Is Your Brand a Social Network or a Social Tribe?

Bob’s Interview with Yahoo! Advertising Blogger Becky Ebenkamp

What do Ducati, Lady Gaga, Dunkin’ Donuts and the Egyptian protests have in common? On the surface it wouldn’t seem a whole lot. Yet each of these entities has cultivated an audience that passionately identifies with its ideology; displays special lingo, emblems and rituals; and can spot an interloper in seconds flat. They have all inspired “social tribes.”

Strategies about how to build brands through social networks are nothing to tweet at; however, cognitive anthropologist Dr. Bob Deutsch believes that the tribal factor is the missing link between social media snoozes and successes. And Deutsch should know: The founder and president of consulting firm Brain Sells has lived with pre-literate tribes and chimpanzees, and conducted research with consumers worldwide to understand how big ideas take hold in cultures.

It may seem like a fine line, semantically speaking, but marketers who don’t understand the nuances between social networks and true tribes may have trouble having conversations with consumers—ahem, make that “people”—in this changing marketplace. Brand loyalty and return-on-investment are at risk.

“Social networks are free-forming, and require no organization or face-to-face mediation,” Deutsch says. “They allow for the expression of current mindsets, but are not good at converting or moving that mindset toward action.” In other words, brands looking to make truly social connections, need to take it a step further—to attract tribes—if they want to be meaningful in people’s lives.

Social tribes, conversely, are ignited by passion and purpose, whether the movement is a political, spiritual,artistic or commercial one. As a tribe member, people feel safer and more empowered, as if the world is a manageable place with a more-certain future. To build a brand that truly activates a tribal sense of belonging, marketers need to discover who these people really are, and elicit stories about how they feel about their world and the world.

“Brands that arouse this tribal fervor are more likely to gain higher repeat purchases, greater loyalty and stronger brand advocacy,” Deutsch believes. “And marketers who can better understand their formation will gain a larger return-on-investment.”

Dr. Bob’s 5 truths of tribes

1. Possession of a unique revelation: An ideology that rejects the mainstream and is symbolic of an uncompromising idealism, and certainty that is expressed with romantic passion and cold logic.

2. 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 or stylized behavioral routines that represent the tribe’s belief system.

4. Distinctive lexicon: A characteristic lingo and a set of emblems to display membership.

5. In-group/out-group accentuation: A definition of tribal boundaries that shows the “other” is not like me.

Dr. Bob talks “tribal” brands

Ducati: This Italian motorcycle is sleek, fast, competitive and different. It is a brand that is intimately connected to its heritage and legends, as exemplified in its museum, but it is also poised to evolve through its commitment to high-performance technology; Ducati authentically connotes Italian passion, seductiveness and style, and has intimations of La Dolce Vita. Interestingly, “Ducati already speaks of its audience as a clan, but only informally,” Deutsch notes. “If it were to evolve this informal apprehending of a tribal idea into a marketing strategy that formally and explicitly comprehends tribal dynamics, then it could take its brand to mythic heights.”

Dunkin Donuts: Members of most tribes relate to one another because they see themselves as different and special compared to the mainstream. However, the no-frills cult of Dunkin Donuts is cleverly designed as “a tribe of the Regular Guy.” It’s about fast, relatively less expensive, stock coffee poured by a server-–as opposed to a barista in a coffeehouse. Dunkin’ takes advantage of the idea of the Regular Guy by implicitly contrasting it with Starbucks’ connoisseurship.

Porsche vs. Jaguar: These two luxury brand sedans are in a battle for a finite audience, and the first to understand the nuances between consumers who prefer one over the other has a better chance of rising to the top. How do loyal customers of each brand express differences in the implicit rhythms of tension and release? Or priority motivations toward either high performance or comfort? How do these drivers approach their lifestyles differently and distinctly define their self-images? Once known, these differences could inform a tribal branding strategy.

Lady Gaga: “She has a fearlessness, and it’s more than just fashion, ‘I’m going to the Grammys in a pod…’” says Deutsch, who wrote an essay on the cult of Gaga on his Brain Sells blog. “She talks about wanting to liberate young women so they can find their place in the world. Human biology and cognition dictate that people will attach to people—and brands—that provide the stimulus for people to more fully realize their latent potential. Lady Gaga is like the Yellow Brick Road; through ‘post-icipating’ in her journey, each fan feels, ‘I can become myself.’”

— Becky Ebenkamp, Yahoo! Advertising Blogger

Read the interview on Yahoo!