I Brand Therefore I Am – Our August Article for Melbourne Review

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Are Brands the Tribes of our Generation?

August 2013
David Ansett & Peter Singline

From ‘day dot’ man has longed to belong. Initially, increasing the odds of survival was significant enough motivation for belonging to a group of like-minded souls, but as the centuries rolled by and man’s life expectancy increased, our primal need to belong has not diminished. Social evolution has brought many changes to our tribal structures. Geographically founded tribes have given way to religion, sport, fashion, and brands. As brands have evolved, they’ve morphed closer in nature to more traditional institutions such as religion, sporting clubs and even nations. Brands no longer simply make and do things for us to purchase; they consciously set out to draw communities around them by standing for an ideal and a set of values which they demonstrate through their deeds.

Harley-Davidson is the brand that provides the most powerful example of this phenomenon. Following the 1985 buyback that all but saved the company, Harley-Davidson re-set their entire competitive strategy and business model around a ‘brand community’ philosophy. Harley re-tooled every aspect of its organisation to drive its community strategy. Harley‘s community – the ‘brotherhood’ of riders – was united by a shared ethos providing the basis for the brand proposition as the only manufacturer that truly understood bikers on their own terms. Many Harley employees became riders, and many riders became Harley employees as the company genuinely acknowledged the community as the rightful owner of the brand. The tribe and the brand became one.

This trend only accelerated as we switched onto the World Wide Web; the internet had the power to facilitate tribes like nothing before. As entrepreneur, blogger and author Seth Godin writes: “The internet has ended mass marketing and revived a human social unit from the distant past: tribes. Founded on shared ideas and values.”

Whilst we’re no longer drawn to traditional tribal symbols such as heraldry, they’ve been replaced in our lives by contemporary icons including the banners of brands. And like tribal art, brands are increasingly displayed in the most personal manner possible, through tattoos – perhaps the greatest expression of brand alignment. A University of Louisville study found that “the increasing popularity of logo tattoos is a product of the commodification of culture via the culture industry. Findings show that the majority of the sample was motivated by brand loyalty and self-identification with a brand philosophy or lifestyle”.

Like tribes of old, brands often have a charismatic leader at their helm – someone to whom the tribe aspire and associate. Brands such as Apple and Virgin have legions of tribal followers who hold their leaders in almost god-like regard. Author and social commentator Seth Godin believes the job of a CMO should stand for ‘Chief Movement Officer’ and not chief marketing officer: “In short: don’t market – inspire, lead, tap into your brand’s passions and you’ll tap into consumers’ passions and build a small and committed following that will scale through word-of-mouth.”

This mindset for brands reflects an understanding and focus on building a relationship with greater meaning, depth and relevance in the lives of their followers.

In her book; No Logo, Canadian author and social commentator Naomi Klein sums up the new brand-tribe paradigm: “It is about you, not the brand being of good quality, but you being of good quality because you buy that brand.” The case Klein sets out in No Logo that brand = commerce, and therefore all things brand are antisocial is simplistic and misunderstands the base human instincts that brands appeal to.

People are intrinsically tribal. For better or worse, people have always been and will always be driven towards belonging. However, the defining trait of brand tribes is that unlike all other tribes, membership and currency is gained through a commercial interaction, rather than through participation in community. Arguably the common good of a brand tribe is only for the benefit of the brand, and not the tribe itself.

Author Malcolm Gladwell describes the conflicted relationship we have as tribal followers of brands in an article for the Harvard Business Review: “Our material choices as consumers are no longer trivial. They are now amongst the most important choices we make. They have consequences well beyond our own selves… They have consequences on our economy, on the community we live in. When you eat a McDonald’s hamburger, you are casting a vote for a certain kind of agricultural system, and for a certain kind of climate. In a sense, everything we do casts a vote for a certain kind of world. And this isn’t true in the same way it was one hundred years ago, or if it was, we weren’t aware of it. We weren’t forced to make that connection because our world wasn’t being driven on this macro level by the sum total of consumer choices… So it makes perfect sense that when you decide what car you’re going to buy, you think long and hard about the choice, and when you drive a Nissan Leaf, or a Chevy Volt, you’re saying to the world, “These are my values. This is the kind of world I want.”

The ten brands people are most likely to tattoo on their body
01. Harley-Davidson: (where 18.9% of users would tattoo the brand on their body)
02. Disney (14.8%)
03. Coke (7.7%)
04. Google (6.6%)
05. Pepsi (6.1%)
06. Rolex (5.6%)
07. Nike (4.6%)
08. Adidas (3.1%)
09. Absolut (2.6%)
10. Nintendo (1.5%)

David Ansett and Peter Singline
Peter Singline and David Ansett are co-founders and direc­tors of Truly Deeply, a Mel­bourne based brand strat­egy and design con­sul­tancy.
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