
  • Explanations: Over time, a tribe will often develop commonly-used explanations for concepts that might be difficult to explain to outsiders. As other members of the tribe hear those explanations, the best and most succinct explanations will tend to be repeated. One common example is how Apple users often explain their user experience to an outsider: “It just works.”
  • Quotations: As members of the tribe talk, write, and share their thoughts with others, certain statements will stand out that embody the beliefs or ideals of the tribe particularly well. These quotations will often be documented and repeated by other members.

Places

Places serve as geographical and contextual anchors for the tribe, giving members a way to physically live out certain aspects of the overall experience. Stores or offices often serve as sacred places for a tribe, but other locations (at a variety of geographic levels) can fulfill the role as well. For example, Ben and Jerry’s has Vermont, and Elvis has Graceland.

Sounds

This will apply to some companies more than others, but to appeal to multiple senses, you should try to engage tribe members’ hearing almost as much as you do their vision.

Music is the most common way to do this, as it can be used in retail environments, commercials, etc. Other sounds may include effects (Apple’s classic “bong” startup sound), equipment (coins falling in a slot machine), other consumers (roller coaster screams), or simply a side effect (the “snap, crackle, pop” of Rice Crispies).

These sounds may also include verbal conventions, such as tone of voice, the pronunciation of certain words, or a certain way of delivering a phrase (e.g., the way the receptionist greets clients as they enter).

Sacred objects

To create a rich tribal marketing experience, you should consider and develop multiple layers of “sacred objects.” Getting deeply involved in a tribe requires that there be substance at each level, so even if many customers never know about these elements, it’s a delight for those Followers and Evangelists who get involved enough to discover them.

Rituals

In tribal marketing, “rituals” are physical actions or processes that evoke, represent, or recreate aspects of the tribe’s beliefs and values. These rituals can be small, simple actions (such as breaking a Kit-Kat candy in half, twisting apart an Oreo cookie, or placing a lime slice in the neck of a Corona), or they can be more elaborate, multi-step “ceremonies” (such as a luxury hotel carefully preparing a room for the next guest).

Generally speaking, the more complicated rituals should be on the side of those who are most deeply involved in the company (like paid employees). The less interaction there is for a particular individual, the simpler and more efficient the rituals should be.

When a compelling, memorable ritual is created, suggested, and reinforced, it can serve as a great way to keep people physically involved in the tribe, giving it more prominence in the overall mix of companies that people deal with on a daily basis.

Relinquishing control

For some companies, the most troubling aspect of embracing a tribal approach is the perceived loss of control. Unpaid enthusiasts have no responsibility to the company, no obligations, no established standards, no policy manual, and no centralized control. Once something is out there, it’s out there.

This terrifies some executives. What if something goes wrong? What if they say something different than we’re saying? What if they’re irreverent with our brand?

To understand how a tribal approach can magnify the relationship between a company and its customers (and employees, vendors, etc.), you have to understand the amazing value of relinquishing control. Letting go frees the tribe to develop ideas, approaches, campaigns, etc., that your company’s command center may never have envisioned. It gives people permission to experiment and evolve faster than any centralized system could.

On top of that, you have to consider the fact that sometimes you’re just wrong. Your ability to feel out what’s going to work and what’s not probably isn’t much greater than theirs. In many cases, because you’re so far removed from the front lines, it could actually be worse.

Activating enthusiasts outside the company also significantly increases your company’s productivity while barely affecting your expenses. By giving the tribe tools and permission, you can significantly multiply your effective workforce.

Things will inevitably go wrong. Someone will come up with a catchy campaign that goes viral, yet totally deviates from the message you wanted to convey to the market. Or someone’s clever idea will utterly fail, causing embarrassment to you and the company.

However, these things are happening within your company anyway. Your staff—and you—fail all the time. You’ve probably said or done something wrong already today. But you make it up in the averages. You do more good things than bad, and it works out. By harnessing the power of your company’s tribe, you simply increase the number of things that are attempted.

Sure, there’ll be more failures, but there will be more successes that outweigh them and propel your company forward faster than it ever could have done on its own.

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