5 Examples of Brands Using Tribal Marketing
And what marketers can learn from them
It’s 2012, and Felix Baumgartner sits in his capsule being lifted into the stratosphere by what looks like a hot air balloon. Taking a deep breath, he opens the capsule door, and through his Red Bull-emblazoned astronaut suit helmet, he sees what very few people in the world get to see — the Earth from the edge of space.
“I know the whole world is watching now.” He salutes. “I’m going home now.”
A few tentative steps and a lean forward later, he becomes the first skydiver to break the speed of sound, jumping from 24 miles above the rest of us.
The video on YouTube has since garnered tens of millions of views, and at the time, it also got a lot of hype for the Red Bull brand. It’s a great example of tribal marketing, but why? And what can other marketers learn from it?
What Is Tribal Marketing?
Before I get more into the details, I just wanted to clarify something here. Tribal marketing (or tribal communities) often gets confused with brand communities (or rather the process of creating them), but they’re not the same thing.
Brand communities and tribal communities have different power structures, purposes, social positions, and time spans. That’s not to say that one strategy is better than the other, but they are inherently different.
Brand communities tend to be top-down, focused entirely around the brand itself, socialising with the brand, and upholding brand values among other community members. In fact, in successful cases such as Harley Davidson or Apple, the brand often becomes a significant part of the consumer's identity.
Tribal marketing, on the other hand, is very bottom-up. In our everyday lives, we belong to multiple consumer tribes. The purpose of tribal marketing here is to link value by providing a platform where consumers can assemble, as well as create meaning and value for themselves.
What I will say, though, is that from my research, I can see the trend that brand communities and tribal marketing can overlap (which is probably the source of the confusion to begin with). With all that in mind, let’s get back to the brands that do awesome tribal marketing.
1. Red Bull
Red Bull was a major player in the story I gave in the introduction up there. They teamed up with experts in science, engineering, medicine, and of course Felix himself for seven years leading up to the jump. While it was a great marketing stunt in and of itself, it definitely played a big part in their tribal marketing strategy.
Red Bull is probably the best example of spotting the difference between tribal marketing and brand community. If Red Bull were to employ the brand community strategy, they would be looking for die-hard, eye-popping energy drink lovers, and their brand would be all about their drink.
I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that do love the energy drink, but most of us know Red Bull by their extreme sports sponsorships and events (like the space jump). The platform Red Bull provides gathers extreme sports enthusiasts, sponsors their activities, and links different communities like surfers, skateboarders, divers, and dancers together with a love of adrenaline.
Crucially, they position themselves as the link rather than the end product itself. Red Bull isn’t extreme sports, but it provides a platform for people to experience it.
For Black Friday of 2011, Patagonia ran a full-page ad spread telling people not to buy their jacket. Sounds counterintuitive to a successful business strategy, right?
Here’s the thing: Patagonia is a brand built on sustainability and a mission to save the planet. With a mission like that, it’s clear for Patagonia to make use of the tribal marketing strategy (instead of selling as much stuff as possible).
Similar to Red Bull, Patagonia has a product to sell, namely their outdoor clothing line. But where the tribal magic happens is in their activism like that ad and in other opportunities to move along in their mission.
In this way, Patagonia presents itself as a platform for anyone who cares about the planet, environmentalism, and sustainability to engage with each other, giving each other tips for more sustainable living and letting the brand products take a backseat — thus linking value.
3. Monzo Bank
Now, I’ll add a little disclaimer here, I used to work for Monzo, so I’ve got a little bias here. That being said, there’s a reason that Monzo was the most recommended brand in the UK last year. Beyond having excellent branding strategies, they also utilise tribal marketing.
Their big mission is “to make money work for everyone.” In this pursuit, they have built their own huge community forum (this is part of their brand community strategy), but they also encouraged customers to form their own “saving squad”.
By providing a platform for customers to link value with not just their product but other products and services in the marketplace, they help people begin to become more financially independent and share their passion for saving money.
It’s not only the platform that feeds into their tribal marketing strategy, either — it’s their openness and willingness to change, being challengers instead of the establishment (something Apple appears to have lost some years ago).
The GoPro story is a little similar to that of Red Bull, in that it’s involved quite heavily in sports or events of an extreme nature. But what makes GoPro unique is how user-generated content makes up a lot of their marketing (including tribal marketing), due to the nature of the product.
GoPro has been a major player in the rise of wearable cameras (obviously) and provides a platform for people to create and share amazing content, stoking the fires of filmmaking passion everywhere. In particular, since the launch of their feature to livestream directly from the camera, it helps creators build platforms for themselves and their brands too.
The huge benefit for GoPro in letting their users create their own filmmaking spaces has been that they don’t really have to spend a huge amount of money on marketing when their users do it for them. This way, the community has also come up with some surprising footage of their own.
GoPro’s link value is in connecting creators via their passion for awesome videos.
Probably the most famous convention on the planet, Comic-Con has served as the ultimate example of awesome tribal marketing. Since tribal marketing is about social connectedness and linking value rather than the product or the brand, conventions like this one take the cake.
For sure it’s arguable that the product of Comic-Con is, in fact, a brand community. But how the attendees really make it their own and apply their own meanings to what Comic-Con is for them makes it a successful tribal marketing example.
What makes it even more relevant here is the way it provides a marketplace (the platform) for fans and creatives to network, sell, and debate on Marvel vs. DC (among many other fan base rivalries).
I’ve only ever been to one Comic-Con in my life, but I sure as hell remember the experience (and the queue to get in).
So What Have We Learned?
By looking at these tribal marketing strategies in action, we can see there are a few key ingredients to making it work.
The main ingredient, of course, is the brand providing a way for consumers to connect, share, and support a collective of people, ideas, and markets. The concept of “the platform” and taking a step back is super important because tribal consumers don’t want to be spoon-fed by the brand — they want to lead and contribute actively.
Another ingredient you might have noticed is a strong yet open-ended mission or purpose. For example, Patagonia’s “to save the planet” is pretty open-ended and allows them to foster a tribal marketing approach. Whereas it would have been a lot harder if their mission was “to keep adventurists warm and dry with sustainable clothing.”
Of course, as with forming brand communities, the tribal marketing approach isn’t for everyone. And it often seems that forming tribal communities is a happy side effect of just having a great product or service that serves genuine value.
However, brands do need the best conditions for them to form:
- Having a strong purpose
- Always being willing to change and innovate
- Providing opportunities for people to network through and around your brand
- Engaging with causes or events outside of oneself
- Letting the consumers take the driving seat to create value and meaning for themselves
Alexander Boswell is a Business Ph.D candidate specialising in Consumer Behaviour and uses this knowledge as a freelance writer in the Content Marketing and B2B SaaS space. Find him on Twitter @alexbboswell or his website alexanderbboswell.com