‘The Beatles didn’t invent teenagers,’ says Seth Godin in his TED talk, The Tribes We Lead. ‘They merely chose to lead them.’

Godin discusses how a tribe connects similar people, and through that a movement starts.

As marketers, we want to start movements around brands or products, but that can't happen unless we take the lead with our marketing strategy and develop a brand community. We must:

If you expect to build a strong brand community, however, connecting with buyers is not enough.

A strong community is a connected community, meaning buyers have to connect with each other: they have to be able to identify others who buy into the same brand and share the same values.

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How do buyers find their brand community in a noisy world?

When you’re driving on a busy road with cars all around you, you don’t think about the purpose or destination of the other cars on the road. The other cars are simply there for you to pass or follow.

herald square traffic

However, say you are driving to a festival on the same busy road. You pass cars with bumper stickers, signs or window paint stating the name of the festival, bearing the logo or promoting the product at the core of the event. You no longer see yourself as a single driver because you recognise the common purpose you share with those other drivers.

In marketing, your buyers are like cars on a busy highway. Most people won’t walk up to a stranger and start a conversation about the stranger’s chosen tech unless they notice that they share a common interest in a certain device or brand.

To build a sense of community, you have to create unique ways for your customers (and employees) to communicate that they share a common interest.

The marks of a tribe

A strong, connected brand community elevates a brand; that's why it’s so important to create and nurture unique markers for your tribe. Markers start conversations, connect your buyers and provide social proof to buyers of the numbers in your community. So, what kind of identifiers can you create or nurture?

Visual. The most common way to communicate your brand identity is through visual markers. People see this in the design and branding on:

  • The things buyers carry like your products bearing your logo
  • The things they see and share online like your profiles, content or images
  • The things they wear which could be a product or simply a promotional item

It’s important to note that your visual branding must be consistent, distinctive and appealing. If you don’t get your visual branding right, even the most loyal followers won’t want to be marked by it.

Verbal. There are three areas a brand’s vocabulary can cover:

  • Systems. Starbucks renamed the sizes of their drinks from small, medium and large to tall, grande and venti. The way their customers order sounds different from any other coffee shop.
  • Products and services. Smart phones have different names depending on their company like the Samsung Galaxy, the Apple iPhone, etc. You know which company they come from by what the phone is called.
  • Expressions. No one said ‘I’m going to tweet this’ until posts on Twitter came on the social media scene. ‘No filter’ wasn’t needed before Instagram made photo filters common.

Every time someone mentions a grande latte, an iPhone, or a tweet, you know exactly which company they are talking about. Having a brand vocabulary allows you to unobtrusively insert your brand into everyday conversations and for buyers to recognise other buyers by what they say.

Behavioural. Tradition conveys importance. It says that an event or a habit is worth repeating. It also says that the brand at the heart of the ritual matters. This includes things like:

  • Apple’s keynote speeches before releasing a new product
  • Corona drinkers always putting a lime in the neck of the bottle
  • Comic Con events, which bring different fandoms together
  • Updating your iPhone and discussing the changes it brings
  • Liking, sharing or commenting on quality content

Behaviour is comprised of the little things like swiping right on an iPhone to the big things like trekking to the same event each year. It helps your community both identify one another and unite. They are recognisable by their actions.

These visual, verbal and behavioural cues can bind a brand community together.

Warning signs

Brand markers can be extremely powerful, if handled correctly, and damaging if handled poorly. Make sure you don't:

  • Mess with the foundation of their identity. Gap tried to change their logo once and Coca-cola altered their signature recipe. Both met with severe backlash from their brand community.
  • Be fake or forceful. U2 forced their album to all iPhones-much to the annoyance of the Apple tribe. We are past in-your-face marketing strategies.
  • Fail to embrace markers. Xerox fought against their name being used as a verb in place of photocopying, but Google embraced its name's transition from noun to a verb.
  • Allow negative markers to thrive or go unaddressed. McDonald’s started the hashtag #McDStories which quickly turned into a competition between buyers for the most negative customer experiences.

Keep in mind, though, before your tribe will adopt any mark (or create a few marks of their own), you have to build meaning into your brand.

Meaning in the markings

If you expect to build a strong brand community with customers as allies willing to bear the marks of the tribe, you must start by building value, emotion and meaning into your brand.

In a Forbes Entrepreneur article about the power of symbols, Darius Mirshanzaden recounts how he posed the question, ‘Can you think of a company you would tattoo on your body?’ to an audience. Someone replied with, ‘Harley Davidson.’

He then asked, ‘Would it be weird if I tattooed the Honda symbol on my chest?’ They met this question with laughter because Honda makes motorcycles while Harley Davidson means freedom and rebellion.

When the visual, verbal or behavioural marks of a brand have meaning that aligns with the values of buyers, the tribe wants to mark themselves to show they are a part of that community and hold to those values.

Joining a group hug

A strong brand is made up of members who take pleasure in finding each other and building relationships by communicating to one another that they share a common purpose. Those connections, which strengthen your brand community, strengthen your brand as a whole.
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(Hat tip to Joris Louwes and Matthias Rhomberg for the photos)