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The Neuroscience of Brand Tribes and How to Build Them

Do you find yourself automatically defending certain brands? Do you get annoyed if someone praises a brand you don’t like? Are you recommending a specific brand to anyone who will listen? If so, you might be in a brand tribe.

What’s Happening to Me?

Brand tribes are different from brand communities in the same way that living in a commune is different from living in a specific suburb. With brand tribes, you prefer a specific brand to the exclusion of its competitors, whereas a brand community is much looser: you may prefer a specific brand, but you’re not necessarily opposed to its competitors.

One of the key differences between communities and tribes may be in the release of Oxytocin. Oxytocin is often referred to as the love hormone, as it is responsible for bonding between a mother and child, and present during the formation of interpersonal bonds. Like anything involving the human brain, however, you’ll find it’s a bit more nuanced than that.

Although Oxytocin can make us more considerate of others and introduce feelings of strong connection, it’s been found that those effects only apply in our own in-group. An In-group is a group that you feel a part of. This could be your church community, supporters of your favourite sports team, or fans of your favourite band. Oxytocin helps us feel closer and more in-tune with our own in-group, and, with it, we’re more likely to make decisions that benefit the whole that group.

At the same time, though, Oxytocin also makes us feel animosity towards anyone outside of the in-group: the out-group. When confronted with members of an out-group, such as a rival sports team, we become more defensive, less likely to share resources and even more hostile.

So, when someone starts attacking Apple products but you’ve been an Apple fan for years, that’s someone in the out-group attacking your in-group, according to your brain. You are ready to defend your in-group and smack down this out-group loser. In reality, this probably just looks like a heated debate, but to your brain it’s oxytocin doing its job and, by the end of the encounter, it will leave you feeling even more bonded to Apple. Lucky them.

Why establish a brand tribe?

While you’re not looking to have people warring in the streets defending your brand, you would like to have your customers firmly in your court.

With eCommerce on the rise, it’s much easier for brands to compete for the same customers, uninhibited by location. You want to be able to differentiate your brand and have customers who are not only loyal to it, but ready to reject your competitors and even become brand advocates, converting their family and friends to your cause. Modern consumers also want to feel as though they have an authentic connection with a brand that is committed to things that they care about. Without being rooted in a real purpose that your customers can relate to, it’s easy for them to move between brands as the brands themselves don’t really stand for anything.

Gone are the days in which you could rely on products intrinsic components, such as the ingredients used and the quality thereof, to engender enough brand loyalty. Consumers’ evaluations of brands are now driven primarily by the extrinsic cues that these brands display rather than their intrinsic characteristics.

How do I build a brand tribe?

Having a great product and fun social media presence are not even half the battle when it comes to building a brand tribe, unfortunately. You want people to feel like they truly belong to your brand’s in-group.

The first step to that is to find out what your customers care about deeply. This isn’t just in terms of your product, but a wider cause, such as the environment or animal welfare. When thinking about your product and how your product impacts the world, ask whether it aligns with any of the concerns you identified in your customers.

From there, you can decide on a movement or cause for your brand. Make sure that your consumers can be involved in this cause easily. For example, the US sock company Bombas will donate a pair of socks to a child in need for every pair of socks purchased. Create opportunities for easy engagement with both the brand and the cause, too. This can mean a blog exploring the positive impacts of customers’ donations, or the stories of your customers as they embrace the movement you’re encouraging. This content should make the customer feel like they’re part of a broader movement that is making an impact on the world.

All of this serves to help your customers feel like they’re part of your brand’s in-group, which in turn makes them less likely to seek out similar feelings from your competitors.

At the end of the day

You believe in your brand. You want your customers to believe in it, too. Just remember that psychological trickery isn’t going to get you very far. Your product still needs to meet a need your customers have, your brand must stand out from the crowd, your website should be a breeze to navigate and your customer service a delightful interaction every time. If you put in the time and resources to obtain all those things, a brand tribe is not too far off.

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