Tribal Brand Strategy: The Art Of Exclusion

Paul FriederichsenFebruary 24, 20174 min

As humans, we are the product of thousands of years of tribalism. In the workplace, school or wherever, we coalesce around shared needs, desires and points-of-view. We form tribes. Tribes illuminate one thing above all else; you’re either in or you’re out. Some brands key in on this basic behavioral instinct to build their advantage.

As a rule, marketers focus on how to sharpen their efforts in reaching their desired target customer, and then cultivating those customers to becoming advocates—the brand’s “tribe.” That makes perfect sense. Your brand can’t, nor should it, be all things to all people. A brand, by definition, differentiates itself, and those differences will appeal to some and not to others.

How far some brands choose to go with that is where it gets interesting. Or you might say “repelling.” That seems to be the desired effect by some brand strategies toward people the brand doesn’t define as its desired target customer. In fact, it may actually feel hostile or off-putting if you’re not part of the brand’s intended tribe.

These brands choose to define themselves as much by what they are not and to whom they do not appeal to, as much as they are defined by what they are and appeal to. This exclusionary posture may take different forms, some subtle and some in your face. But always the goal is the same: preserve the integrity of the brand and intensify the loyalty of its tribe. The marketing execution for this direction can be sometimes provocative and attention getting, ramping up the “it’s for us and not for them” intensity even more.

Who Is In And Who Is Out

A perfect example is the Carl’s Jr. salacious, female-objectifying campaign designed to appeal to their primary target consumer, young men, while at the same time alienating most of the females on the planet. Young, hungry men who spend more for big burgers are this brand’s tribe. Women clearly are not.

When Abercrombie & Fitch doesn’t carry XL and XXL sizes and only show buff, barely dressed teens in their ads, catalogs and stores, the brand is saying if you’re chubby, you’re not part of our tribe.

Pulte Homes, the largest homebuilder in the U.S., crafted a lifestyle brand segmentation strategy to ensure a satisfying community experience among homeowners at similar life stages. Thus, if you’re 50+ and no children, a Del Webb community is for you. If you’re a young family with kids, Del Webb is not for you. The marketing clearly infers that distinction. The Del Webb tribe has gray hair.

An oft-cited example (and a classic one) of tribal mentality is the “I’m a Mac. I’m a PC.” Campaign. Here we see both tribes, personified beautifully by actors Justin Long and John Hodgman, illustrating the differences between the brands and skewed obviously in the Mac’s favor. As a loyal Mac customer myself and part of the Apple tribe, the alienation of the PC guy made me smile … and still does. Conversely, many PC users were offended by the creative portrayal, but that’s ok. Apple doesn’t want them anyway.

And when a political candidate characterizes the opponent’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” she is both galvanizing her supporters (her tribe) and alienating her non-supporters even more. It’s is a risky gambit.

Aside from including and strengthening those you want and excluding those you don’t, this tribal approach can have some added benefits, as well:

  • Disruption of the norm. The Carl’s Jr. campaign was not your run-of-the-mill fast food campaign. Go-Daddy’s sexy 2005 launch campaign was not your typical tech brand campaign. As smaller competitors with smaller budgets, these smaller fish took noticeable bites out of bigger fish.
  • Preservation of brand integrity. As my Branding Strategy Insider co-author Mark Di Somma observes, this kind of staunch approach regarding who you are and what your brand stands for actually shields and preserves your brand from attack or detraction, as in the case of New Balance being wrongly associated with a very undesirable tribe: white supremacists.
  • Underscoring brand values. When Patagonia took the unprecedented step to potentially alienate its own customers by telling them not to buy its jackets, but to repair their old Patagonia jackets instead, it was taking a stand for responsible consumption. This underscored the brand’s environmentally responsible viewpoint and actually resulted in more sales!

A brand strategy that defines who is in and who is out should be carefully considered in the planning stage. The planner should view those “who we do not wish to consume our beverages, wear our jeans, run in our shoes or drive our cars” as “Threats” to the brand as delineated in a S.W.O.T. analysis. And as a Threat, they must be avoided or eliminated. Unlike the common mindset of most marketing plans to grow share at whatever cost by spreading a positive appeal across the masses, the tribal mindset determines upfront to discriminate. Or as the Marine Corps is famously known, we want “a few good men,” not just any or all men. The tribal mindset is also bold and unapologetic. Often requiring fearless leadership to see it through.

Are there downsides to this approach? The reality is that market conditions will change. Those inevitable changes necessitate brands to adapt to remain relevant, even if in small ways. This uncompromising exclusionary, tribal strategy, by its nature, is strong medicine. On the PR front, it may generate more heat than light. It could even backfire. And over time, the marketer may need to skillfully move the brand to a less radical posture as it matures (in the case of GoDaddy) or cultural norms dictate.

In brand strategy as in life, choose your friends, as well as your enemies, wisely.

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