The emergence of tribal communities has got the marketing world in a spin, with gurus such as the mighty Seth Godin entering the debate on how businesses should engage with these social groups. Neil Davey takes a different look at tribal marketing.
If you listen carefully, maybe, just maybe, you can hear the sound of drums. It’s a sound that’s getting louder. And it’s a sound that is going to represent big changes for marketing. It’s the sound of tribal communities.
Of course, the concept of ‘tribes’ isn’t a new one by any stretch of the imagination. Over a decade ago, for instance, Bernard Cova was talking about tribes and how people’s need to recreate new connections would impact marketing. But technology – and more specifically the internet – has now matured and penetrated society to such a degree that this tribal behaviour has now stepped from the pages of sociological textbooks into the real world.
Dr Marie Taillard, assistant professor of marketing at ESCP Europe business school, and a former colleague of Bernard Cova, explains the need to be in social groups. “A lot of my training is in evolutionary psychology and our forefathers needed to learn from each other in order to survive; in order to find food; in order to protect themselves against dangerous risks in the environment,” she says. “That is what we are doing now basically – we are learning from each other - where is the best place to find the right food, the right goods? What is going to make us feel warm and protected? And so on.”
As predicted, this change in social structure is having an increasingly large influence over the relationship that tribes have with businesses, as illustrated by Michael Bayler, co-author of ‘Promiscuous Customers: Invisible Brands - Delivering Value in Digital Markets’. "Consumers use social media to filter, resist and reject irrelevant or uninteresting messages, so the tribal consumer is quite happy, amusing himself in his own digital sandpit without having to give attention to advertisements in order to get media the way we used to,” he says.
“He can also get extraordinarily relevant and relatively trustworthy current information without paying for it and, again, without really consuming advertising. So the question for marketing is how do you get behind this line, to engage with the lost consumer, and how do you get invited back?"
Accustomed to the top-down marketing model, this has put marketing in a spin - as summarised in this video:
Emphasising the importance of these changes, when guru Seth Godin decided to devote his mighty marketing brain to a topic for his latest book, tribal marketing emerged as the obvious choice. The result is his latest top-selling book, ‘Tribes’. Nonetheless, whilst there is definite agreement that the issue is of enormous significance, there is no unanimous line on how businesses engage with the tribes. ‘Tribal marketing’ remains more art than science.
Godin has suggested that tribes mostly consist of what he refers to as ‘sheepwalkers’ – people who have been raised to be obedient – and that there are tribes looking for people to lead them and connect them to one another. Marketers, Godin has suggested, need to be leaders.
Godin’s idea of ‘leading’ tribes has struck a chord with many readers, who have found the message inspirational. But others are less convinced. “Tribes often don’t have a leader,” says MyCustomer.com's Jennifer Kirkby. “Within a tribe there is reciprocity, which doesn’t suggest leadership. Firms may set up communities in an effort to lead them, but there may not be a leader.”
From Taillard's own observations of social communities, she has noticed several behaviours that characterise tribal interactions. “It is usually very democratic,” she suggests. “And you see different experts for different types of practices. For instance, you’ll see someone become the expert at greeting new members and they’ll always come up and say something nice when someone joins in. And then you’ll see experts on certain types of content. But to say that there is a leader in a tribe, or to suggest that leader might be the firm or the brand owner, is just not what I see.”
An alternative view
One alternative view of tribal marketing is that rather than leaders, brands must become the facilitators of the conversation - the provider of the platform. “In a recession, businesses should be focusing on the value proposition and the quality in their value proposition,” says Kirkby. “A value proposition can be built around being a platform and if it is to be a successful platform, the glue holding people there is often experience or emotion. Jeff Bezos once said that Amazon was a platform. eBay, Google and Facebook are all platforms. They facilitate conversations and this is what marketing is, in essence.”
“Creating a platform – an online place that is user-friendly and promotes democratic interactions – is where I think things are going,” agrees Taillard. “Sometimes these things will happen on the actual official site, but sometimes they will happen on another site and brand communities often will branch outside from the official website. Even then they should be encouraged. But I do think it is probably preferable to host them on the corporate website and to let them be as transparent as possible, meaning accepting negative comments about the brand.
“If we as marketers try to leverage these communities too aggressively and try to manipulate them in any way then the risk of backlash is absolutely huge. So I see our role as marketers as being purely one of facilitators and very hands-off - just creating a platform and possibly creating a set of rules for consumers to be able to engage on that platform, ultimately letting the communication flow between the customers.”
Stories and the self identity
So two potential avenues for tribal marketing are vying for attention – one in which leading the tribe is the chief goal and one based around organisations providing the tribal platform. But there’s still room for a third stream of thought relating to this as well.
“I would go beyond saying that tribal value is built around facilitating conversations,” suggests Bayler. “I don’t think people have a problem with conversations. I think the thing that the modern consumer is most interested in doing is telling stories on a day-to-day basis about themselves.”
This ties in with the work of sociologist Lord Anthony Giddens, specifically his book ‘Modernity and Self Identity’ – which pre-dated the internet – in which he wrote how globalisation and the increasing reach of the media would impact people’s sense of identity to the extent that in the future a large amount of social activity would be devoted to validating and refining one’s sense of self. In a world where Facebook is a cultural phenomenon, Giddens’ predictions seem eerily accurate.
“Time and time again, when I look at the really successful transformational modern marketing campaigns like Lynx and Dove, you’ll find that they have a couple of things in common,” Bayler continues. “One is that the brand is taking ownership of the dialogue around a particular subject area – for example, in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty. They are also very pragmatic and a lot of them are about utility more than they are about entertainment.”
Engaging with tribes
Bayler points to Nike+, a successful ambassador for the Nike brand in the passionate running community, which is focused on users sharing stories about their feats. Also, high street adult chain Anne Summers with its Anne Summers Parties - a slightly different take on an all-female Tupperware party - that also brings people together to share their experiences.
“It doesn’t sell a whole lot - the average sales at an Anne Summers party is a few quid - but think about this as enabling people to tell stories about themselves and to redefine their identity under the umbrella of a brand,” adds Bayler. “So for me, it is not just about conversation or facilitating conversation. It is about enabling people to tell stories about themselves and about each other. And I think that is an immensely potent vehicle for brand engagement.”
Whether tribal marketing should be focused on facilitating the conversation, leading the tribe or enabling users to tell stories about themselves, the debate relating to the dynamics of this field will inevitably roll on. But one matter does have unanimous support: that tribes are now a part of the social landscape and organisations will need to learn to engage with them if they are to be competitive.
“Brands have no choice,” concludes Bayler. “If they want to follow this consumer behind the line, they have to engage with the tribe. In order to engage with the tribe, they need to do something very interesting, which is moving from talking to consumers to talking through consumers.”
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.