What’s the deal with Tribes and Marketing?

Harry9Calling marketers a little conservative is probably not what many want to hear (after all, we are as cool as MadMen were, aren’t we?)… but when it comes to the tools of the trade, it  seems marketers love the tried and tested – rather than rethink what has been around for a long time. One of the examples of this “conservatism” are segments, the tried and tested corner stones of pretty much every marketing plan, something that marketing text books spend a great deal of time with – and which seems to be ingrained in everything that most marketers do day to day. Challenge the idea of these “segments” – and you can see the fear in some marketers eyes. And suggesting abandoning the often-relied upon segmentation tools, such as age, gender or social class – and some marketers (not all, not all!) seem to think you are a heretic rather than a person with a serious argument. But how “segmented” can consumers really be? In fact, is there such a thing as a coffee for the 35-45 year old, male, middle-class consumers? Or are these just figments of marketers imagination? Can we really slice consumers up into heterogenous little groups, that are stable, predictable (and who like our product)?

If you start looking around you, things are a lot more complicated than what the traditional ideas related to segmentation suggest: Every week, I take the train from Kings Cross to go to Hull (for example). And yes, there is a Harry Potter themed shop, and importantly, a photo-ready “Platform 9 3/4”. Here literally hordes of people line up patiently to take their picture with a disappearing luggage trolley. The interesting thing about this isn’t, of course, the tourist attraction that this has become. What should be really interesting for marketers are the people waiting in the line to have their picture taken. There are people from all over the world waiting patiently their turn, young, very young and even middle aged, male and female, … all have come to this place in London to have their picture taken. Some have come as they are, many are in costumes, sporting Harry Potter scarfs or glasses… and no real segmentation technique would be able to capture the people waiting in the queue – because the only thing that unites them is that they love Harry Potter enough to endure the wait. There is often talking in the queue, laughter and banter… but as soon as the picture is taken, they disband. So what is that what we see, if it isn’t a segment? It’s certainly not homogenous, nor stable. And trying to put demographic variables onto the people waiting might yield as much commonality as that they are all humans (although I did recently spot a dog in Harry Potter “flying cape”… but it probably wasn’t really into the entire experience).

So if segmentation doesn’t tell us much here, what alternative could we think about when we see this little gathering? The answer is Tribes. What we see are members of the “Harry Potter Tribe”. Or in other words, a group of people who are bound together by their love of the books, films etc – and are in most other senses unrelated. Of course, members of the tribe here are easy to spot (they are standing in line!). But once they leave Kings Cross, they are virtually indistinguishable from others: they morph back into being tourists, grandmothers, school children… although somewhere in them remains a little bit of the common “Harryness” that unites them. In other words: they are people bonded by the emotions they developed towards a fictional character (or characters).

I give it, that the example of the Harry Potter Tribe is pretty obvious and easy to understand. Not at least, because Platform 9 3/4 is, what could be called, a “tribal meeting point”. Other tribes, or this tribe in other situations, are less easy to spot. But they are spottable – at least for insiders. This is where brands come in: Think of subtle signals the tribe members use to signal their love of Harry Potter to other people in everyday situations, maybe even in the hope of finding a fellow tribe member. Think coloured scarfs, pencil cases, glasses… the small things that go almost unnoticed by the outsider, but convey a meaning to the person “in the know” – and give a feeling of belonging to the wearer. Of course, not all tribe members will proudly display all “insignia”, some will just know, some will have one or two items. Some will be discussing “What would Harry do” in internet forums, while others are happy to have just posted a picture of themselves on their facebook page, and may forget the scarf they bought with the intention to wear it when it gets cold. Again, we find this hard to explain from a segmentation perspective: after all, members of a segment are supposed to behave in similar ways – but the tribe members don’t. Some are “really into it”, some just sympathise, many are somewhere in between.

I’ll write more about “tribes” in the next post…and there is much more about tribes in my Social Media Marketing book if you want to jump ahead (spoiler alert: Tribes love to use social media!). However, in the meantime, why not share your ideas about tribes by using the comment function below!

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