Follow the leaders

Successful brands leverage our human tribal instincts, says Ashgrove Marketing’s Terry van Rhyn, but it’s important to appreciate that any consumer following usually starts with the people already inside your business

For many years now I have looked at target audiences through the prism of “tribal” behaviour, or how people naturally group themselves, rather than purely through traditional demographic classifications.

It is far more interesting to try to understand the psychographic profile of such tribal groups, who are aligned in their thinking rather than by age, gender, location or income alone. And it certainly informs our decisions as marketing people when we start to evaluate the buying decision process and explore the relative influences that lead potential customers from a “maybe sometime” to a “definitely yes” response.

But it’s important to recognise that the tribal factor is not a concept that exists only in the external world for brands. Tribalism starts at the very heart of your business, with your culture and your employees, something that many CEOs fail to properly grasp and which can hinder future growth and expansion.

As marketing guru Seth Godin explains in his book Tribes: “A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” He goes on to say: “You can’t have a tribe without a leader – and you can’t be a leader without a tribe.”

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the process in constructing a brand identity for a client is at the very beginning, when I get an opportunity to spend a lot of time understanding the business and people dynamic. Invariably it’s the leadership style and the tribal behaviour of the employees that dictates the culture of the business – and it’s from here, I believe, that the brand building process should begin.

Where businesses run into problems is when the tribe leader has not clearly articulated the shared vision, or does not lead by example. This makes it difficult for employees to feel they “belong” or get inspired to become emotionally invested in the brand.

This sense of belief and engagement is critical to future success, no matter what the size of a business. And it’s something that is only likely to become more important, as younger employees increasingly look beyond the size of their pay packets for reward and want to feel good about what they are doing for a living.

Put quite simply “your vibe attracts your tribe” – so it really pays to consider the shared attitudes of your people, how well they align with your vision for your product or service proposition and what steps, if any, need to be taken to bring them into the fold.

Before you start marketing to the masses then – and marketing is the vehicle that distributes the vision, everything starts and ends with marketing – it’s a case of marketing to your internal tribe first. For if the vision isn’t clear to everyone inside the business, it’s much harder work to build a tribal following outside.

By energising your people, you allow them to have a voice and give them ownership, crucial elements in supporting your brand once it has left the building. Disney is an excellent example of a brand that really gets its people on board – with cast members and “imagineers” all encouraged to create the Disney magic whenever and wherever they can.

Once you have your story straight with your own people, then it becomes time to spread the word to the outside world and start developing a tribe of enthusiasts and followers. They too have to believe your story to start spreading the good word.

Of course, this can only work if your story is based on a truth, is easy to understand and believable. The simpler your story is, the easier it is for the tribe to take ownership of your brand and become your brand activists. In order to achieve this magical transformation, your brand must be a leader for change and promise something better and new.

You must also be prepared to give up full control and allow your tribe to communicate and feel a sense of ownership. This may well take your brand in a different direction and can seem frightening and counter-intuitive to businesses who feel they should be in control of their message at all times.

I often remind clients that their brand does not belong to them personally – they may have helped create it but as it evolves, it is their job to serve the brand, just as they need to serve the consumers that buy it.

Ultimately, once brands are launched, they belong to their clients and customers. As the brand owner, your job is to listen to them, make decisions that are right for your clients, and keep them engaged, inspired and energised so they continue to identify as part of your tribe.