Seth Godin famously wrote in his book, Tribes, the following characteristics to define a member of a tribe:
- Members must have a common goal/cause/interest.
- Members are exclusive to a certain group (some folks can’t or won’t join).
Although I understand – and buy-in to some extent – what Seth Godin is describing here, I believe there exists a deeper connection to the word “tribe.” The meaning lives deeper in our subconscious and there is less of a conscious choice to belong or, conversely, to not belong to a tribe than we realize.
Tribal marketing is all about shared beliefs and values
My theory sparked while reading the California Indian Education blog that named Einstein as one of the world’s greatest non-Indian Chiefs. At first it struck me as odd, but as I started to dive in to some of Einstein’s essays and quotes, I learned that he had the power to make people feel like they were part of something bigger, just by believing in him.
As Chief, Einstein had the power to attract people to his community. People who were certainly connected to Einstein’s goals and had common interests, yet there were quite a few people who would also belong to Einstein’s tribe that didn’t appear to be part of the same circles.
For example, let’s compare the following two photos.
Albert Einstein poses with Hopi tribal members, 1922, photo by Eugene O. Goldbeck
To me, these communities couldn’t appear to be more opposite.
Yet, consider the following passage from Einstein’s famous essay, “The World as I See It,”:
How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people – first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.
Einstein describes how our desire to belong is buried in the unknown (our subconscious) and that we don’t intellectualize that our destinies are bound, we just know in our hearts this to be true because of shared empathy.
Marketers need to appeal at the emotional level to engage the tribe
When I started to think of the everyday decisions we make as part of a tribe, I understood better why we may think we’re buying a soap because it helps us to feel clean, or a car because it takes us from A to B, or a phone because it answers a call. But, if we follow Einstein’s theory, we aren’t rationally choosing at all, but rather, our buying decisions stem from an innate desire to make spiritual and emotional connections with the rest of humankind.
As marketers, we do a better job when we understand that a buyer’s outward buying journey expresses their inward desires. Brands that are considered success stories identify and appeal to an innate desire to belong to the greater tribe. Instead of just purchasing soap, we decide to buy Dove because we want to be part of the tribe that no longer gives in to the pressures of beauty and are free from objectification. Instead of just buying a car, we own a Prius because we are part of a tribe that cares more about the environment than we feel others might. Instead of just buying a phone, we use a BlackBerry because we feel like we are part of a tribe that is professional, connected, and responsible.
Godin suggests that tribe members can make a choice about whether to join a tribe or not to join a tribe. In contrast, Einstein suggests that, although we may be of different societal tribes, we are inherently pulled together by empathy and bound by identical human desires. We find joy in sharing decisions and in supporting each other’s motivations and goals.
Who’s right? Godin or Einstein? Can we really opt-out and make our own decisions, or are the decisions we make based almost entirely on an innate desire to belong? And what implications does this have for marketers? What’s your take?