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Social Tribes Are More Potent Than Social Networks
by Dr. Bob Deutsch


In today’s socially-mediated world, marketers must place greater emphasis on understanding their audience as people rather than simply describing them as “consumers.”  Simply satisfying consumers’ immediate wants/needs creates a commodity, not a brand. Marketers need more. They want to impress a brand footprint across all media channels, platforms and touch-points. 

To build a social brand, marketers should not waste time asking what consumers like, need or want; they should discover who these people really are.  This requires research techniques that can elicit stories about how people feel about their world and the larger world.  The subtext of stories define people’s identities, not their interests. This modification in perspective will help marketers have a hand in sculpting the changes that are shifting the ground under their feet.  These changes include:

  • From person-as-viewer to person-as-participant, to person-as-creator-of-content.

  • From brand-to-person communication to person-to-person conversation.

  • From information-gathering to experience-gathering.

  • From brands to “me-as-brand.”

Given these fundamental changes, marketers would benefit by creating one additional change:

  • From social networks to social tribes. 

Social networks are basically free-forming and require no organization or face-to-face mediation. Hence, social networks allow for the expression of current mindsets, but are not good at conversion or moving that mindset into the field of concerted action. If marketers could help gird the formation of tribes, they would gain a larger return on investment.

The Five Requirements for Tribal Formation

  1. Possession of a Unique Revelation
    An ideology that in some way rejects the mainstream and is symbolic of an uncompromising idealism and certainty that is expressed with romantic passion and cold logic.

  2. A Belief System
    A mythology about how the world works and how tribe members and the tribe can maximize “self” in relation to that world.

  3. Ritual
    The creation of recurrent, exaggerated, stylized and condensed behavioral routines that represent the tribe’s ideology and belief system; this helps establish an institutional memory and a sense of “post-icipation” (a feeling that you were “there” even before you were there).

  4. A Distinctive Lexicon
    A characteristic lingo and a set of emblems that display membership.

  5. In-group/Out-group accentuation
    A kind of pseudo-speciation that defines tribal boundaries. The “Other” is not like me.

Having satisfied these requirements, the motivation for membership is: I am Becoming myself.  Belonging gives you a sense of power to overcome and to expand yourself.  

Tribe as Brand

From the tribe-forming perspective, marketing strategy should be aimed at (a) designing a brand persona that is relevant to the public mind and mood, (b) articulating a brand history exemplifying its complexities and evolution; thereby intrinsically buttressing its relevance to the current communal mindset, and (c) portraying current contingencies as consonant with its history and persona. 

In this way, a metaphorical connection is made possible between a person’s “self-story” and the tribe, with each symbolically reflecting the other.  This entails three cognitive aspects of belonging that lead to feelings of membership:

  • Familiarity: The tribe is like me.

  • Participation and Trust: The tribe likes me.

  • Power: The tribe is more than me and can help me become more of me.

By coalescing and satisfying longings at the individual, and societal levels, marketers can create a brand idea and a tribal-like belonging to that idea.  The result is loyalty to tribe-as-brand is experienced as loyalty to self.

Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks: An Example of Two Tribes

In the world of products, a good example of tribal differentiation is Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks:

  1. Each has a different ideology: it’s just coffee. I want to get in and get out as quickly as possible vs. my selection of a coffee is an expression of my temperament and personal style, and I want to be able to relax in a “third place.”

  2. Each has a different belief system and attendant self-identities: the old-fashioned, regular guy, down-to-earth, who does real things vs. trendy people, oriented to sensuality and luxury. 

  3. Each has different rituals: servers vs. barristas.

  4. Each has a different lexicon: small is small vs. small is tall.

  5. Most importantly, the two groups of loyal customers express in-group/out-group exaggerations.   Here are examples of what Dunkin’ Donut loyalists say about Starbucks goers, “They spend too much time and money on a cup of coffee.”  “They are yuppies, ambitious and never satisfied.”  “They like to complicate everything.” 

    Starbucks loyalists voice symmetrical sentiments about Dunkin’ Donut goers: “They have a cookie-cutter mentality and nothing about them is exceptional.”  “Their coffee is as bland and sterile as their customers.  I don’t think I’d like those people.”          

The same distinctions can and should be made for Tom Ford, Chevrolet, American Express and Sony.

Brands as Missions

The present context of the world is conducive to the longing for tribal connections that engage people with passion and purpose.  The world is “between mythologies – it is not what it once was and it does not yet know what it will become.   People feel the world is moving too fast and is too unpredictable. 

As a member of a tribe, people feel safer and more empowered. Tribal membership aids in the belief that the world is a manageable place and one’s future is assured.  If marketers would be mindful of the fact that brands should have a mission that arouse peoples’ tribal fervor, their brands would gain higher repeat purchases, greater loyalty, and greater brand advocacy.


The Author

Bob Deutsch

Dr. Bob Deutsch is a cognitive anthropologist and founder of the marketing consultancy, Brain Sells, Boston, MA, USA
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Copyright 2011 by Dr. Bob Deutsch. All rights reserved.

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