Tribe vs Brand-Community – what is the difference?

… and why should marketers care about both!

penIf you’re trawling the marketing literature, both from professionals as well as the research community, you are likely to come across both Tribe and Brand Community as a pretty much hot topic – particularly in social media marketing (which is actually a bit misleading – more on that in another post). Of course, both Tribes and Brand communities do not actually require social media or the Internet at all, as they could be just emerging in real life only, but, the Internet helps to bring people together….and, much of the original research into Brand Communities (but NOT tribes!) actually involved online platforms. Anyway… the purpose of this post is to differentiate the terminology – and to show that marketers can benefit by thinking more about the tribe, than focusing only on the brand community. so, let’s first see where the two expressions come from:

The idea of [consumer] “tribes” actually dates back to the 1980s: French sociologist Maffesoli argued that in post-modern society people form “tribes” to replace lost social structures – and many of these tribes include extended social consumption practices: Think of vintage car owners. They enjoy (aka consume) their goods together, they recognise each other based on the owner ship of a vintage car etc etc… clearly, to belong to the tribe of “vintage car owners” you need a vintage car – but that could be anything from a Mercedes to a Flint… as long as it is old, you’re in.

Band communities on the other hand are not focused on a broad product category, but on very specific brands: The Apple-related Mac User Groups of the 1980s, for example. If you had a PC, you had the “wrong brand” – and that meant no access. Muniz and O’Guinn popularised this term in the marketing literature.

In most cases, brand communities are therefore subsections of tribes. Clearly, the two concepts are related, but distinct: The brand community focuses on the brand, a tribe on a wider product category. You can see, that, for a marketer, jumping to engage with the brand community is more straightforward than thinking of the wider tribe. BUT, is that the right thing?

Well… take a look at any one of the online forums where tribes and brand communities mingle. You are very likely to note, that actually brand communities tend to be a subset of tribes, but that brand communities are even less clearly distinguished than tribes. For example, take a look at the Fountain Pen Network. The website is an online tribal gathering of fountain pen collectors (and those that want to become them,… or just want to buy a fountain pen for “retro chic”). On the website are several forums where tribe members gather and discuss anything from pen history to reviewing the latest fountain pens. If as a marketer your focus is on the brand community, then you are most likely to focus on one of the 10 brand specific forums on the website. But, visitors are not restricting their fountain pen discussion to these forums – they are active in the other 21 forums, too. And while someone who is a total Montblanc fan might never peek into the Lamy (under others…) forum, they are quite likely to take a look at the other forums. So the Montblanc fan is likely to read, for example, the Pen History forum, and may even become intrigued by the Presto brand history being discussed or the Lamy colours… or other brands being discussed in the History forum. Consequently, if a marketer focuses exclusively on their own brand community, they will miss out on all the other parts, where tribe members discuss and compare their brand allegiances and wider aspects beyond the brand in focus. (You could do the same with the online handbag forum, or the antique computer forum or retro-games form etc… )

In other words, if marketers focus selectively on their own brand community, they are at risk of not reaching out to other tribe members, and potentially alienating tribe and brand community members. In fact, it is probably important to focus not only on one tribal gathering site – as different tribal gatherings incorporate different attitudes to various brands. And while on the one side many Montblanc fans are using the Fountain Pen Network, others wonder why the tone over there is so harsh against MB. And,… you guessed it,… they are discussing this in a “rival” tribal forum here (although the latter is less focused on pens as a tribe identification tool, but focuses more on a particular lifestyle in general). All this rich information and insights into consumer behaviour would be hard to find, if the marketer tries to simply focus on their own brand community. Therefore, it is a bit sad that much of the literature suggests that the brand community should be the focus of online activity – when really, it should be the much wider tribe.