Tribal Marketing

Yesterday at the Business of Software conference, Seth Godin spoke about tribes. “Build a movement, not a campaign”, he said (in my jumbled memory of paraphrased quotes). “Find your tribe and lead it. Marketing is now about tribes, not market segments, not brands, not advertising.”

But what is a “tribe”? Is this just the new hip word for “community” or “market”? I don’t think so.

Markets are centered around needs and communication. People who share common needs and talk to one another about those needs.

Communities are centered around shared ownership and mutual benefit. Stewardship of common resources and mutual aid to each other for the benefit of its members.

Tribes are about identity and culture. They are like markets because their members often share similar needs and talk to one another. But not always. They are like communities because their members often work to help each other out, and sometimes share ownership of common resources. But not always.

The core of a tribe is its culture and identity. A unique culture, and a strong identification with that culture, creates a tribe. And tribes link people in ways that markets and communities don’t. Tribes create identity bonds between people, even if those people don’t know each other.

The Grateful Dead created a tribe, who then followed them around everywhere they went. And to this day, whenever two Deadheads meet, they share an instant, powerful, tribal bond. A bond so much more powerful than when two golfers meet, or two Manhattanites meet.

Seth’s talk wasn’t about the Grateful Dead though; nor the Cherokee Indians. Seth was talking about commercial tribes. If a business can create or find its tribe, it can provide products and services to that tribe, in a way that connects and enhances the tribe.

Note: I’m late to the game here, since apparently Seth Godin has been talking about tribes for a while. He has a book called “Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us“. I haven’t read it yet, but based on his previous books it should be good. Regardless, there still may be insight to be had; I have a slightly different definition than Seth that can be used to triangulate what tribes mean to business.

Tribal Membership

Tribes require boundaries, ways of defining who is a member and who is not. These boundaries can sometimes be fuzzy; other times they are sharp and clear. Years ago Larry Harvey described the “skin” of Burning Man, a semi-permeable membrane aimed at protecting and preserving the integrity of the culture of Burning Man. Defining this boundary is crucial to creating a tribe; without it, you have only an undifferentiated mass of people.

To identify each other, tribes often have badges of membership: objects, styles of dress, ways of talking, or exclusive knowledge which identify a person as a member of that tribe. When a Deadhead sees a dancing bear bumper sticker on a car, they immediately know the owner is part of their tribe. Likewise, if I walk down the street with an obscure band t-shirt on, I identify myself as part of a tribe.

Badges of membership can be more subtle though. Vocabulary and knowledge are not badges worn on the sleeve, but can be just as powerful. Mention “rails” to most people and they think of railroads. But to geeks, “rails” identifies a fanatic sect of programmers who’ve tied their identity directly into the programming language. Words become the secret handshakes that identify members of the tribe.

Creating a Tribe

Tribes are not easily created. The most powerful tribes arise organically out of a zeitgeist, a cultural undercurrent. Tapping into this undercurrent, directing it and leading it, is the best way to create a tribe.

Tribes require a sense of belonging. Belonging can be driven by a boundary that delineates members from outsiders. Shared beliefs, which are exclusive to the tribe, are a classic example of a boundary; heredity and formal membership are others.

Alternatively, a tribe can be defined by a beacon, all of its members facing the same direction, sharing a common goal or interest. Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead became a beacon. Tribes defined by beacons may have fuzzy boundaries and on the edges blur into communities of people who share the interest, but don’t self-identify with the tribe.

Creating a formal membership system can be one way to create a tribe, but tighter tribes can be created by identifying shared beliefs, then documenting and naming those beliefs. Delineation brings clarity and helps foster identity creation. Sometimes even just giving a name to the cultural undercurrent, with only a fuzzy definition creates a tribe. The Tea Party in the United States is a prime example of a tribe created this way.

Use badges of membership to reinforce membership in a tribe and help its members identify each other. In the business world, a badge can be a conference t-shirt, a poster users hang in their cubicle or a pin worn on a jacket. Or it could be a secret Twitter hashtag or a group logo that gets added to their LinkedIn profile.

Provide exclusive knowledge or mantras to help reinforce a tribe. Burning Man is a prime example of this with its mantras of “Leave No Trace” and “Radical Self-Expression”. What mantras can you create which define your tribe?

Communities Are Still Useful

Tribes are difficult to create. A sense of identity is not easy to instill in people, and in many cases, not appropriate. Communities can be substitutes for tribes in business.

In business, a community is a group of people who share a common interest and get shared benefit from each other. In fostering community, you become a facilitator, helping its members help each other out, and stepping in to provide aid yourself when necessary. A community’s members may not have a strong identity as a member of that community, but they share an affinity with it.

Communities and tribes can co-exist, and often blur into one another. While Apple has its tribe, the fanatics who walk around brandishing Apple paraphernalia, others are part of the broader Apple community, not creating their identity around Apple, but participating in the Apple movement nonetheless.

And the techniques used to create and lead tribes and be used to create and foster community.

In The End

Tribes can be a powerful new marketing tool. But don’t look at tribes as purely another avenue to sell your goods. Tribes can detect artificiality. Aim to truly help and lead a tribe, a tribe that you too are a member of, and in doing so, your business will blossom. Just look at Joel Spolsky, the spark that led to this post. Ten years ago he started a blog, which evolved into a community, and then eventually a tribe. A tribe that now comes together once a year at the Business of Software conference to cross-pollinate, grow and evolve. Create a tribe to give back and it will come back to you threefold in return.

1 comment

  1. Shradha Bhatia says:

    Great post.

    Tribes are definitely shaping the future and I think marketers need to understand this and play it to their advantage.

    You can check out my blog post about Tribal Marketing here:

    It would be great if you could leave a comment and tell me what you think!

    Keep the great content coming :) Cheers!

1 ping

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    [...] my mind, Trevor Lohrbeer, CEO and co-founder of Lab Escape got it right when he observed, “Markets are centred around needs and communication. (They involve) people who share common [...]

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