Branding Is Tribal

Who’s Your Posse?

One of our favorite things to uncover in our work at Brandtrust is consumer behavior that has very primal, tribal elements. We love when that happens, and the fact is that it happens pretty often. The most common way that we see tribal behavior emerge in our “civilized,” modern society is when people associate themselves with a brand not only to align with the brand itself, but because they are subconsciously joining forces with the brand’s other users. Working with this insight can represent a big mental shift for some of our clients. People are seldom conscious of the fact that many of their brand choices are made in order to feel they form part of a particular group, to belong to a chosen tribe. But that doesn’t make it any less true. We curate our consumption of material possessions and join into our consumer tribes in order to communicate and create where we belong AND who we belong there with.

It’s easier to think about this concept through the lens of conspicuous consumption or “badging,” which refers to making a brand choice that is overtly visible so as to have a “badge” that a person can use to help define them. This is most obvious when it comes to the realm of luxury goods. A Louis Vuitton handbag with the instantly recognizable LV monogram pattern or an item sporting the signature Burberry plaid are worn as a way of telegraphing something about ourselves, who we believe ourselves to be and where we think we belong in society. A high-end brand of car is driven for the same emotional reason of badging, despite any rationalizations we may make about the car’s superior performance, safety, comfort, quality, technological features or quiet ride (the last is my very favorite rationalization people cite for buying an expensive car).

All Consumption Is Conspicuous

But let’s not kid ourselves that badging and using brands for group affiliation ends with luxury items, and let’s not feel superior when we turn our noses up at high-end designer labels. All brand consumption is conspicuous to some degree, in that it speaks about us in a language that others can understand, even when it’s not expensive consumption. Wearing Converse sneakers or driving a hybrid car are every bit as much badging behaviors that send messages to the world and ourselves about who we feel we are. And they have the potential to be every bit as snobby, too. We are always badging with our brand choices, even if it’s just to ourselves, making meaning of our place in the world through the goods and services we interact with, and even sometimes through the ones we refuse to buy.

Curating An Identity

Martin Lindstrom talks about tribalism and using brands for identity formation in a recent interview on the Thought Economics blog that shifted my thinking about brand choice even further. It’s intuitive to think that we make our consumer choices and select the brands we want to have in our lives, or even the tribes that we want to join, based on core aspects of our identity. Who we are shapes what we choose, right? But Lindstrom’s comments got me thinking that it’s nowhere near that simple. We are also, at the very same time, crafting who we are through the very act of what we choose. And that makes brand choices even more tribal, because the group you’re a part of isn’t just about you claiming them. Tribes claim you right back because they become a defining part of who you are and start to shape your behavior and outlook.

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