Tribal marketing: How do you engage with customer tribes?

6th Jul 2009

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'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.”


Replies (6)

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By aspennow
08th Jul 2009 07:13

I am now writing a book on branding and ethnic, cultural and religious segmentation, and have been following the tribes/herds discussion somewhat closely. I think both are important concepts, but am having trouble reconciling the two. Everyone in marketing knows the importance of segmentation, but the discussion of tribes/herds deals with segmentation. Right now, and I'm open to changing my mind here, the concept of tribes/herds is product centric. In other words, I'm a brand, and represent a platform for a community to tell stories and exchange experiences together. I tend to dislike such product-centric concepts as "brand equity," "brand managers," "brand personality," etc. because that puts the attention on the product, when the entire corporate focus must be on the customer. I think segments come closer to this ideal of customer-centricity because to appeal to a segment, you must a) have a understanding of that segment; b) understand that each segment is different from another, and likely has deeper differences within that segment (Hispanic advertising often makes this classic one-size-fits-all mistake) and c) tailor offerings/service to each segment/subsegment.

At the end of the day, I think companies would be better off focusing on segments (beyond the simplistic demographic, etc.) and spend less time seeking to be leaders amid shifting "tribes."

But an excellent article.

Nick Wreden
wredensignup(at) gmail

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By Neil Davey
08th Jul 2009 10:57

Many thanks for your comments Nick - glad you enjoyed the article.

There is a certainly an argument that brands who aim to 'lead' tribes are still using outdated thinking. It still seems to be applying a lot of the 'top-down' mentality, but with a Web 2.0 spin.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating - consumers are savvy enough to realise if they are being manipulated and they will rapidly desert any forum/community/tribe that they become suspicious of. In this case it really will ultimately prove to be a waste of time and resources for the organisation - time and resources that you rightly say could have been devoted to something such as segmentation.

It will be interesting to see how long the likes of the Nike+ community lasts.

Thanks again Nick,


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By marietaillard
31st Jul 2009 12:15

Interesting comment, Nick. I think that the challenge for marketers is to think beyond their own brand when they are engaging with communities. I firmly believe they need to broaden their horizons towards communities that represent their customers' passions, interests, hobbies, etc without, as you say, limiting themselves to brand communities. This is one more example where a short-term, controlling attitude to customer engagement is going to backfire.

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By [email protected]
30th Nov 2009 17:41

Interesting article. Enjoyed reading it. We've created a unique organisational and management model designed to help leaders create the ideal conditions for building unified brand tribes, both inside and outside the organisation. Interesting you mentioned Bernard Cova. We've engaged with some of Cova's colleagues in the UK to verify some of what we're doing. I'm guessing you're familiar with the book "consumer tribes" by Cova, Kozinets, and Shankar. As well as building a commercial entity. We're building a community that will bring together top academics, leading brands and experts in brand development and engagement to explore brand tribalism further. Always happy to engage with likeminded people. Get in touch or find out more about joining our tribe at

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By alexdenipaul
16th Jan 2010 06:14

I’m more into self-help audio tapes, but hey we’re all special right! Thats what the tapes are telling me anyway.. I’m about three quarters through the book at the moment and definitely enjoying it. Its definitely given me a few thoughts about how I can use the concepts on some of our clients. I’ve got ‘meatball sunday’ of Seth’s to read after i’ve got through Tribes. As if his blog isn’t enough to decipher! Have you read anything by Mark Gobé? If you’re still into design i suggest reading ‘Brand Jam’. its basically about how design can be used by business to create powerful connections with the customers senses.

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By lauren_dill
20th Sep 2010 19:20

I complete agree with you!  The key to Social Media marketing success lies in diversity and transparency.  You want to know your customer as well as possible.  You also want your customer to know you as well as possible in return.  The key to success in this new territory of new marketing is quality and not quantity.  You want to make sure you have your finger in every pie available, so to speak, but you want to make sure your message is being received on all fronts, not just your target market.  On top of that, you want to make sure your message is the same on all fronts ... just my two cents.

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