What are 'tribes' and do you need a new segmentation?

Although the concept of tribes in marketing has been around for more than a decade, they can hardly be described as mainstream. So what's the The Big Idea here? And should you encourage your organisation to embrace tribal marketing? What Are Tribes?

In this context, they are simply communities who share common interests and attitudes, to the degree that they come together as a group, either physically or virtually around the Internet and social media. And unlike traditional tribes, whilst they identify with other tribe members, many do not have an established leader. Indeed, such an open structure is often an attraction for individuals to join these tribes in the first place.

It's quite common to find consumers identifying themselves with many different Tribes at the same time. One can be an Apple devotee at work, a classic car enthusiast and a fitness fanatic all in the same week. We can switch between tribal activity, without changing our classic segmentation attributes such as age, gender, postcode or nationality.

Can Organisations be part of a Tribe?

Up to a point. Marty Neumeier coined the term "survival of the fittingest" as a way to describe how brands might compete to align themselves with targeted tribes, rather than try to be all things to all people. And with the connectedness of today's society, developing such a focus is likely to require transparent collaboration with consumer tribes, but as a organisation, not an individual.

However, the challenge for businesses is how to engage with these tribes without simply doing so on a product/service promotional basis. Such a sales-led approach would be treating tribes as a brand community, and would likely be easily seen through by today's savvy shoppers. It's also liable to result in a distrust that 'they're only in it for themselves' rather than a genuine desire to inspire and facilitate. Remember that any interaction that people have with your brand through the tribe environment still contributes to their overall customer experience of your company.

So how do I work out if Tribal marketing is right for our company?

It all depends upon what your marketing goals are.

To test the fit for your firm, start by imagining your business following these 4 guidelines:

1. Find out what tribes value most, how they describe success or achievement. Only then consider where your company might be able to help, and don't limit that solely to things that require a purchase. Try to support success above just selling it.

2. Seek out the boundaries of a tribe - how and where people begin their interest, and especially the things that stand in their way of entering. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty is a great example of this, created after market research showed that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. The campaign succeeded in enabling many more people to feel included and confident about beauty, rather than excluded and anxious. Check out this great video for the essence of this.

3. Provide information and social contacts, rather than free samples and money-off promotions. Aim to support the community in getting more from their effort, drive and enthusiasm.

4. Facilitate events and activities that help bring the tribe together. A useful case study is the US yoga brand Lululemon, which has built its reputation on running classes in its retail stores, as well as yoga weekend retreats, and a cadre of Ambassadors - a bit like Apple Genius folk, but with a lot more outreach into the community.

By following these guidelines, your company marketing goal would be centred around gauging growth in terms of involvement, depth of understanding and interaction with tribes. There is little point in focussing your marketing effort in this way if all you really care about is selling products. If that's your goal (and there's no shame in it), then build your budget around product promotion and access.

Tribe segmentation, by contrast, is about engaging with a community - supporting who and what they trust, value, rely on and aspire to.

If that fits with your brand values, and you embrace it with honesty and energy, you'll find tribal marketing can offer growth in brand awareness, positive word-of-mouth and yes, ultimately sales and profit.