What Is Primal Branding?

Patrick Hanlon
Nov 23, 2018 · 10 min read
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Rachel Lightfoot’s video outlining “Primal Branding” construct has over 800K views (but can only be viewed by YouTubers, so try this one on Social Media Examiner)

We have jettisoned the kludgeworks of traditional marketing to create a beautiful new ecosystem filled with trust, vision, purpose, relevance, advocacy and other things companies spend billions of dollars trying to create.

“Primal Branding” is the root code for building seriously authentic Brands. It is nontraditional and uncovers the building blocks that attract people and bring them together. As human beings, we are hard-wired to cluster in groups and build communities with common language, purpose, affinities and desires. For thousands of years, these human clusters have risen seemingly spontaneously and without reason. But we have discovered the pattern behind community building that has existed for tens of thousands of years. It is systematic, definitive, predictive, and triggers the essence of what it means to be human. It is Primal.

Nobody cares what companies have to say about their products and services, but they do care about what other people have to say about them.

Primal Branding is a User-first method that helps build, activate and manage community-based Brands for people, places and things. (“Things” are often products or services — but they can also be concepts or ideas. Like gravity. Cryptocurrency. Or #BlackLivesMatter.

Primal Branding has become the playbook for building social communities because, unlike other theories on “Brand”, Primal looks at Brands as belief systems — create a belief system and you attract others who share your beliefs.

This is based upon Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company and Your Future, which was written by Patrick Hanlon and published in 2006 by Simon & Schuster/Free Press.

Since 2013, Primal Branding has been required reading in the YouTube Certification program. Their Primal Branding video has been viewed over 800,000 times.

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Primal Branding has become the social engine for WOM.

Here’s why. Once you script how something started, define its reason for being, how to identify it, how it’s used (it’s role in your life), give it a name and language that describes it, then define what it’s not and never wants to become, and, finally, tells you who’s leading it all — then you not only have seven unique points of differentiation, but a storyline that appeals to the rational and emotional parts of our brains that cause things to “make sense.”

Suddenly, the intangibles of your Brand become vivid, identifiable, palpable and manageable.

If something makes more sense than the thing standing next to it, you have created preference. When we prefer one thing over another, we join it, use it, love it, fight for it, buy it.

Importantly, we don’t just buy it, we belong to the community that surrounds us.

At the core of every human being is the desire to belong. We strive to fit into life experiences filled with other human beings. Being alone, isolated or shunned is a form of punishment.

The journey to belonging is of course the process of believing. We begin as skeptics — and become believers — through story. Narrative reminds us of our core values, what to wear, how to act, what we believe and even how to identify those who are not a part of our tribe.

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“Primal” elements are the root code that help activate that foggy creature called Brand — and build a Strategic Brand Narrative that forms the superscript for social, digital and traditional media.

Most strategies emerging from advertising agencies, design firms, PR companies as well as social and digital playmakers are one-dimensional and created on behalf of their own vertical. Modern storytelling has evolved beyond the construct of advertising, so that today any Brand, no matter their size, can feel confident telling stories to people — instead of talking at them, blindsiding or interrupting them via the advertising megaphone.

In the Primal ecosystem, the Strategic Brand Narrative defines the storyline and assigns individual agency partners their role, projects, tasks and desired outcomes within this new Primal omnichannel construct.

For example, once we have defined our creation story, where do we communicate the terrific legacy of our Brand’s origin to current Users and prospects? The answer includes a range of possibilities: on the website, on package design, in YouTube videos, Instagram, LinkedIn, at retail, stunts, during events (Captain Morgan rum events hearken back to their origins — pirates in a cave), a Hollywood movie — “The Social Network” was Facebook’s creation story, in blogs, press articles and whatever else your teams dream up that is appropriate for your Brand.

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Do the same thing with your creed, icons (remembering that icons engage all your senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell), lexicon, nonbelievers and leadership.

Tasks are outlined, budgets and production timelines given, media type and length, who’s producing what and other responsibilities are assigned. The content strategy, sourcing, production and distribution map is just one outcome of the Primal Branding process.

In 2006, the Primal Branding construct was ahead of its time and anticipated the social communities we have today. Even in 2006, Al Ries, one of the co-authors of the book Positioning, the concept that powered great brands from the 1970s to today, declared, “Primal Branding is not the same old branding B.S.”

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“Primal Branding is a new methodology that demystifies Brand,” says marketer Felicia Stingone, friend and client at 92Y in New York City. “It strips away all the bullshit. Thank you!”

Primal Branding is the bones of your organization. It is the way your community thinks, acts, talks and feels.

“Primal Branding is the process by which you unearth the meaning behind whatever your brand is,” says public relations expert Annie Scranton, founder and president at Pace Public Relations. “By following and answering the seven components of Primal Branding, you will unlock your brand’s true and pure meaning and full potential to reach your native audience.”

“Primal Branding is powerful,” says Stanford grad Erica Castello, “because it helps individuals and organizations recognize old stories and invent new ones. Stories that catch our attention, that make it easy to listen.

“It is this process of telling, listening, and telling again that gives rise to spiritual growth…Primal Branding is important because it is our ultimate and sole responsibility to create and live our own story. Nobody else can do this for us.

“There may be a cipher but there are certainly no cheat codes.”

“When I think about how brands have changed over time, it’s really about building a belief system,” says Becca Hoeft, chief brand officer at Sunrise Banks, the most socially responsible bank on the planet. “I think about building a Strategic Brand Narrative and putting that narrative into play, whether it’s messaging, activities, ads in the newspaper or events in the community.”

In the end, Primal Branding is an evolutionary construct. Rather than traditional or conventional marketing that targets consumers, Primal is a systematic architecture that looks as “brands” as belief systems that alert the hard wiring inside our brains and emotional systems that make us want to join, congregate, crowd-up and tickles the essence of fandom. This attraction creates fans, advocates, zealots and other friendlies who become so authentically passionate about your success, they create it themselves.

Beneath this framework are the tactical pursuits of social media, digital and traditional communications, events, public relations, traditional television, email marketing, and all other.

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“Primal Branding creates consistency with your message, which is huge,” puts in Isaac Muswaswes. “Zeke” worked at Twitter on the ads and brand strategy for six years and founded a creative agency focusing on musical artists. (He now runs all creative and merch for the artist G-Eazy.)

“But it also creates efficiencies,” says Muswaswes, “because you can create this template so it’s not daunting every time you go to Instagram or send a tweet out. It makes everyone’s lives easier so they can do everything else they’re doing.”

The role of traditional narrative has shifted over the last decade. In 2020, almost no one pays attention to (or believes) what advertisers have to say. But companies still need to fill in the blanks with relevant, resonant content that creates meaning — and projects the narrative they want told.

Consumers, users, advocates, even haters and trolls will always have something to say — and because we might not like what comes out, the company’s role using traditional media is to feed all points of the narrative with facts, legacy, vision, design, User reviews, thought leadership and other click points that express that authentic point of view.

Best of all Primal Branding is a booster shot for word of mouth (WOM) because it drives authentic advocacy for your Brand. ( According to new IAB Study, WOM recommendations are the highest-valued prompt for direct-to-consumer buyers before trying a new product — greater than reviews or social media Influencers. ) And when attribution is key, Net Promoter Scores and advocacy are often easy metrics to point to.

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That doesn’t mean you’re confined to traditional media.

For example, this link shows how former Google global strategist Rachel Lightfoot uses Primal Branding to help construct her Instagram feed.

In the past, conventional companies advertised “new” or “improved” or “look at all the stuff we make”. Today, you need hundreds of stories that spool out from your particular mindset — where you come from, why you exist, how you’re different, what you’re not, how and when to use you. Self-discovery has become a part of the corporate soul and the question of Brand voice is a the most valuable part of your ur-sprache.

As writer Amy Lipner declares, “If you are a sustainable or impact-driven organization your marketing strategy goes to the heart of building a brand customers trust and ‘feel good’ about spending their dollars on. From brand voice to narrative to consistent communication, it’s how these pieces are deployed that makes the difference.”

Brands are belief systems that attract communities who share your beliefs and are persistent advocates for your intention, purpose and life experience.

Primal solves the “Who dunit?” mystery of why we are passionate about some companies, but could care less about another product on the same shelf. As stated earlier, the new mission is to surround yourself with a community that becomes so passionate about your success, they create it themselves.

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There are several ways to experience Primal Branding.

You can read the book Primal Branding or the follow-up The Social Code which are available new or used from Amazon. They are also available as audio books.

You can watch the Primal Branding TEDx talk at this link.

We also work with billion dollar Brands and those who want to become billion dollar Brands. Our client list includes Levi’s, American Express, PayPal, Microsoft (“Halo”), PepsiCo, United Nations as well as startups.

Primal.Live Activations are purpose-driven events where Primals from around the world gather to discover new tools, learn new thinking and share fresh approaches to using the Primal construct. There are no bystanders at Primal.Live, which makes for an exciting, “I wish all events were like this!” moment you won’t want to miss.

Primal Digs are Brand-specific hands-on events where your Brand opportunity is surrounded with thought leaders, strategists, anthropologists, analysts, writers, MBAs and others. We deconstruct the Brand narrative, rapid prototype new ideas with Users, and develop new strategies and activations in real time. This evolves into a cohesive Strategic Brand Narrative that is the root code for a working, dynamic organization.

Primal is eating the world.

Since the March, 2020 coronavirus global shutdown, we have held PRIMAL.LIVE events in Europe, Johannesburg, Mexico, Shanghai for hundreds and thousands of new listeners. Primal Branding is being used as the root code to build continuous online content to feed omnichannel communications.

These deep belief networks will continue to evolve over time as Primal is used to design and propel internal cultures, build greater advocacy and ever-larger communities.

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Primal can help design urban experiences and political cultures. Primal helps individuals trying to evolve personal careers in music and acting, or both. Primal Branding is also a proven accelerator for startups and existing new business ventures scrawled on a napkin.

Each day, new people discover Primal for the first time. And they uncover new uses for the construct to build incredible people, places and things. We hope that you’ll be next.

Please let us know what you’re doing?

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