For decades marketing types have talked about how some brands have a soul, a voice, a personality. They rant long and hard about how Apple brand has a cult, Nike has a tribe, Coke has enthusiasts, and other beloved products and services have brand loyalists, advocates, zealots and vigilantes.
The branding blurbage runs into hundreds of thousands of words, not to mention meetings.
The importance is transcendent. It becomes more and more obvious that brands of the future will be those who are able to surround themselves with communities of customers. And whether we call them evangelists, vigilantes, loyalists or just plain good customers, marketers require enthusiasts of every stripe to stick to their brand no matter if they are leapfrogged by technology, pricing strategies, or newly devised distribution models.
Everyone else will be left chasing their tails in the pricing and technology wars.
But how do you create your own posse? Well, if you're lucky enough to be Coke, Starbucks, Nike, or Apple computers, you've already been able to push the right hot buttons. People have responded by creating "Nike tribes", the "Apple cult" and that all-knowing wink and nod between Starbuckians.
If you're not among those hallowed companies (and even if you are) your ability to design and maintain a community of your own making will become a good part of your success or failure in the months and years to come.
We have unraveled a part of the mystery of community creation using our primal code.
Looking at brands as belief systems is a long leap toward creating brand communities and ardent evangelists. Why? Because when you design a belief system, you attract others who want to share your beliefs. Call them evangelists, advocates, customer loyalists, brand vigilantes or just your best customers, they become connected to you in ways that no mere transaction can accomplish.
And that transaction, as studies show, is not simply between the manufacturer or retailer and its customer, but between consumers.
It's the bond created between Lego enthusiasts, iPod and Blackberry owners, MiniCooper drivers, Starbucks drinkers, Rolling Stones fans and Whole Foods and WalMart shoppers that creates the buzz, the vibe, the community. Makes you want to pay attention to who your demographic is, doesn't it?
For those who don't know, there are seven components that go into the creation of a belief system. We call them the pieces of primal code. (Sadly, some examples may be wholly American and we apologize in advance for being a product of our environment. Hopefully, you can replace our examples with your own.)
The code itself is simple: seven elements including creation story, creed, icons, ritual, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader. Once all seven pieces of code are in place, people are attracted to your brand in ways never thought possible. And it takes all seven to create a relevant, vibrant community.
A brief explanation.
The creation story is the beginning of your brand saga. It's how (and probably why) you got started. Google was started in a dorm room. EBay was started in a spare bedroom. Hawaiian Tropic started in the garage (as did Apple and Hewlett-Packard). Starbucks started in Seattle's flowery Pike Street Market. Nike started with Phil Knight selling shoes from his car trunk. Telling us where you've been also tells about who you are and where you're going. A woman in San Francisco started a skin care line because she discovered she was allergic to standard brands. The Beatles are from Liverpool.
Creed. Once we know where you're from, we want to know what you're about. Are you a good guy, or a bad guy? If you believe in capitalism, world peace, free markets, life after death, or Just Do It®, we know what to think about you. The creed is not your lengthy corporate mission statement. It's what you want people to take away - usually what copywriters have synthesized down into three or five words about your business or philosophical bent. Ultimate driving machine. Coke is it. Peace on earth. A green planet.
The creed is the core of what attracts others who want to share your beliefs.
Icons. The Sydney opera house. The Statue of Liberty. The Eiffel Tower. The Forbidden City. All of these icons identify the civic communities in which they stand. Brand communities have icons, too. The swoosh. The polo player. The Coke bottle silhouette. The iPod. The Rolex. The Hummer. As a friend in the music business declares, it's not just about the music (think Rolling Stones licker, The Grateful Dead bear, Kiss makeup). Icons establish a visual tag that extends beyond the song catalog, and helps members of the community identify one another. Logos are just one form of icon, however, for icons can involve all the senses: sound, taste, touch, and smell. Smell, for example, is an olfactory iconic powerhouse and lately companies like Omni hotels, Samsung, and others are using the sense of smell to highlight retail experiences. (The first thing my daughter does after she buys the Abercrombie & Fitch shirt is bury her face in the fabric and inhale their iconic scent.)
Ritual. Communities have things they like to do together. Run marathons. Chat over coffee. Beer fests. Winter carnivals. Spring rites. Rituals are the patterns of our lives, the web of daily activities that bind communities together. As I write this, World Cup Soccer is being held, a global rite attended by 5 billion people around the world via satellite, webphone and in person.
Netflix, a company that lets you rent movies over the Internet and receive them by mail, transformed the rite of renting movies in the U.S. and blindsided giant Blockbuster, a retail giant that forced you to scrounge for popular titles at their stores, then suffer painful late fees. Voting is a ritual. Doing laundry is a ritual. Answering your cell phone is a ritual. Been to a concert lately? Instead of holding up lighters, people hold up their phones to take photos or let friends listen in.
When the Pope died last year, Poles in Warsaw wanted to have a memorial service on the soccer field where the Pope had once held Mass. Every Pole involved in this smartmob text-messaged ten friends to come to the soccer field with a candle; those ten people text-messaged ten more people. Within three hours, 100,000 people filled the stadium.
T-Mobile, a cell phone company in the U.S., has forced its own community by allowing free calls between people who carry T-Mobile phones, adding a cost-free advantage to the ritual of telephony.
Rituals include the sacred and the mundane. Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, tells of a washing machine sold in China. The company was receiving so many complaints about their machines breaking down in a distant agricultural region, they finally sent a tech rep out to see what was happening. When the rep arrived, he discovered that farmers in this remote agricultural town were not only washing their clothes in the washing machine, they were also washing their vegetables: potatoes, carrots, cabbages. So the company did something very smart: they added a cycle for cleaning vegetables. Technology impacts ritual, and vice versa.
Sacred words. Every community has a specialized vocabulary that identifies those who belong within the community and those who do not. Whether you're a doctor, lawyer, computer geek, football fan, music freak, patriot, marketing director, media planner, or bricklayer, to belong to that community you have to know the words. In fact, how well you know the language establishes where you fit in the community hierarchy. Simple example. When you start a new job, the first few weeks are spent catching up on buzz words, known jokes, experiences, etc. of the company as you try to fit into your new role. If you don't, you don't fit in.
Nonbelievers. For every trend there is a countertrend. For every revolution, a counter revolution. Hawks and doves. Guzzlers and Green. The sacred and the profane. Target marketing helps us narrowcast who our customers are, but there are always people who do not want to be one of us; instead they'd rather be one of them. There is pain in realizing some people do not want to be just like us, but there is also great opportunity: if we can identify a group of people who do not want sugar in their diet, we can create sugar-free. If we single out a group who does not want caffeine, we can invent decaf. If we can point to those who do not want gas-guzzling cars, we can design more fuel-efficient cars - as well as other energy sources.
The leader. This is the individual who set out against all odds and the world at large to recreate the world according to their own point of view. These are the Bill Gates, Richard Bransons, Oprah Winfreys and other front cover personalities at the macro level. At the micro level, they are project leaders, team leaders, supervisors and others who manage to get the job done.
Most of us deal with any one of these seven pieces of primal code. The insight is that when all seven pieces of code work harmoniously, they create a constellation that attracts us at the deepest core of our humanity. Each piece of code is a point of differentiation that lets you design a belief system that attracts us to those who share those beliefs and creates a binding sense of community.
This is what we call Primal Branding. It is a construct that effects people at deep-skin levels to create groups of people attracted to one another.
Powerful brand communities like Nike, Apple, Starbucks and Coke have been able to fill in the seven pieces of primal code over time, by hiring smart people, gut instinct, and by spending millions of dollars. Because primal code is innately human, it in no small way has allowed these brands to become global. As a result they have created relevant, resonant communities of loyal consumers numbering in the millions.
These consumers have become the zealots, advocates, and members of the word of mouth community that marketers yearn for. A community that flows beyond the boundaries of simplistic functional benefits.
As Starbucks claims, it does not simply fill coffee cups, it fills souls.
The primal code does not care if you're a product or service, personality, politician, or even just a popular topical concept.
Take bird flu. Of the tens of thousands of noteworthy topics struggling to attract us, some bubble to the top, while others do not. Why? Because we are attracted to those that shimmer with primal code.
The bird flu creation story (at least as reported by CNN) originates somewhere in Asia. The creed is that "bird flu" is a global pandemic: we will all get sick and die. The icons are the chickens, geese, ducks, and other poultry-once a friendly food source, now turned vicious disease carriers. Picture the icons visuals of workers in orange hazmat suits (also an icon) slaughtering flocks of suspect poultry (a ritual). The vaccinations, the formal announcements by the Center for Disease Control as well as local and world health organizations are also ritualized events highlighted in the daily rite of news coverage. The lexicon surrounding the pandemic includes words like pandemic, bird flu, hazmat, and vaccine. Nonbelievers include poultry ranchers, and pandemic skeptics.
Leaders include the world health organizations, the Center for Disease Control, and the media. Let us hope that the "bird flu community" continues to be a conveniently odd set of words (with few unfortunate victims), and not the global pandemic the media and other experts project it to be.
MySpace.com has a community of over 46 million members without ever having advertised its existence. It, too, is a growing community injected with primal code.
The creation story is about founders Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson but, more importantly, it's friends telling other friends about the site. The creed is about "a place for friends", a self-described Internet place for community. The icons (in addition to the MySpace logo) are the millions of faces and photos the public can place on their own site, new people, and profiles. Rituals include downloading photos, music, chat, and sharing it with others. (If you think this is lamely generic, keep in mind that MySpacers spend hours on their site.) The special vocabulary for MySpace includes the "profiles", "cool new people", and more. Nonbelievers? "We didn't stop people from promoting whatever they wanted on MySpace," says co-founder Tom Anderson, in a recent Forbes magazine article. The MySpace site was immediately contrasted with the already-established Friendster.com. "On Friendster, if you were a band and you made a profile, they would delete it. They didn't want bands on their site. If you made a profile for your company or for where you lived or a neighborhood or an idea, you'd get deleted."
The leaders are not only founders Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson (who sold MySpace for $580 million), but the millions of people young and old who labor over their personalized sites.
How about iPod? The creation story is a simple extension of the Apple story: two guys named Steve who desired to make computers for the common folk. iPod brings music (and lately video) power to the people. The iPod creed is that it is "the best digital jukebox and #1 music download store".The iPod plastic shape designed by Jonathan Ives is famously iconic. So are the dozens of iPod cases and cords. The sound that indicates you have successfully downloaded your songs or video is also iconic. The way the sound buds fit into your ears is iconic. iPod rituals include the download, listening, searching for new tunes. Not to mention talkig about the latest iPod gear/technology/ units/downloads with your friends. iPods download iTunes (that's three words from the iPod lexicon, right there). Nonbelievers? Well, there aren't many. The makers of other MP3 players, and automobile drivers who'd rather not see that woman driving with iPods stuck in her ears. The leaders are the over 50 million people who own iPods. And the company in the lead (so far) is Apple.
Brand communities are also becoming real-life suburban communities.
In the United States, a Martha Stewart suburban community is actually under construction. On the opposite coast, a community inspired by the paintings of Thomas Kinkade (the first artist ever to be listed on The New York Stock Exchange), is being built outside San Francisco.
You can easily picture branded communities for Nike (groomed running paths with fit, attractive people), Apple (a pristine white wireless world), Starbucks (cool music playing in upscaled neighborhoods, with something warm to hold in your hand).
Although these physical communities are only imaginary (so far) the fact that we can imagine them speaks to the vitality and resonance and powerful effects of those brands.
You might try picturing what your own brand neighborhood looks and feels like.
Creating customer evangelists is what helps keep customers connected to you. And don't forget the connection they have between each other. While consumers might drop you for something that's cheaper, more technologically advanced, or just easier to get, they'll think twice if eliminating you also means losing friends.
This holds true not just for products and services, but also for personalities, political and social movements, civic communities, even for the most important brand of all.you.
Marketers everywhere want to number their consumers in the millions. The way to accomplish this effectively - and to keep them hanging around, is to design vibrant communities where they can live, play-and buy. For whatever reason, we are hard-wired as human beings to respond when all seven pieces of code exist. What brought us down from the trees millennia ago, also drags us into the shopping mall today.