Social Tribes Are More Potent Than Social Networks For Luxury Brands

The Ground Has Shifted Under Marketers’ Feet. In today’s socially-mediated world, marketers must place greater emphasis on understanding their audience as people instead of simply describing them as consumers.  Just satisfying consumers’ immediate wants creates a commodity, not a brand.  Luxury brands, especially, need brand.  They must impress a brand footprint across all media channels and platforms.  Luxury brands require more than a tally of click-throughs.

To build a brand, luxury marketers should not waste time asking what consumers like, need or want; they should discover who these people really are.  This requires research techniques that can elicit – and hear — stories about how people feel about their world and the world.  The subtext of stories is people’s identities, not their interests.

This modification in perspective will help luxury marketers have a hand in sculpting the changes that are shifting the ground under their feet.  These changes include:

  • From person-as-viewer to person-as-participant to person-as-creator-of-content.
  • From product-to-person communication to person-to-person conversation.
  • From information-gathering to experience-gathering.
  • From brands to “me-as-brand.”


Given these naturally occurring changes, luxury marketers would benefit if they themselves created one additional change: From social networks to social tribes.

Luxury brands “live in” many paradoxes.  One such paradox is the tension between creating a sense of exclusivity and scarceness while satisfying the human need for social connectedness and belonging. The rub is that social connectedness and belonging require more than signing up to be included in a social network.

Moreover, social networks are basically free forming and require no organization or face-to-face presence.  Hence, social networks allow for the expression of current mindsets, but are not good at moving that mindset into the field of concerted action or conversion.   In contrast, if luxury marketers could help gird the formation of tribes, they would gain a larger return on investment.

Five Requirements for Tribal Formation in the Luxury Space

1.   Possession of a Unique Revelation: An ideology that in some way rejects the mainstream and is symbolic of an uncompromising idealism and certainty that is expressed with romantic passion and cold logic.

2.   A Belief System: A mythology about how the world works and how tribe members and the tribe can maximize “self” in relation to that world.

3.   Ritual: the creation of recurrent, exaggerated, stylized and condensed behavioral routines that represent the tribe’s ideology and belief system; this helps establish an institutional memory and a sense of “post-icipation” (a feeling that you were “there” even before you were there).

4.   A Distinctive Lexicon: A characteristic lingo and a set of emblems that display membership.

5.   In-group/Out-group accentuation: A kind of pseudo-speciation that defines tribal boundaries.  The “Other” is not like me.

Once these requirements are satisfied, the motivation for membership is: I am myself, Becoming.  Belonging gives you a sense of power to overcome external obstacles and also to expand yourself.   In itself this sense is felt as luxurious.

Tribe as Brand

From the tribe-forming perspective, luxury marketing strategies should be aimed at (a) designing a brand persona that is relevant to the public mind and mood, (b) articulating a brand history exemplifying its complexities and evolution, thereby intrinsically buttressing its relevance to the current communal mindset, and (c) portraying current contingencies as consonant with its brand history and persona. The past is embodied in the present is a primary attribute of all luxury products.

In this way, a metaphorical connection is made possible between a person’s “self-story” and the tribe, such that each symbolically reflects the other.  This entails three cognitive aspects of belonging that lead to feelings of membership:

1.   Familiarity: The tribe is like me.

2.   Participation and Trust: The tribe likes me.

3.   Power: The tribe is more than me and so can help me become more of me.

By coalescing and satisfying longings at the individual and societal levels, luxury marketers can create a brand idea and a tribal-like belonging to that idea.  The result is: loyalty to tribe-as-brand is experienced as loyalty to self.

Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks: A Basic Example of Two Tribes

A very basic tribal differentiation can be clearly exemplified in the competition between Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks:

1. Each has a different ideology: For Dunkin’ it is, it’s just coffee, and I want to get in and get out as quickly as possible vs. for Starbuck’s, it’s my selection of a coffee is an expression of my temperament and personal style, and I want to be able to relax in a “third place.”

2. Each has a different belief system and attendant self-identities: Dunkin’s, the old-fashioned, regular guy, down-to-earth, who does real things vs. Starbuck’s trendy and fashionable people, oriented to the rewards of sensuality and luxury.

3. Each has different rituals: servers vs. barristers.

4. Each has a different lexicon: small is small vs. small is tall.

5. Most importantly, the two groups of loyal customers express in-group/out-group exaggerations. Here are examples of what Dunkin’ Donut loyalists say about Starbucks goers: “They spend too much time and money on a cup of coffee.”  “They are yuppies, ambitious and never satisfied.”  “They like to complicate everything.”  Starbucks loyalists voice symmetric sentiments about Dunkin’ Donut goers: “They have a cookie-cutter mentality and nothing about them is exceptional.”  “Their coffee is as bland and sterile as their customers.  I don’t think I’d like those people.”

The same distinctiveness could and should be created for the likes of Tom Ford, Max Mara, Limited and H&M.

Brands As Missions

The present context of the world is conducive to the longing for tribal connections that engage people with passion and purpose.  The world is “between mythologies” – it is not what it once was and it does not yet know what it will become.   People also feel the world is too fast and too unpredictable.  As a member of a tribe, people feel safer and more empowered.  Their existential cavities get filled in.  Tribal membership aids in the belief that the world is a manageable place and one’s future is assured.  If luxury marketers would be mindful of the fact that their brands should have a mission that arouses peoples’ tribal fervor, luxury marketers would gain higher repeat purchases, greater loyalty, and greater brand advocacy.

– – – Dr. Bob Deutsch is a cognitive anthropologist and founder of the marketing consultancy, Brain Sells. All posts are reviewed and copy edited by Gina Conforti. Photo Credits: Fashion Matters
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