You might not think that you are a brand, or that you buy brands, or that where you live is a brand—that is, until you consider that, like so many other things, brands too have evolved. “Brands” are no longer Mad Men in plaid suits trying to sell you something. Brands are not evil entities trying to trick you. Brands are communities: connected clusters of people who believe in the same things, dislike the same things, act the same way, talk the same language, and use a system of identifiers to signify who they are — to members within their same group and the world at large.
What moves this mass from cult to culture is its ability to transcend from being meaningless to becoming meaningful.
Consider this: If you hold a rock in your hand and show it to someone, it’s just a rock. But if you explain that this is the same rock that was held by the brave, unidentified man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, that rock suddenly becomes meaningful. It has value. People will want to hold it themselves. They will pay to see it. Some will ask to buy it from you.
Brands are no longer a deified product or service endorsed by corporate marketing. Today, “brands” belong to the populace that creates them. (Some might say this was ever so.) Brands are a resonant thriving community of people linked together by common belief, common values, and common trust.
And a common narrative.
These communities are described as fans, enthusiasts, zealots, advocates, customers, consumers, citizens and voters. Their active output is fandom, expressed in the form of tweets, pins, word of mouth, screaming rants, attending Comic Con, or giving you a “thumbs-up” on Facebook.
All along the way, they whisper, “Be one of us, not one of them.” Join us.
Designing narrative becomes essential to creating this level of fandom or support. It becomes strategic. And it becomes social.
Social communities are clustered around a common belief system. Who knew there was actually a “system” behind belief? A construct of seven elements that ping us, that our brains are hard-wired to respond to.
These seven elements are: the creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicon (or sacred words), nonbelievers, and leader.
This is the social code: a holistic construct that drives meaning and transforms what starts out as meaningless, to becoming a meaningful part of our world. It’s what turns social brands into viral brands.
1. Creation Story: The narrative begins at the beginning, with your creation story.
We all want to know where we came from, where we were born, who made us. Think of your profile on LinkedIn. Your “about” section on Facebook. The same is true for organizations, movements, personalities, civic communities, even products and services.
One of the first things we ask about a person or product that excites us is, “Where did you get that?” “Who are they?” “Where are they from?” “Who makes that?”
Every resonant and meaningful social community has a creation myth that describes how it started.
- The story of how Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos drove from the east coast to Seattle, sitting in the back seat of their car as they wrote the business plan for Amazon.com, is an epic tale.
- How TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie spotted children without shoes on the streets of Argentina and created a sustainable way to blend business and philanthropy binds us to his mission.
- Facebook firmly established its creation story in the movie The Social Network.
- Robert Kalin, one of the founders of Etsy, recalls how the e-commerce marketplace got its name. “I wanted a nonsense word because I wanted to build the brand from scratch,” says Kalin. “I was watching a Fellini movie and writing down what I was hearing. In Italian, you say ‘etsi’ a lot. It means ‘oh, yes.’ And in Latin, it means ‘and if.’”
Once we know where you’re from, tell us what you’re about.
2. Creed: The second piece of the social code is the creed.
- Elon Musk, chairman, product architect, and chief executive officer of Tesla, reminds car drivers of Tesla’s mission: “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.”
- Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
Once we know where you’re from and what you’re about, please identify yourself so that we can see you.
3. Icons: Icons are the flags that tag us and show others who we are.
Icons are also memes that instantaneously signal whether we should approach or avoid: they are part of our primal hardwiring and ping the essential meaning of our community in nanoseconds.
Look at an Apple store, Mickey Mouse ears, or the Nike swoosh — the essence, visceral presence and value of those brands is felt immediately.
Icons engage any or all of the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. More icons: the American flag, the taste of McDonald’s French fries, the smell of your mother’s perfume. Iconic experiences are meaningful actions that immerse us in the bath of community: We feel surrounded by others like us, people with similar tastes, preferences, data points. We glow.
4. Ritual: Ritual is the fourth piece of social code.
Rituals bring members of the community together as they post, share, pin, poke, Like, Yelp, text, upload, download, Skype, stream, and chat.
Ritual is also process, method, procedure. We design rituals to create order and counter the random forces of chaos and happenstance. Social celebrations — New Year’s Eve, birthdays, weddings, Thanksgiving, Mardis Gras, July 4th — and posting those celebrations on Instagram and Facebook break our existence down into bite-size moments of meaningful joy pops.
Other rituals — like the series of interactions we make to purchase on Amazon, Shopstyle, or Cowgirl Creamery — are shopping rites.
Walking the dog is a ritual. Brushing your teeth is a ritual. Driving to work (or taking the train) is a ritual. Voting is a ritual.
User experience (UX) helps community makers create pathways for new ritual behaviors. Crowdsourcing is a ritual. Social advocacy is a ritual. Buzz is the ritual of social advocacy. Searching on the Internet is a ritual. Posting on YouTube is a ritual.
Going to the Google cafeteria is a ritual.
Weaving on a Rainbow Loom is a ritual.
Selfies are a ritual.
5. Lexicon: All social communities have their own set of words that is understood by those inside the community, but unfamiliar to anyone standing outside.
Think of the first time you ate sushi: Someone walked you through the process of ordering.
Think of social acronyms, like “lol,” three letters understood by millions of people around the world who are members of the growing global digital community. This borderless community also understands acronyms like “lmao,” “afk,” “rotfl,” “pos,” and “fomo.”
As you may have guessed, the fifth piece of social code is the lexicon (also identified as sacred words). All social communities have their own dialect, jargon, idiom, and conversations.
They use specific words known, recognized, and understood by members of the social group.
These words (and acronyms) seem like a foreign language to others. If you know the words, you belong. You’re an insider. If you don’t know the words, you’re an outsider.
Nowhere is this clearer than when you start a new job. You spend the first hours, days, and weeks learning the words your co-workers already know. You also learn all the jokes and anecdotes everyone else knows, because you want to fit in; you don’t want to feel left out.
Whether the community is knitters, off-road enthusiasts, hipster taggers, makers of artisanal cheese, M&A lawyers, basketball coaches, baseball fans, or first-person shooter gamers, you have to know the words if you want to become a part of that community. How well you know the words defines your place in the hierarchy of doctors, lawyers, hackers, carpenters, plumbers, computer analysts, accountants, marketing professionals, mechanical engineers, cricket fans, music enthusiasts, taxi drivers, and others.
In the digital social space, we “pin,” “post,” “Like,” “tweet,” “Google,” “snap,” “status update,” create “selfies,” and apply other labels to social interactions.
Social media research scrapes the web for chatter and looks at the longitude and latitude of the conversations taking place. They create word clouds to see which words dominate the conversation.
Researchers discovered that by analyzing the words used in Twitter messages, they are able to define which community cluster we belong in, simply by interpreting our language data.
6. Nonbelievers: All communities have a counter-community of persons who do not believe.
This counterculture of haters, pagans, and heretics (think Droid versus iPhone, carnivore versus vegetarian, Rachel Maddow versus Fox News, or Manchester versus Bayern Munich) reminds us of what we are not.
Nonbelievers is this next piece of social code. It is particularly significant, because deciding who you are not and never want to become helps resolve your own community’s reason for being. (There’s nothing like a liberal telling a conservative they’re wrong to solidify the beliefs of both.)
7. Leader: Finally, all communities have a leader who sets out against all odds and the world at large in order to recreate the world according to their own point of view.
Think Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. Gloria Steinem. Sir Richard Branson. Oprah. Jeff Bezos. Nelson Mandala. Yvon Chouinard. George Washington.
In social media, key influencers become leaders, whether they appear as influential individuals, influential discussions, or influential sites. Why? Because where they lead, others follow.
The creation story, creed, icons, and other elements of social code become a strategic narrative that reinforces the vision, beliefs, and ideals of social community: This is how we started. This is who we are, why we’re here, and how we’re different. This is how we identify ourselves, and each other. Here’s how we do things; this is what we celebrate. This is how we describe ourselves and what we do. This is what we are not and never want to become.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Patrick Hanlon, excerpted in part from his book The Social Code: Designing Community In The Digital Age
The Blake Project Can Help: Get actionable guidance from experts on Brand, Growth and Purpose strategy.
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Growth and Brand Education