When it comes to brand strategy, I’ve always been a big believer in drafting groups of like-minded individuals – or tribes – to pull the brand along.

Today, the prevalence of tribes has dramatically increased. As the world becomes an exponentially more complex, turbulent place, we’re increasingly reaching out to people like ourselves to maintain our sanity.

Social media has added a twist to the equation, helping us quickly join up with tribes that are often larger or more focused than their ‘real world’ brethren,  but ironically weaker in their connective tissue.

I find myself spending a great deal of time wondering where this is leading. In fact, much of my new book is devoted to the subject.

That’s why I was particularly excited to have Mario Hytten reach out to me with a new white paper on tribal behaviour pertaining to brands, politics and sustainability. I loved the clarity of his thinking, and jumped at the opportunity to interview him. I hope our conversation will help every businessperson looking for a better way to futureproof their brand.

Tribes and Brand Strategy. The Mario Hytten Interview

MS: If intelligent people can have diametrically opposing views on the same piece of information, how can companies hope to build strong, universally loved brands? Or should big companies give up, and double down on creating hyper-focused ‘tribe’ brands?

MH: Tribalism is a permanent problem in the world of politics, where divisiveness is the name of the game and unanimity is, almost by definition, impossible.

In the world of commerce, unanimity is difficult, but possible. Tribalism only becomes a problem when the brand becomes involved in a controversy of some sort.

Tribalism only becomes a brand problem when the brand becomes involved in a controversy of some sort.

In the absence of such a crisis, it is perfectly possible to build strong, universally loved brands without losing much sleep over the polarization of opinions. The reason is amazingly simple and intimately related to the old media adage: good news does not make the news. It is essential for your company to find ways of earning its brand tribe with good news, before a crisis creates a tribe for you to defend against.

I use the verb ‘to earn’ a brand tribe very deliberately, as opposed to ‘creating’ one, because authenticity is the golden rule here. A company that deliberately sets out to create tribes is walking on thin ice. This is where a lot of companies misunderstand the concept and fail.

MS: How does tribalism even happen in modern times? Aren’t we all connected to one another, and therefore one massive tribe?

MH: It all depends how you define ‘tribe’. It could be you and your wife, it could be the whole world population. I look at it like a vast collection of circles that intersect in infinite combinations.

The larger the size, however, the weaker the bond between the members. When you are talking about brand tribes, you are interested in the ones big enough to justify special attention, but small enough to preserve a strong bond and sense of shared identity. As we know, the bonds between our 7 billion large tribe are weak, to say the least.

You want brand tribes that are big enough to justify attention, but  small enough to share a strong bond.

This is where the world seems to have come full circle: in the era of mass communications, brands had to target large tribes, bound by weak ties. If you had an odd or quirky interest, you were unlikely to ever bump into somebody with the same quirky interest. With the advent of social media, you are now very likely to find somebody, somewhere in the world, with the same quirky interest. Probably even a group of them. The world is atomising, allowing millions of mini-tribes to form and interact.

It is easy to fall into the simplistic assumption that social media creates these tribes. That isn’t the case. What social media does is provide tribes with opportunities to communicate.

The impetus that inspires a tribe does not come from social media, it comes from real life. The telephone did not start people communicating, but allowed them to communicate over longer distances.

MS: What issues derail humans’ ability to regard a message rationally? Should companies and brands be aiming to help people see things more rationally, or should they be working harder to drive pure emotional responses from consumers – at the risk of alienating ‘haters’?

MH: Time, or lack of it, is what derails our rational thinking. We are required to make an insane number of decisions in quick succession every day. Quite naturally, humans prioritize by gut feel.

Even for very substantial purchases, such as buying a car, the final choice is generally narrowed down to 2-3 factors that are most likely emotional. Brands that understand this do well.

The failure of sustainability communications is presenting a rational picture to emotional consumers.

Brands that aim to help people see things more rationally are choosing a very hard road. They are the equivalent of a publisher who insists on printing 300-page books for the Facebook-Twitter generation. A noble objective, no doubt, but difficult to pull off.

That is, by the way, how I would caricature the failure of sustainability communications.

MS: Is tribalism among consumers something we should celebrate, or ignore in brand strategy? Can brands unite tribes?

MH: Tribalism is definitely something brands should understand. But tribalism is only one of many consumer behaviours that all have the same origin: the consumer doesn’t have time or desire to rationally evaluate your brand against competitors. He needs shortcuts. The preferences of his tribe are essentially a shortcut.

The preferences of a consumer’s tribe are essentially a shortcut to making the ‘right’ decision.

MS: Can brands learn anything from political movements when it comes to harnessing tribes?

MH: Yes. Notice how entrenched members of political tribes are. They’ll defend their tribe’s values even in the face of the convincing counter-arguments. Tribalism is absolutely capable of overriding independent thinking.

MS: Social media has the promise of creating very large tribes. Will it fulfill on this, or is it simply uniting people around very narrow issues, and filtering out all the unpleasantries?

MH: As I said before, I think the promise of social media is to create very large numbers of tribes, strongly connected around narrow issues. When very large tribes are created, you fall back into the issue of mass-communications: the larger the tribe, the weaker its soul.

The larger the tribe, the weaker its soul.

MS: If tribes are following brands like a religion, do brands need to fear the excesses of zealotry?

MH: I have difficulty imagining any scenario in which brand tribes would engage in the kind of excesses that are commonplace in religions.

I have witnessed brand zealotry, but much more benign in its nature. Once I had to point out to a friend of mine, a non-smoker, the irony of him wearing a $250 Marlboro-branded jacket. He did not regard that as an emblem of the smoking tribe. He was a proud member of the Ferrari tribe and his zealotry pushed him to glorify a brand whose products he would never contemplate buying. Therein lies one of the secrets of brand tribalism.

MS: Any parting advice for a brand strategy expert trying to more effectively harness the power of tribes?

MH: There are many types of tribes, some more valuable to your brand than others. Regardless, treat all of them with respect.

This story first appeared in Linkedin Pulse May 26, 2015.