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Nicky Jepson

Marketing Director

It’s difficult to pen a piece of content without the obligatory acknowledgement of ‘these unprecedented times’ and that the ‘world as we know it has changed’ and to expect a ‘new normal’. In the given context, of course all of these observations are accurate but the bigger picture is that, since the beginning of time, our planet, every once in a while, has presented its residents with the occasional significant event that by definition, challenges the status quo, forcing fundamental changes to behavioural routines, perceptions and attitudes.

To be in the midst of one such event right now has provided marketers with a unique (in our lifetime at least!) and fascinating demonstration of some of the more primal drivers of collective human behaviour. And as unprecedented as it feels, we have actually responded and reacted in exactly the way American Psychologist, Abraham Maslow said we would in his Hierarchy of Needs theory. Our human brains are wired, particularly in times of uncertainty, to prioritise our most basic human physiological needs, Food, Water, Shelter – (cue food panic buying and toilet roll/pasta mania!)

The really interesting part for marketers, and the slightly more intangible and tricky end of this theory, are those higher needs or ‘growth needs’ that only come into their own once the lower needs or ‘deficiency needs’ are met. These needs are less physiological in nature, less primal and its where human behaviour starts splintering off into preferences, passions, beliefs and aspiration.


This is the place where ‘tribes’ thrive, through behaviour driven by the need to belong, to have pride and esteem, to be respected, and dare I say it, our perpetual pursuit of happiness and self-fulfilment. This is also the place where brands can create clear breakthrough in their perpetual pursuit of engagement, loyalty and advocacy.


What is a Tribe?


To give you a basic definition, ‘tribes’ arise when consumers identify as a group based on a common mindset, group of goals or set of beliefs. Tribal behaviour is rooted not in demographics but in human connection and common collective behaviours – In marketing terms, it’s the most valuable form of engagement and authenticity. Each of us has an individual profile of attitudes and behaviours that align us with various groups of like minded people who give us that sense of belonging and therefore increased confidence. Our inherent human instincts mean we naturally gravitate to the safety of our tribes.Tribal behaviour as a marketing concept is nothing new; Seth Godin immortalised it in his 2008 book ‘Tribes’ and whilst we’re playing marketing guru bingo, its one of the foundations of why Simon Sinek’s theory of ‘Why’ earned its revered reputation.


Let me try and explain….

I run. Therefore Im a runner?

Therefore my tribe are runners? Right?

Like many women, Im a full time working mum.  So I run for headspace and ‘me-time’ as a priority. I prefer distance to speed because it gives me more of the above. The countryside, hills, fields, mud… is my thing.

I have a mixed group of friends Ive run socially with for years. We run to catch up, we plod, we sprint, we chat, for miles. We dont care much for what we look like, we dont really care what the time is. (Until we’re late for something!) The eldest is 72, the youngest is 33. Some of us are really competitive and accomplished runners, some of us really arent. Some have all the gear, some of us have no idea. But our gear and abilities dont matter on that run. We’re single, happily married, happily divorced, with adult  kids, teenagers and toddlers. An eclectic group of people of mixed ability, mixed ages and occupations, all out running together, chewing the fat, counselling each other, sharing our lives. No clear defining set of demographics but a shared passion for the feeling that Sunday run gives us.


The point is, yes we’re all runners, women and yes we all wear trainers. But the brand that understands our emotional connection to running will build a much more loyal and fruitful relationship with us. In fact, its ‘Why’ we run that is that valuable piece of information. The tribal bit. For our tribe, its the sentiment that campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ from Sport England have perfectly realised through their inclusive communications.

Why are Tribes valuable to Brands?


Identification with tribal behaviours and attitudes helps us to define who we are and make choices about how we conduct our lives. This is pure gold for the average marketer, for a couple of reasons. Depending on the nature of your tribe, the valuable ones tend to have socially active members and regularly demonstrate opinion and influence. This means that they have the potential to be vocal and active advocates if you connect with them at the appropriate level. Their influence permeates not only their tribe but neighbouring and associated tribes, allowing crossover to help your audience grow naturally and organically.


Getting to the bottom of these motivations and belief systems, but also the wider tribal support network (read – ‘opportunity’), is no mean feat but the pay off is a clear opportunity for absolute brand alignment at the deepest level, the emotive one. It is this intimate insight that informs not only campaigns and communications, but product development and brand values, in fact it becomes the blueprint for all future activity. This laser-like focus ensures a more effective and rewarding deployment of marketing resources.

Why are behaviours replacing demographics when it comes to profiling customers? 


The changing of the guard on our generations has much to do with influences on marketing practices. Millennials have had a significant impact on the way we market, in 2 clear ways. They display their uniqueness by aligning themselves to a set of brands that share their beliefs, rather than fulfill a function. Purpose, authenticity, sustainability are all words you will commonly see in a millennial word cloud.


Similarly, high profile and long overdue movements for equality and reform in age, race and gender, means that consumers are choosing to no longer define themselves by demographics – they prefer instead to define themselves by interests, beliefs, experiences and activities.


Life ‘moments’ are no longer as prescriptive as they were. The dial has shifted on first time parent, first home, first marriage, second marriage, third marriage…..


This is a fundamental shift for our marketing practices, from how we define and carve our brand values, to how we deliver the micro experiences personally to our consumers.

Building Brands for Tribes


It isn’t enough to focus on common behaviours alone. At a micro-level, personalisation validates, predicts and capitalises on tribal mentality and behaviours but does little to help define brands. We now have the power to track and analyse every click and interaction from search through to conversion, but these must be judged for what they are, tactical reactions, and a brand cannot be created from the sum of these shopping experiences. Identifying the passion behind those behaviours, the drivers and motivations is where the real elixir of brand lies.


This is where you claim your brand’s moral compass, where you make that stand that’s aligned to your tribe’s belief system. At this point its worth mentioning that your stake in the ground must be genuine, authentic, consistent and demonstrable if it has any chance of hitting the high notes with your tribe. News travels quickly in a tribe!

Tracking down your Tribe


If behaviours really are superseding demographics in importance, does this now negate the need for segmentation? The truth is, yes behaviour and attitude analysis can certainly help you understand your tribe on a much deeper level but you still have to find them. A blended approach using demographic segmentation that builds a clear profile of your customer, detailing as many characteristics as possible, will help you really define your tribe.


The key is to try to understand and articulate ‘the passion’ and its drivers first, for example, ‘a love of the outdoors’, then cascade that down into profiling attitudes and behaviours, needs, wants, values. Once you have the essence of your tribe, you can then pick out as many defining demographics as possible that may help you close in on them; where are they in the world, male or female, employment profile, level of affluence, life-stage or age, family profile etc etc. At this stage you will see your community emerge but also start to see patterns of cross-over and neighbouring tribes.


But be careful to only seek the pieces of information that you can do something with, the rest is just noise and will distract your focus.

Your journey to a customer-oriented business


Pinpointing your tribe is the fun bit, but the value of this work can only be truly realised if you then gear your entire business machine around your tribes. If you can now read how they think, what they need, how they see the world and the things they are really passionate about, everything from your operational infrastructure and product development through to your brand proposition and communications strategy, should be more informed and therefore focused on delivering absolute value to them, to the wellbeing of your business and by default, your bottom line.

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