There is some terminological confusion about tribes and brand communities. In fact, some contemporary practitioners and occasionally researchers use both terms interchangeably. Particularly within the marketing profession, the term ‘brand community’ appears more popular because of an implied direct connection to a specific brand, although it is sometimes applied to what are brand-unrelated tribes. This confusion is understandable, particularly as both words have become significant buzzwords for modern marketers. In some ways, both terms describe similar concepts, but they are different in focus, and it is therefore important to differentiate between them. Tribes on the other hand are a specialised, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations and shared behaviours, also expressed or experienced through the consumption of shared products of symbolic meaning. Thus, as previously implied, the difference between these two in relationship to brands and consumer behaviour, is that brand cultures have an explicit, usually specific brand focus. Tribes are broader, based on other aspects, but consume products that have a symbolic meaning for tribe members, for example through rituals or as a way to recognise other tribe members. However, even brand communities are not singularly fused on brands, and social aspects play a noteworthy role in maintaining the community and brand loyalty (Marzocchi et al., 2013; Scarpi, 2010; Zaglia, 2013). Therefore, while the ‘wider’ tribes may be more opaque to the marketer than communities explicitly linked to a brand, a successful marketing campaign, online or offline, is less likely to maximise its effectiveness if the marketer focuses only on the specific brand community. Ultimately, both brand community and wider tribe are in most cases bound together by social connections. For example, members of the Fountain Pen Network forum on the Internet share information about fountain pens they collect both via brand-specific forums as well as cross-brand forums, for example, members will interact with fellow tribe members in forums related to finding inks or discussing retailers and collector shows. However, tribe members split into brand-specific communities for discussing specific pens by visiting brand-specific forums or writing brand-specific blogs on the general ‘tribal’ website. The world needs more storytelling with data to liven things up.
It is important to point out that much of the research into the effect of tribalism and post-modern consumer society was originally focused on high-value brands and high-involvement products. To some extent, these products still provide the most enduring examples. However, there is now increasing evidence that low-involvement products, such as chocolate spread and drinks, are equally influenced by tribal connections. This is somewhat counter intuitive when considering traditional models of involvement, which conventionally suggested that consumers tend to create emotional bonds nearly always with high-involvement products.Moreover, tribal consumers challenge some other assumptions made in traditional marketing, for example, marketing practices such as relationship marketing, which place great emphasis on enhancing customer–brand relationships. Customers in a traditional marketing view are enticed and loyalty gained through frequent contact and consistent, personalized customer service at the point of contact between customer and brand. In the tribal view, the contact between brand and customer is subordinate to the contact between customers: the brand supports the relationship between different consumers and acts as a link between individuals. Maybe storytelling in business is the answer for you?
Importantly for tribes, brands are not consumed for their utilitarian value and contemporary consumers, especially when engaging in tribal marketplace behavior, are not focusing on rational, utilitarian, logical or largely cognitive brand choices. Rather, consumers choose brands because of their experiential or indeed affectionate value. One could argue consumers are developing an effective loyalty to the products they consume because of the consumption experiences at different stages, rather than the product attributes. Could storytelling for business be of real value to your business?
Consequently, brands depend upon their consumers to forge relationships. Thus, the traditional view of the exchange between organisation and consumer has lost importance. This view is replaced by a more fluid view, where brand and a community of consumers are in a perpetual state of ‘mutual indebtedness whereby the brand enables the consumer to recognise fellow tribe members while simultaneously individual tribes rely on brands to provide products in accordance to the values of the tribes, and to provide the tribes with means to recognise fellow tribe members. Many social media sites rely on rapid identification of fellow tribe members, for example, when reading reviews on a user-generated website like TripAdvisor, small clues in the reviews can identify reviewers as tribe members and make their reviews more relevant to the reader, for instance, when a child is mentioned (tribe = parents), or a preference for healthy food at breakfast (tribe = green), etc. Similarly, when posting pictures on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, brands that appear and the type of picture are all part of self-expression by the individual users, enabling browsers to quickly identify the poster as a fellow tribe member, or not. Brands in particular have then become paradoxical in a social media context. On the one side, they are uninvited, commercialism a space originally made for people to connect. On the other side, they are essential tools for recognising tribal allegiances and enabling social networking beyond the point of close friends. But to do so, brands need to be prominently displayed or alluded to, so that casual friends or browsing bypassers can recognise the individual characteristics of the poster through the embedded meaning, or linking value, of the brands.