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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Craft Topics – Tribes

Tribes and tribal thinking

There are a number of threads behind this piece. The first is Mark Earl’s paper on Advertising to the herd which won Best New Thinking award at the MRS conference 2003 by challenging the individualism implicit in virtually all consumer marketing models. Which is a must read so I got permission to post the paper here. Click here to read it or go to Downloads see other papers there.

And the second is the notion of brand tribes doing the rounds – a dangerous cocktail of viral marketing and customer relationship marketing which has all the potential of reaching the minor cult status enjoyed by media neutral communications last year. And while people do indeed mob together under various banners – the idea that marketers can partition them into convenient groups and create screeds of advocates seems to me misleading and plain wrongheaded.

The third is a few approaches I have had from companies who seem to be engaging with me as a member of a group. Of which more later.

I’m a great believer in the audiences that companies and products accrue around them. Some of these are customers and high frequency customers. Even more are prospects who have an affinity but for whatever reason haven’t got around to buying the products yet. I would far rather measure brand value by the propensity of certain people to purchase or repurchase than trying to put a price on goodwill on a set of accounts. Value derives from the number of people willing to spend and the amount they will spend. And I do think that a significant amount of conscious learning about products and markets is from other people. But just because you like a product doesn’t put you in a social group. I drive a Civic but unlike Saturn drivers have no desire to drive to Swindon for a happy weekend with the Civic fraternity. And yet the brand tribalists seem convinced that because of our connections with a brand we will automatically have a predisposition to connect with each other.

Let’s put some axioms on the table. Customer have different strengths of relationship with companies and products. And going right throught the scale from rejecters to considerers to triallists to repeay buyers to frequent buyers there are a group of advocates who will promote the brand. Unfortunately advocates are neither the most frequent buyers or the highest volume buyers. Frequent buyers automate their purchases which makes them valuable but not particularly loyal – they’re just on automatic pilot. And they are often ripe for promisicuity because its boring buying the same thing over and over – which is why the point of most loyalty programmes is not to increase their perceived loyalty but to give them a sufficient level of gratification to stop them trying out someone else. High volume buyers aren’t any more loyal. They may be valuable because they buy so much but their infrequency means that it is harder to keep them on automatic pilot. They may get bored and try someone else next time they are in the market. Volume promotions are designed (surprise surprise) to shift volume while loading them with product which keeps them off the market for long periods of time. Just because they’re valuable doesn’t mean they’re on your side. Advocates on the other hand have a passionate belief in the brand which can come from all kinds of reasons – not necessarily product related. It may even come from their being infrequent users in the category which is why they need the confidence of the brand to reassure them. There is no guarentee that they are experts – their expertise may be postrationalisation and dependence. The value of an advocate if you follow the line taken in The Tipping Point. Is that by virtue of their connections, their knowledge or their ability to enthuse and motivate others the brand message is passed on. But not because they buy loads of products. Which is why one of the primary tasks for those whose job it is to sift through audiences and to find ways to increase their value is to find those discontinuities that make some people very different from the rest and to find ways to leverage this. Is it because they really watching ads and remember them? Is it because they are inveterate experimeters and triallists? Or do they love complaining so have disproportionate expertise in dealing with customer facing staff? This is where brand advocacy comes from and the communications strategy to exploit it needs to be extremely single minded.

And so to the 3 companies: first to Bang and Olufson who are located rather improbably in Wharfedale Road – rather like P&G locating their head office in Unilever road methinks) They recently sent me a Virtuoso customer card in expensive black – with a buy now and pay nothing foir 12 months offer. ‘The freedom of choice’ is their strapline which is obviously how they found me because as far as I’m aware I’ve never asked Bang and Olufson for anything. Now there’s nothing clubby about this – its looks very exclusive but basically it’s an offer of 12 months free credit. And it falls down because I have absolutely no connection with the company- it assumes a relationship that just isn’t there. They’re treating me like a customer – but not only am I not one I don’t even know any.

Then onto Nokia who make mobiles faster than the Amazonian rainforest makes oxygen. I’ve only ever owned Nokia mobiles as it happens so I suppose that makes me a “loyal” customer. Well they too sent me a card and well I have the phone so we have a relationship but why would I want to join Club Nokia? What is so clubbable about a mobile phone? Well quite a lot actually – a load of features exclusive to particular models – so it is important that you know someone with the same feature set and then you can start beaming them photos, ringtones, skins and all the rest or helping them download. So how extraordinary that the club Nokia website has no facility for interacting with other Nokia users at all – its just a shell for selling mobile software. Here’s a classic opportunity to turn the ownership of a mobile into a club of people who help each other and the company is patently uninterested in doing this but can’t resist calling it a club anyway.


And onto the Co op Bank – who I have been aware of from afar because of their ethical stance. And now that Planning Above and beyond is becoming a limited company and I finally need a proper company account – with bank charges and all – I approached them to see what was on offer – could I run a business account across the phone and the internet. The answer was yes but but not as easy as that. So first they hit me with a load of charges right? Nope. Nothing to pay for 18 months. No I had to satisfy them with negative answers to the following questions:

  • Do you manufacture or trade equipment for military or security purposes?
  • Are you involved in the extraction or production of fossil fuels?
  • Do you manufacture chemicals?
  • Are you involved in forestry or the timber trade?
  • Are you involved in commercial fishing?
  • Are you involved in the nuclear power industry?
  • Do you manufacture tobacco products?
  • Do you manufacture or are you involved in animal testing or household products or ingredients?
  • Are you involved in animal fur trade?
  • Are you involved in blood sports eg fox hunting?
  • Are you involved in animal farming?
  • Have you contravened any environmental legislation or regulations?
  • Are you involved in biotechnology or genetic modification?

Now wait a minute I’m a customer! Surely the ethical stuff is about the companies the bank invests in. Not for this lot. Even their customers have to be sqeaky clean. The Co op Bank don’t have an ethical policy they have a REVISED one – one which has been negotiated with customers – you can even see the percentage of agreement. They even have an ethical forum on the website where you can take part in regular debates on ethical issues. Now you may find this level of puritanism slightly irritating – but as a prospective customer it makes me slightly anxious that I may not be quite ethical enough for them – NOW THAT’S CLUBBABILITY!

I chose all these examples because the implied audience was critical to all 3. None of them resorted to member get member, keep up with the Jones, our discriminating customers type rhetoric. But only the Co-op Bank successfully leveraged my perception of other customers of the brand as a way of persuading me to buy. The implied audience is a powerful concept – it has to be a factor in many if not most purchasing decisions. And these days consumers are too savvy to be bullied into buying because the communications uses stereotyped user profiles.



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