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Chapter five


Chapter five

brand tribes

table of contents:

Sustainability Communications: brand tribes, chapter 5. How to use tribes to develop brand belongingness


  • how can intelligent people reach diametrically opposite conclusions on fact-based issues?

  • what kind of issues tend to derail our ability for rational and objective analysis? 

  • do some of our behaviours mimick those of primitive tribes?

  • what has the power of driving us to pay for the privilege of advertising a commercial brand?

  • how can we overcome some of the inhibiting effects of tribalism?




politicised issues


In the previous chapter - CONTRARIAN BRAINS – we explored several ways in which our brains avoid, reject or even distort the information we are exposed to. This is something we are reluctant to admit to, because we like to think of ourselves as rational, logical and objective beings. As you know by now, that is not supported by scientific evidence.


Particularly interesting was the study by Kahan et al. (Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government): it revealed a process whereby people could arrive at opposite conclusions from identical data; the initial supposition was that the phenomenon would decrease as the level of intelligence and education of the subjects increased; the assumption proved correct, with a very significant twist: on politicised issues, exactly the opposite was true: the higher the intelligence, the higher the polarization. This can be explained by a perceived need to conform to the world view of one’s peer group, and it has profound implications on the way we communicate on politicized issues.


how polarisation happens

Sustainability covers issues that are highly politicized, for instance climate change and whether or not it is man-made. If you are a Texan who votes Republican, work for an oil company, watch Fox news and drive a large SUV, a lot of the people you mix with socially and professionally will have strong views on these issues. Taking an adverse stance could threaten your social and perhaps even professional identity, something you would clearly be keen to avoid. When presented with data on the issues, this is how the mechanism works:


  • if a superficial review of the data appears to confirm the views held by your peer group, you are likely to accept that as a confirmation. You decline to probe the data any further. Since the process is repeated, a majority of the members of your peer-group will therefore believe they have just had a confirmation of their theories, whether or not that is the correct interpretation of the data. When the data was difficult to interpret, a disproportionate number in your peer-group will have rushed into an interpretation that (wrongly) confirmed their world-view.

  • if, on the contrary, the data initially appears to challenge the views of your peer group, you are triggered to dig deeper, engaging more effortful, analytical thinking. In some cases, this will mean that the more intellectually sophisticated people will have avoided being misled by the answer that appeared at first glance. When the data required deeper analysis, a disproportionate number in your peer-group will have engaged in deep analysis, which (rightly) confirmed their world-view.

Since the same mechanism applies to the opposite peer-group, you end up with a polarized situation, each group comforted in their respective beliefs.

This is a natural mechanism to confirm and protect one’s status within a peer-group, and it is easy to see why such behavior would have its roots in evolution.




In primitive societies this led to the formation of tribes, which differentiated themselves with explicit language, attire, symbols and rituals. The phenomenon is still very much alive, although the symbolism has evolved and the consequences of venturing outside one’s tribe, in its modern meaning, are less dramatic than they used to be when we lived in caves and never ventured outside without a club in our hand.


Tribalism is the state of being organized in a tribe, according to kinship, ethnicity and culture that separates the group from the members of other groups. In modern language, its meaning is expanded to also describe groups of people who feel strongly connected by a set of opinions, passions or behaviours. This connection can be stronger than the connection to friends, country, or other social groups. The identification with the group, or the sense of loyalty towards the group, can be so exalted that the tribe will play a significant role in shaping the opinions and behaviours of the individual members. It is not difficult to recognise that modern tribes have come up with the equivalent of the symbolisms and rituals of traditional tribes. The belligerence that often ensured a tribe's survival is also mimicked in the form of more benign or even playful rivalry.


Consciously or not, we are all more or less committed members of several interconnected tribes, the list of which is infinite. The constellation of tribes you feel part of goes a long way in describing who you are. What is important to this paper, however, is the distinction that transpired from the research of Prof Kahan et al.


Your belonging to certain tribes will be crucial to your private and/or professional status in society, something you will be anxious to preserve. Kahan et al teach us that this may curb one’s ability to probe beliefs or ideas that are typical to that tribe. For instance, it can be perceived as uncomfortable to be put in a position to defend your belonging to a nationality, an ethnicity, a culture, a class in society, a profession, a secret society, a religion, a cult or an ideological or political group. In certain social situations, you may therefore feel pressure to tone down or conceal your belonging to tribes of this nature. On the other hand, it can be downright threatening if your loyalty is questioned by fellow tribe members, behaving like jealous partners. Let’s call them the “Intolerant Tribes”.


You are, however, likely to also belong to a number of tribes that are not so life-defining, more casual and less permanent. You enjoy being part of a particular tribe and you are generally happy to display it in a demonstrative way. In social situations, it easily attracts friendly banter and new friendships, and is unlikely to cause embarrassment or to feel threatening. Here's how a young blogger candidly describes her attraction to branded fashion items, implicitly describing her aspiration to belong to a tribe of "teenager fashionistas":


(From Faze, web-community for young women, 2015)

If you see someone else sporting your favourite brand, it’s easy to spark a conversation. Even if you’re shy, you will be much more self-assured because you know that you’ve got something in common with the other person. Self-esteem is a huge part of being a teenager, so a small boost in confidence could have a tremendous effect. Confidence allows us to try new things without the fear of rejection or failure. So, why shouldn’t we have something that gives us a sense of security?


Although you may feel protective towards your tribe and competitive against other tribes, it is in a light-hearted and playful spirit, rarely something that can threaten a friendship or your place in society. Let’s call them the “Congenial Tribes”. Typical Congenial Tribes are followers of fashions or fads, clubs and associations, sports teams, gaming or hobby communities, etc.


We will see how the contrast between Intolerant and the Congenial Tribes can help untangle one of the biggest challenges in communication.


brand tribes

Segmenting consumers into different audiences is nothing new. Able communicators with access to large resources have succeeded in something much more remarkable: identifying pockets of consumers that feel so strongly about a brand that they adopt a tribal behaviour towards that brand. Marketers refer to them as Brand Tribes.

(Atul Todi,

 “For marketing managers and advertising teams, the goal should be to identity and build these Tribes. These tribes follow their favorite brands like a religion. Marketers need to help develop rituals and practices which surround their brand and help the members spread the word to their friends and families. Therefore, instead of trying to have mass scale advertising, what new and old brands need is to rethink their strategy and focus on creative ways to get people involved with the brand with a sense of belongingness. ‘Cause, when you identify with a brand, you stay with the Brand and so does your best friend.”


Examples of global brands that have successfully created large tribes of their own are Red Bull, Nike, Virgin, Apple, Tesla and Facebook. Make no mistake, it is incredibly difficult to achieve, and the rewards are huge. But we easily overlook the fact that there is one industry that churns out brand tribes as a matter of routine. In fact, it is an indispensable ingredient of their business model: unless they can inspire tribal behavior around their brand, they have no raison d’être. Think of the huge tribes that have formed around brands such as Barcelona FC, Montreal Canadiens, LA Lakers, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, All Blacks, Ferrari, Ducati, and one-person brand names such as Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, Sachin Tendulkar or Roger Federer. And that’s just one brand out of each sport!  


a tribe factory

The sports industry is a tribe factory, just like the entertainment industry, music, movies and fashion. In the last 10 years, the social media phenomenon has both energised existing tribes and generated new ones around a wide spectrum of interests, from the most trivial to the most profound. Through sponsorship agreements, commercial brands can buy access to the tribe attached to a sports franchise, performer, artist, fashion or cause. As a rule, it produces more than just acceptance, it produces affect and that same sense of belonging that is the glue binding a tribe together.


The logo of the sponsoring brand, a performing artist or a fashion designer, are spontaneously and proudly adopted as a symbol of the tribe in the same way that ancient tribes used face paintings and tattoos. Tribe members will willingly and often display their allegiance by wearing merchandise that display these symbols. Saying that they become unpaid ambassadors for your brand fails to describe the fullness of the relationship: tribe members will pay out of their own pockets for the privilege of displaying the sponsor’s logo in public. The normal advertiser-consumer relationship is literally turned inside out.


(Atul Todi,

 “In today’s postmodern society there exists a network of societal micro-groups in which individuals share strong emotional links, a common sub-culture and a vision of life. They call such groups Tribes.


[…] Many recent marketing theories based on the postmodernist frame of reference have started looking at brand as a cult instead of the more popular concept of brand image. With changing consumption behavior patterns it has become important to deviate from traditional norm and understand the new social organization. These new social organization or “consumer tribes” are often characterized by ritual, beliefs and symbolism which reflect a non-religious cult. These Tribal consumers buy images and not products and value goods and services which support social interaction to help build a community.


These tribes can be made of heterogeneous individuals with different gender, age and income, linked by a shared passion or emotion. Brand tribes evolve around products with similar values. The process of creating a tribal brand incorporates thousands of social interactions amongst customers with various facets of their preferred brand.


[…] in today’s highly connected society with increasing influence of internet, consumers can easily identify with other consumers and loosely build communities which share similar emotions and ideologies. Also, if a tribe is totally devoted to a certain object, its members are willing to sacrifice time and money."


Nobody is suggesting that all consumers need to see themselves as members of a tribe before they become customers. Brand tribes are a core group that will evangelize your brand and start the word-of-mouth machine, the most reliable mechanism for recruiting new customers. Today it is also more powerful by several orders of magnitude, due to the modern equivalent of smoke signals: social media.


In his book “The Tipping Point” (Back Bay Books, 2002), Malcolm Gladwell describes how a pyramid of related communicators, which he hierarchises into “mavens, connectors and salesmen”, can promote an idea, trend or social behaviour. They actively bring it to a tipping point after which it crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire. He describes how contagious ideas can be spread like infectious diseases, resulting in “social epidemics” for the greater good.


the popularity glass ceiling

For illustrative purposes, I would again like to point to the examples of the NFL and the NBA. As two hugely influential tribes in sports, they created a wave of black role models attracting the adoration of sports fans of all ethnicities.


This almost universal popularity is impossible to achieve for even the most outstanding politicians. The following is not meant to be a scientific statement, but a theoretical example to illustrate how Congenial Tribes have more communicating power than Intolerant Tribes: Barack Obama 2012 may have got 93% of the black vote and 92% of the Democratic vote (2012). For almost anything he campaigns for, however, he operates under a glass ceiling somewhere around 50%, which corresponds to the size of the opposite tribe. Assuming an average US audience, it is easy to imagine an NBA or NFL megastar piercing that barrier, even when endorsing a sensitive issue such as race relations. Why is that? Because these are like different planets.


Voters see their society as divided in half, and protectively align themselves with an Intolerant Tribe on the left or one on the right of the virtual demarcation line. Sports fans generally have their favourite teams or individual idols, each of which are mini-tribes, but loyalties can change and rivalries are mostly playful and short lived. It is much less likely that they switch sports, though, and the real tribal feelings are therefore towards the entire global community of that sport, which may very well generate solid and lifelong loyalty. They do not perceive other sports as threats, but as something like parallel universes, other Congenial Tribes. They are all meritocracies, of course, and the criteria for stardom are beautifully simple: your popularity is entirely based on your ability to perform and entertain. Although it may sound cheesy, sport really does have the power to transcend the type of biases the prejudices of society. That's why sports megastars have more influence on the members of their Congenial Tribes than even the most  powerful leaders of Intolerant Tribes.


Perhaps Barack Obama is not joking when he says that he sometimes wishes he was an NBA player.


The Washington Post, January 18, 2010 (therefore long before the 2014-2015 events): 

The political polarization that drives much opinion about Obama's presidency carries over to perceptions of his impact on race relations as well. Among Democrats, about six in 10 say his presidency has helped race relations, compared with about four in 10 independents and just a quarter of Republicans. 



neutralize the politics

How to minimise this overriding tendency to - literally - toe the party line?


(Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government, Kahan et al.):  

"Improving public understanding of science and propagating critical reasoning skills - while immensely important, both intrinsically and practically - cannot be expected to dissipate persistent public conflict over decision-relevant science. Only removing the source of the motivation to process scientific evidence in an identity-protective fashion can."


There is little doubt that identity protecting behaviour will not only influence one's motivation to consciously process scientific evidence but also, if not more so, the subconscious attitude towards that issue. Therefore, attitudes towards sustainability must also be allowed to be shaped in environments where the issue will not trigger identity-protective behaviours.


"The conditions that generate symbolic associations between positions on risk and like facts, on the one hand, and cultural identities, on the other, must be neutralized ..."


Can they be neutralized? Kahan et al. are not optimistic:

"We would add, however, that we do not believe that the results of this or any other study we know of rule out the existence of cognitive dispositions that do effectively mitigate the tendency to display ideologically motivated reasoning. "


They highlight the dilemma that this poses to the subscribers of the so called Science Comprehension Thesis. Typically, they recommend two alternative courses of action:   


"The first is to strengthen science education and the teaching of critical reasoning skills, in order better to equip the public for the cognitive demands of democratic citizenship in a society where technological risk is becoming an increasingly important focus of public policymaking (Miller & Pardo 2000)."


The second is to dramatically shrink the scope of the public’s role in government by transferring responsibility for risk regulation and other forms of science-informed policy-making to politically insulated expert regulators (Breyer 1993). This is the program advocated by commentators who believe that the public’s overreliance on heuristic-driven forms of reasoning is too elemental to human psychology to be corrected by any form of education (Sunstein 2005)."


In other words, if the audience overwhelmingly relies on heuristic-driven reasoning, then communicate with that audience through heuristics, not through complex science that requires critical reasoning skills.  


"Identifying strategies for protecting the science communication environment from antagonistic cultural meanings - for decontaminating it when such protective measures fail - is the most critical contribution that decision science can make to the practice of democratic government."


The ambition of this white paper is of course to describe one such strategy. 



concluding remarks

As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, the biggest challenge with promoting a given social behaviour is that anything that relates to society is by definition politicised. Although the generic concept of sustainability is less controversial than some of its component parts, such as climate change, global warming, and whether or not they are anthropogenic, it still suffers from the bias held by certain political or ideological tribes of the Intolerant kind. By definition, it is indispensable to move the subject into a less partisan arena.


The proposition is that this can be done by creating the conditions for people to be exposed to alternative attitudes in different environments and conditions. This may give them the opportunity to discover, appreciate and possibly adopt new attitudes and behaviours without being unduly influenced by the bias of an Intolerant Tribe they may belong to. Congenial Tribes are a logical place for this to take place. This environment is likely to offer a wider diversity of opinions, a different reference system and a different set of biases. We are not going to speculate as to how likely this is to actually overcome ideological divides. What is undeniable, however, is that attitudes can be experienced and opinions discussed in a non-threatening and non-politicised arena, in a relaxed and unconstrained manner. Your sense of belonging to a Congenial Tribe is likely to be based on unconditional passion for a certain activity. It is unlikely to be constrained by real-life ideologies.


The process must be played out within groups, or tribes. First of all, the concept is for people to be exposed to each other's different attitudes and behaviours. These must be natural and coherent to the group's activities in order to generate credible role-models, who in turn lead by example. The attitudes and behaviours will both consciously and subconsciously be adopted as a distuinguishing trait of the tribe, just like rituals and symbols. Finally, since the objective is to cause change on a large-scale, it is logical to start with tribes, hoping that tribe-members will prozelytise the concept towards a tipping point, hopefully climaxing in a social epidemic.


In other words, the problem caused by tribalism can been countered through …. more tribalism.


If this process sounds like a dark art, the next chapter will show how natural these behaviours are, and how keenly we seek to simplify our lives by relying on metaphors and biases.


Mario Hytten, author of the white paper "Instinctively sustainable through effortless communications"

by mario hytten

Persons from the same peer-group tend to conclude that the datas they have confirme their world-view

Talk to my hand!

We are all members of several interconnected tribes included both congenial and intolerant tribes

We are all members of several interconnected tribes.

a tribe gives a sense of security because peers are strongly connected: opinions, passions, behaviours and emotional links

My tribes give me a sense of security....

Red Bull's tribe is strongly connected. It has its own style, symbols and the attitudes and is recognizable even without logo

The Red Bull's tribe revolves around extreme sports. They have taken such strong ownership of the style, the symbolism and the attitude that the they come through even in absence of the logo.

logo of the sponsoring brand is instinctively adopted as a symbol of the tribe which means that they pay to display in public

Paying for the privilege of advertising your brand.

pyramid for recruiting new customers, hierarchises mavens, connectors and salesmen who promote trend and social behaviour



black football megastar attract the adoration of sports fans of all ethnicities, sport neutralize politics and glass ceiling

Not a scene you would have expected to see in the 1960s.

sport megastars have more influence on Congenial Tribes member than political leaders like Obama: it neutralizes the politics

No 50% ceiling in popularity ratings.... 

Tribes members have many things in common: symbols, rituals, unconditional passion, non-religious cults, loyalty, behaviors

Unconditional passion is unlikely to be constrained by real-life ideologies.

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