Tribal Marketing: A new study

Consumer Tribes will Define the Winners in 2018

A new study on human decision-making tells us we are not rational beings making emotional decisions — we are emotional beings making irrational decisions.

In the book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely asserts that humans make choices in a consistent pattern but using arguments that don’t make logical sense. In fact, our traditional consumer psychology models, based on an assumption of self-interest, are all wrong. Self-interest is a myth. Rather, we make decisions based on communal interest, or, in other words, we buy according to our tribal influences.

Emerging “Consumer Tribes” are not looking for features and benefits to help them compare products and services. Of course, they need products and services that get the job done, but there are many competing options for accomplishing the same tasks. When many brands address the same problem at similar financial and convenience cost, the consumer needs a new set of criteria upon which to base their decisions — “social cost.” Therefore, choices between two nuanced products or services can drive consumers to seek out social influences among of their tribe regarding the decisions they make.

Somehow, people hold the belief they are enlightened and have ascended above the construct of tribal influences. However, modern psychology is proving that tribalism yet lives on. The highest predictor of a brand decision in one household can be assessed by evaluating the brand decisions being made in the household next door — particularly, when the neighbor next door attends the same church, goes to the same schools and meets in common community group settings. In essence, we don’t buy our personal preferences, we buy our tribal preferences. If our schoolmates or family likes Coke, we like Coke. If our teammates or friend group likes Pepsi, we generally like Pepsi. Color, sweetness, fizziness and other superlative features and benefits of any particular soda brand are far less important for predicting consumer behavior than tribal influences: mother, father, brother, sister, neighbor, friend, community, society.

This social factor is most evident in the selection of community leaders in democratic societies. The highest predictor that you will vote Republican or Democrat is not your intelligence, education level, or natural instinct for good leadership, as we might each believe. The highest predictor of your voting patterns can most confidently be derived from whom your closest personal associations voted for. Both parties rationalize their voting decisions with all kinds of cognitive evidence. However the evidence we use seems to be skewed by our particular tribal influences, rather than unbiased facts and realities. Even if facts arise to challenge the decisions of our particular community, we tend doubt the facts before we would dare to question the unfounded beliefs of the social group we belong to. It’s easy to see these behaviors in the other party, but far more difficult to see these patterns in ourselves.

This phenomenon of irrational behavior is driven by our need to avoid social cost. As I outline in my recent book, Surfing The Black Wave: Brand Leadership in a Digital Age, social cost such as potential rejection, humiliation or being ostracized from our particular social group has been proven to create more stress than any other factors of self-interest, including financial, convenience or even personal convictions.

These changes in consumer psychology are shattering our previous beliefs about demographics. As cultures blend into each other, demographics such as age, race, gender or economic status are no longer the gold standard in defining consumer behavior. For example a wealthy, young black woman is likely to make purchases similar to a poor, old white man who attends the same schools and shares similar social experiences. They both are more likely to shop at the same stores and value the same brands.

At Daniel Brian Advertising, we see these behaviors among coffee consumers for a brand that intends to extend beyond its social boundary. Lansing residents and recent MSU grads like the taste of Biggby Coffee, as the brand was founded in their social community. It’s part of their social fabric. Alternatively, business-oriented social climbers drink Starbucks — possibly because they have attended countless motivational seminars and boardroom presentations hailing the strategic business model of the Starbucks corporation. Somehow, this bias gained by their engagement in business culture actually affects their perception of taste, making it difficult to challenge its hold on this particular consumer tribe. Biggby wins by aligning with a counterculture movement as the “Anti-Starbucks” brand.

Skaters and surfer dudes have a similar counterculture conviction. Action sports fans wear Vans shoes and Volcom apparel. They buy their Nixon watches at PacSun, regardless of their gender, skin color or even age. I know this personally, because I’m a 49-year-old who still identifies with the skater culture that I grew up with. It’s not just a hobby, it’s an identity for those of us who grew up with a skateboard on our feet. We wouldn’t be caught dead wearing Air Jordans. Our social group rejected mainstream sports such as basketball, along with the shoes that personify mainstream basketball culture. In some ways that culture rejected us as kids, and our purchase-patterns have become a form of cultural retaliation.

Don’t get me wrong — traditional demographics are not dead. Education is still important. However, the level of education is less predictive than the type of education. For example, a medical school graduate is likely to hold consumer values that are vastly different from students who graduate from art school, and so on. These are separate Consumer Tribes. Economic factors are also important, but a Porsche driver and a Suburban driver are not defined by economic factors alone. These are both expensive vehicles. Cultures that value large families and humility or cultures that value singleness and vanity can be a better predictor of success for a  dealership selling Suburbans or Porsches.

Why do social associations suddenly matter to marketers? Why didn’t we discover this influence in consumer patterns before? I’m convinced these are not new discoveries, but we were historically forced to use standard demographics-based models, because that is all we had. Demographic-based databases have been readily available to us. And, social influences were historically difficult to track. But, now with all of the consumer behavior data available from social media, we know more about consumers than we did in the past. In fact, it’s social media that has created Consumer Tribes, this new frontier in marketing.

So, Consumer Tribes are defined by hobbies, passions, religion, worldview, occupation, community affiliations (schools, churches, charities) and family traditions. These associations are much more powerful than skin color, age or any other superfluous aspects of our human condition. Tribal Marketing is our new approach to connecting the dots to build consumer databases to engage people based on their tribal associations, beyond their demographics.

As marketers, we need to begin to update our consumer models to address these new opportunities. Now is the time to redefine the ideal consumer of your brand. Now is the time to explore and define the values of your brand so you can build associative values with these social groups. What tribe does your brand identify with? What tribe does your brand celebrate? What tribes do you want to sell to? There might be several. Do you even speak their language?

Will 2018 be the year of Tribal Marketing? If so, it’s time to get your tribe on it!