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Your Brand Tribe And Why You Need To Understand It

May 25, 2017

You are a consumer. You are faced with a wall of products. They all do exactly the same thing. Which product do you choose? Globalisation and technology has enabled us to have a choice – almost too much choice one might say. We make these choices every day. Understanding how consumers buy and make those choices is an essential element to building a successful brand.

Consumer tribes

In this post-modern world, we no longer buy a product simply because of what it has or what it does. We do not ‘just’ buy its features. We also don’t simply buy how it will make us feel to use it. Now we buy for all of these things – but the cherry on top is understanding that we also buy because of what that product says about us. We buy from brands because they help to define and clarify who we are.

brand tribes consumer decision making

In branding, we call this “tribal identification” or “consumer tribes”. As consumers, we create our own tribes. Unlike ancient tribes which were formed over territory, we create mental tribes which mainly exist in our hearts and minds. These tribes are built around set’s of beliefs and around the set state, we are in at that moment in time.

For example, in the morning we grab a smoothie and join the “Innocent” tribe based on our healthy and optimistic state. On our journey to work we will be sat in our Land-Rover and reconnect with the dream we had when buying it – the “explorer” dream of taking it off road for an adventure and to discover new experiences. We get to work and power up our Apple iMac which subconsciously is telling us to “Think Differently” and we become part of a rebel tribe trying to disrupt the norm. In the evening we decide to go for a run. We reconnect with our Nike trainers and their message of “just do it”. We join the Nike tribe of heroes slaying apathy and pushing through barriers to succeed. Each of these brands says something about the people we are at the time of interacting with them. 

Don’t get me wrong, features and benefits are still important., but personal identity in choosing to buy is becoming a bigger part of marketing.

The value of the tribe

Branding is the process by which we attempt to manage the meaning that our audience attaches to our product or service. To consumers, brands which communicate meaning are the ones considered more valuable if their meaning is directed to them and appeals to them. 

Today’s consumers gather meaning from every little thing. They have the control and they have the power. They will find out any falsehoods in your messaging. They get meaning from where the product is sold, what the product looks like, what kind of people already buy it, what the cost of the product is, what people are saying about it and who and where it is made.

There are hundreds of ladies handbags on sale but the ones which cost the most are by the brands which have taken time to tell a story and communicate what they stand for. Even though a Gucci handbag will do exactly the same thing as a Tesco handbag and could even be of a similar quality, you will pay more for Gucci. Why? Because in today’s world value is attached to meaning. Gucci can charge you a premium for that meaning. You buy that handbag and it will say something about you. It’s not a bag its a statement.

Consumers do not buy brands. They join them. To the consumer who believes in the luxury and indulgent lifestyle Gucci promotes they will be willing to dig deep to buy a product which helps them show this.

To ‘do’ branding strategically then, two strands of thought need to be interwoven – what does our brand stand for and what does that mean to our consumer tribe?

Design your tribe

Knowing who your target market has long been an essential part of marketing strategy. Audience personas have, in the past, been constrained to their demographics, their sex, their income, their location etc. However, it is important to think outside the boxes of traditional marketing when considering your brand tribe and undertaking a modern branding exercise.

Some good questions to ask might be: what are the pain and passion points of my audience. What do they believe in? Where are they trying to go? What are they fed up with? What motivates them? What problem do they have?

Seeing how your product or service helps to answer these questions can help you to begin to see what it is you need to begin to stand for. You need to be constantly asking these questions as time goes on.

As an example, we could consider the demise of Blockbuster. Blockbuster was one of the most visible and used brands on the high-street. However, Blockbuster did not ask the right questions at the right time about its brand or its consumer tribe. It did not adapt to the changing buying habits of its audience. It failed to spot the potential of the faster internet speeds and what this would mean for streaming movies. It also created a huge of dissatisfied people with its “late fees”. It set up its shop and expected its audience to tow the line. A fatal error in today’s customer-centric world.

Netflix, on the other hand, started out by mailing DVDs to its customers. Off the bat, it stood for fitting in with its customer’s lifestyle. It later migrated to online streaming of movies. It was customer centric. It created a tribe of people who wanted to be entertained in the most convenient way. In the early days, it also did not charge a late fee allowing it to grow and pinch customers from Blockbuster. It has now swallowed Blockbuster whole. Rest in peace Blockbuster. Long live Netflix.

Focus on your tribe

The challenge of modern branding is to know what the brand needs to stand for and then to communicate this meaning effectively. To do this in the cluttered atmosphere of the modern buying landscape ‘focus’ is required. Without focus, brands do not stand for anything. There is nothing for a consumer to join. No additional value outside of simply what the product does. It is a race to the bottom of the price barrel.

The problem with focusing a brand though is that we have to give things up which goes against our instincts. However, a good question to ask is; will it be better to be the number one choice for a small consumer tribe than choice number five for a wider consumer tribe? If we want to be choice number five then the likelihood is we will need to sell on price. However, if we want to be number one, although we will be appealing to fewer people, we will be able to charge a higher premium. The value will be placed in the meaning our tribe attach to us. Our focus will not only need to be on our product and its features but on the marketing that sits alongside that product. It will need to focus on the story and the messaging and the experience our tribe will have when they buy from us.

Being number one for a small tribe will also bring loyalty. It will also be harder for our competition to put a dent in our sales too because although they might be able to copy our product they will not be able to copy what we stand for. We will own that space in the hearts and minds of our tribe.

Think of Harley Davison. Think of their tribe. The worshippers of the weekend open road. Think how loyal their audience is to the point where some of them will even tattoo the Harley Davison brand into their skin. What a tribe they have built based on their belief of rebellion, freedom and exploration. When you boil it down though they sell bikes. Just like Honda. Just like Kawasaki. But they stand for something which appeals to their tribe which makes them number one to that consumer group which shares their brands’ values.

Know your brand tribe

So – if you don’t know your brand tribe you might want to do some work on what it is and what it looks like. What is the tribes shared belief and is this yours too? Who can belong to the tribe? When someone buys your product how can you help reinforce their sense of tribal belonging?

Roll up your sleeves and let’s get tribal.

Don’t know where to start? Give me a call to arrange a “brand storm” workshop where the above will be covered and much more…




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