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Discover Your Brand’s Natural Tribe

Drive sales and build your brand by pissing off the right people and finding the customers that have been DESPERATELY waiting for you.


A lot of advertising, marketing, and direct selling is an exercise in “convincing” a cold prospect to change their mind. This is a waste of time. This tactic may have worked before the internet when your local customer supply was limited, and even then, it gave salespeople a bad rep. This limitation isn’t valid anymore unless you are providing in-person localized services.

There is a natural tribe out there who has the exact problem your product solves. By figuring out who these people are, where they are, and how to talk to them you will get much faster ROI and longer-term success than traditional “sales”. To discover your natural tribe, you have to:

  • Find out who your customers are, and what their values are. A brand is a set of values. Building a persona, or several can be a good step.
  • Concentrate your message to focus on these shared values, and don’t worry about not being liked by non-tribe members. Their rejection of your brand actually helps reinforce your brand values.
  • Engage in a real way. Don’t treat your customers as “stupid”. Nothing throws off a brand pitch quite like the “hey, fellow kids” pretense. Don’t be Pepsi. Never go full Pepsi.
  • Keep doing it. Building a brand takes time.
  • Once you have found your tribe, remember, you don’t own it. You can be an organizing force, but never a “ruler”, so be respectful.
Mmm, that genuine flavor of struggle in every can.

We Live in a Society

Seth Godin defines a tribe as “a group of people with a shared interest and a way to communicate” in the aptly-named “Tribes”. We are members of an innumerable set of tribes, with greater or lesser strength of affiliation. Brand tribes are no different, just ask a Harley Davidson owner about their bike. “It’s not a bike, it’s a Harley”.

Most of us live in communities that far exceed the Dunbar number. Once you exceed the 150-contact saturation point, your environment turns from a tribal community to a sea of strangers. Now add the parasocial relationships that supplant our real-world interactions and social media interactions taking up those relationship slots in our brains. We are likely to be saturated with human interaction with strangers, seeking for something to define ourselves to stand out from the grey mass. We brand ourselves.

Successful brands use this, becoming the de-facto in-group marker for those “in the know”. Of course, the brand has to make good on it’s promised through the product, customer service, resource allocation for corporate social responsibility work, social media demeanor, supply chain, sourcing practices, and so on ad nauseam.

If you’ve ever heard someone say “Real X wear/buy/use”, you’ve witnessed this principle at work. Whether it’s Saucony, The North Face, or Heckels, there is a tribe of consumers that defines a part of themselves through these products. To get there, the brands had to prove to the tribe that they share values and that they are representative of the larger zeitgeist of a subculture.

Traditionally, this is done through making a damn good product that enabled the connoisseurs to achieve optimal results in their craft. The authoritative voice within a natural tribe (be it cobblers or spice aficionados) would judge and recommend the worthy products. By paying attention to these influencers of public opinion, the fame of a brand or product spread.

With the expansion of communication technologies, this same principle can now organize tribes around shared interests globally. That means that your specific solution to a problem can find a tribe from the 7+ Billion people on Earth, despite being highly specialized. This wasn’t possible when your physical goods were distributed via slow local networks, but it is now.

The Gunpoint Hard-sell

Selling as “convincing” doesn’t work, not long-term and not without guns. I mean literally, gunpoint. Paying taxes is a form of purchasing government services, it’s a subscription, and one you can’t easily opt-out. Without the threat of violence and prison, many people wouldn’t choose to buy the subscription. At the bottom of a long line of choices, there is the state’s monopoly on violence to compel you to pay taxes. The model of selling services through coercion only works if you’re the government, and even then, not forever.

The alternative to the gunpoint hard-sell is the voluntary, gleeful, enthusiastic purchase of your goods. The people who are most likely to make that purchase are those who are part of your natural tribe. Instead of spending your effort and budget on “convincing” (traditional push marketing), spend it on figuring out who and where your natural tribe is, how they talk, and how you can engage them in an honest, authentic, and valuable way.

Discovering Your Natural (Consumer) Tribe

Step 1: Your Brand Niche

No product or service exists in a vacuum. At some point, you have decided to invest money, time, and energy into making a thing that you believe will deliver value greater than your investment. You are likely a member of a series of overlapping tribe identities.

I am a marketer, for example. This is a big meta-tribe, made of a complex set of layered identities. As a first step, though, putting a big fence around this identity is a good start, because I am not putting myself in the tribe of engineers, medical practitioners, or game designers. If I wanted to subdivide my identity further, and I do (in the interest of positioning, niche-finding, or whatever your preferred jargon), I would make ever-shrinking circles. In essence, this is a process of “This, Not That”.

While asserting an identity can be difficult, a fast way to clarify who you are is by going from the negative. The “Not X” marker will help you figure out what you are in an indirect way that can, sometimes, be clearer and more honest than simple positive assertions. By figuring out what you are not (what you would never do, for example) helps get away from the bland banalities of “I like good things and dislike bad things” that brands without clear values tend to assert.

I am not a PPC marketer, for example, nor do I see much value in above-the-line advertising, unless it’s very carefully targeted and backed up by a ton of service design support, community building, and value-driven content. This places me well into the content marketing camp. I also work with education start-ups, consumer tech, design, and some service B2B clients.

These overlapping identities produce an ever-shrinking area, and the smaller that area is, the better it can be done for precise positioning. If you can shrink down your area to 150 people, and then convince them that you can provide them $1000 of value yearly, you’re making a decent salary. The more concentrated, the better, simply because we have a tendency to be too many things for too many people.

Whatever area of overlap you found, it’s probably too big. Really.

That’s okay, though, you’re probably not the world’s top authority in an established category yet (or, if you are, and still looking for advice here, you’re monetizing it wrong).

Step 2: You Are Not Your Target Customer (Your Customer Niche Need)

The next step is to do something similar in terms of identifying your target customer. As a branding/marketing person, for example, my target is not other marketers, it’s brands that want to sell to customers.

Scenario 1: If you are a cobbler that created an innovative new tool that helps you increase your productivity, and you have decided to make this tool rather than shoes, you are no longer a cobbler, but a tool manufacturer.

Scenario 2: If, on the other hand, you made a tool that gives you an advantage, but you continue to make shoes, you are generally not advertising the new tool.

Scenario 3: Unless the new tool has a benefit to the customer (more standard and thus reliable shoes, cheaper shoes, whatever) there’s no reason to advertise, as your competitors will try to steal/reverse engineer it.

In this case, though you are part of the cobbler tribe, you will care about finding your natural tribe among cobblers only in Scenario 1, because they have just become your customer base.

If you’re in scenario 2, your natural tribe is the shoe buyers who appreciate your work, same for scenario 3. The only difference between these two is that scenario 3 customer appreciates your work more because of the innovative manufacturing process, while in scenario 3, just because. Supposedly, the technology you invented makes for nicer-looking, sturdier, or better shoes somehow.

Thus, your natural tribe is not your identity, but the intersection of your identity/ability/competitive advantage with the people whose goals align with that advantage, who want to benefit from it, and are willing to pay money to get that advantage.

Harley Davidson’s natural tribe is chopper riders, not motorcycle manufacturers. Saucony’s natural tribe is dedicated runners, not Nike and Adidas. Their natural tribes are natural consumer tribes, not peers. This is obvious, but in the search for identity as a branding person, it’s easy to be distracted into narcissistic solipsism, and that’s bad for business.

To identify your natural (consumer) tribe, take the result of your brand niche and your customer niche need exercise. The overlap is your core, immediate tribe.

Step 3: Side-Step Projection

The false consensus cognitive bias is the assumption that everyone thinks like you. This belief is false. In order to actually understand how others talk, think, and what they value, you have to listen. In interpersonal conversation, you have to establish trust and rapport. As a brand, you have the advantage of the internet. Doing research on your target customer is key for success, helping you understand whether the way you think and communicate your brand value aligns with theirs. Don’t assume that you already know them. Projection is a trap.

Listen quietly, read online communities, and see what the influencers of this tribe have to say. You have to understand the rules of communication, and the underlying values of the community that you are trying to rally around your brand. If you try to charge in, ads blazing, you are very likely to do a Pepsi. Never go full Pepsi.

Step 4: Be Honest With Yourself First

There is a real bit of self-analysis you have to do, and a decision to make at this point. Do your brand values align with your chosen customer base, your tribe? Now that you have defined your values and understood theirs, are these the people you can engage with honestly? Are you able to embody your values through action and remain honestly aligned with the tribe?

If yes, good. Engage.

If not, don’t waste your or their time. It’s very likely there is a different core group that has similar needs and that is closely aligned with your values. It’s more important to be aligned around core values than around specific product offerings. The former would need to be faked forever, the latter, a simple adjustment.

An easy way to start may be to post (from non-branded accounts) questions about the misalignment in values. Engage the community meaningfully, and you are likely to find the people who align with you on values. If your target demo is something seemingly contradictory, like vegan hunters, a few posts on Reddit or Quora can help find a hidden sub-tribe, or at least get your bearings to refine your search.

Step 5: Establish Ties

Ed Bernays, the father of PR as a discipline used influencer strategies to great effect. Find the voices with whom your values align the most. Ask for their input, involve them in testing your product, and share the passion you’ve put into developing your solution to their problem. You’re very likely to find key supporters.

Establish rapport, value their input, show interest, and understanding in them and their concerns. These are going to be your key customers. These relationships are vital. Help them maximize the value of your product, and the news will spread.

Step 6: Really, Don’t Go Full Pepsi

This step is not so much about discovering the natural tribe, but worth remembering. Acting entitled to your customer’s loyalty is dangerous. It’s a quick way to ruin your brand. Humility prevents self-defeat.

At this point, you, as a brand, are taking on the responsibility to help your tribe achieve their goals better. Their goals and perspectives may change over time, or technology may make your product irrelevant. Your brand has to evolve, and co-evolve with your natural consumer tribe(s). Doing an assessment, paying attention to what your fan advocates have to say, nurturing a genuine relationship with your customer base is key to keeping their loyalty.

Sooner or later, brands die, and people move on. If you want that to happen later, rather than sooner, listen.

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