Tribal Marketing: Putting on Your Warpaint

tribal marketing

No, I’m not talking about going native, I’m talking about using tribal marketing; creating collaborations with your target market, suppliers, and consumers to add value and generate higher sales. Tribal marketing is really just another name for relationship marketing but focuses entirely on the relational aspects rather than muddling the concept with notions of lead nurturing common in theories of relationship marketing. Another difference is that tribes are self-organized by members based on their overriding interest in a product or brand, such as the Trekkies devoted to Star Trek. Their devotion to the brand may involve the brand, as in the HOGs (Harley Owner’s Group organized and lightly managed by Harley), but comes from something deeper than loyalty. Not only does tribal marketing support the brand but it allows the company to expand into ancillary products to a market that will immediately gobble them up (think Star Trek Next Generation and Harely apparel).

Seth Godin wrote a book called Tribes that’s probably the best-known work on this topic. In today’s post, we’ll explore the notion of tribal marketing, its benefits, and how to implement tribal marketing to support your brand.
tribal marketing

Benefits of tribals

Tribes are groups of consumers formed for mutual support, such as a group of new mothers who gather to share experiences or a group of incoming freshmen coming together at orientation. Sometimes tribes increase your chance of survival and provide companionship. In earlier times, for example, tribes helped protect members from danger, formed a collective to distribute the workload, and offered social engagement that was instrumental in helping to find a mate, nurture children, and celebrate milestones.

Tribes also reflect a subgroup sharing similar values, needs, beliefs, and lifestyles. Together, members of this group create rules of governance, rituals, and symbols, including language, that support a feeling of belongingness. In a tribe, individuals benefit by helping expand the pie, making everyone’s share bigger, rather than competing against each other for a larger piece of an established pie.

Over the years, tribes were replaced by less collectivist forms of governance — first city-states, then nations. These governments instituted laws and institutions to provide for the needs of individuals while allowing unequal distribution of resources. Exit cooperation and enter competition and a world where adversaries fight for a bigger share rather than combining to expand everyone’s share. As these societies grew, members felt they didn’t have a say in the way things were going and didn’t feel they belonged. They formed modern tribes around behaviors and shared interests. Their devotion to these interests became a lifestyle they shared with others who, like them, were devoted to the interest.

Tribal marketing

When the tribe forms around a brand, it benefits the brand through hyper-loyalty and by spreading the word (advocacy) of the brand. The notion of modern tribal marketing emerged in multiple places — the IMP group in Europe where they recognized the role of coopetition in supply chain partners and in consumer behavior where marketers recognized sub-groups of consumption such as the HOGs (Harley Owners Group).  Both reflect a return to mutual assistance, support, and shared ritual.

Like more primitive tribes, modern tribes help individuals grow beyond their own resources by providing emotional support, making them feel part of a larger group, helping them gain more value from their interests, and normalizing their behavior. For instance, I once studied a group formed around Disney theme parks. The group shared insights with newbies to help them get more from their park visit, such as starting in the back of the park then moving toward the front and hitting the most popular attractions first to experience fewer crowds. The group normalized the behavior of visiting the parks several times a year, even setting up a friendly competition to see who racked up the most visits in a year. Members expressed their membership through Disney-themed clothing, such as mouse ears, collecting and sharing park pins like the ones below, hosting local events for enthusiasts, and, with the advent of digital media, sharing their love of the park on blogs and social media posts. In the early days of the internet, a message board devoted to Star Trek was one of the first online tribes to gain prominence in the days before social media.

tribal marketing

And modern tribes are more egalitarian because they reflect voluntary associations.

Modern tribes, or communities of consumption in marketing parlance, may be formed purposefully by businesses — like the HOGs by Harley and the Jeep Owners Group or self-directed by users. Unlike communities of consumption, however, they may not revolve around a brand, but an entire industry, such as wine or travel. They may take on a life of their own, such as gamers who play even as they age, or bring people together in a temporary community, such as Burning Man, a celebration of anti-consumerism.

Tribal marketing in social media

Tribal marketing implies bringing together a group of consumers who share not demographic or geographic variables but a lifestyle that crosses these notional boundaries of what makes up a target market. Instead of defining your market as millennials or Gen Z, college-educated professionals, you define your market as devotees to a particular lifestyle, such as gamers who love Call of Duty. Your new target market better defines opportunities to market your product that encompasses a broader demographic that shares common values. Marketing to this group serves everyone’s benefit and this concept should underpin all your social media marketing efforts. Understanding what a tribe is and what people get out of a tribe is the first step in creating a marketing tribe.

Once you understand why people joined the tribe and what value it provides, you’re in a position to meet their needs better than if you focused on their age, education, or income. You can produce products that match their enthusiasm, such as Harley making all kinds of parts to accessorize your bike, or offer products that make their interests more enjoyable, such as computer companies manufacturing devices specially designed to improve gaming experiences.

Putting on your warpaint

You can encourage tribes and support tribal marketing by putting on your warpaint to help your tribe

Make sure everyone benefits – So, look for ways to help others as a way of creating a tribe. This may come through creating great content but usually goes beyond such amorphous benefits. Here are some ways to help others and build a tribe:

  • mention them – people crave seeing their names in print
  • thank them – if they share your posts, comment on your blog, or retweet your content, thank them and they become more devoted to your brand. For instance, Google Analytics sometimes shares my posts (such as the one below) that mention their product, which encourages me to create more posts to help users get more from Google retweet
  • Offer help – if they’re putting on an event, offer help even if that means checking folks in rather than speaking. Guy Kawasaki shows a picture of Richard Branson shining his shoes to make an impression of how they help each other.
  • Invite them to provide suggestions such as new menu items or a new proposed logo. Frito-Lay did a great job by inviting consumers to suggest new flavors of chips. I personally think they’re terrible, but the effort bound consumers to the manufacturer and resulted in several successful new flavors.
  • Don’t make everything about commerce. Don’t over-promote.

Provide social support and engagement – get to know folks you’d like in your tribe and treat them as you would friends. Share personal stuff and ask them about things important in their lives. Remember birthdays (Facebook helps). Know about your tribe. For instance, when the earthquake hit here, my tribe reached out to see that I was safe.

Find ways to share the workload – offer to guest blog on their website or share an app with them that makes their lives easier. If you find links they may find useful, send them out.

Understand their rituals, language, and symbols – don’t expect them to acculturate to your way of doing things. Don’t make judgments regarding the superiority of YOUR way of doing things. Learn what symbols they use and what they mean so you can use them organically in your marketing efforts. Be authentic, however.

Defend them – if someone attacks a tribal member, defend them. If you find something negative, share it with them so they can be prepared for the attack. Help them find holes in their defenses and help plug them up. For instance, if you find their website is down or has dead links, let them know and maybe suggest solutions to detect problems or reduce the impact of failures.

My tribe

Over the years I’ve built a marketing tribe to help, support, and promote tribal members. If what I’ve said seems like something you’d find valuable, join us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Need marketing help to support business growth?

We welcome the opportunity to show you how we can make your marketing SIZZLE with our data-driven, results-oriented marketing strategies.  Sign up for our FREE newsletter, get our FREE guide to creating an awesome website, or contact us for more information on hiring us.

Hausman and Associates, the publisher of MKT Maven, is a full-service marketing agency operating at the intersection of marketing and digital media. Check out our full range of services.