What is a tribal brand?

In this posting, I wanted to introduce the concept of tribal branding. Situations where tribal branding might work include festivals, sporting seasons, annual charity drives, as well as brands that create a strong sense of identity and “discovery” amongst its users, and seek to be positioned as niche, independent, difficult, edgy, or different, such as Mooks, Virgin, Apple, OK, Go! and Alessi. The reason these brands become tribal is predominantly because of the defragmentation of traditional communities, and the need for people to belong to something that contributes to their self-identity.

Tribal brands rely on a number of key factors, 1. Anticipation of usage, 2. Social (or depersonalised) attraction to others who use the service or product, 3. Commitment, 4. Loyalty, and 5. Trust.

In addition to trust and commitment, critical contributors to the tribal brand were anticipation, and social attraction. In particular, anticipation (or the excitement leading to the next opportunity to use the brand) has the highest influence on the tribal brand, followed closely by  social, or depersonalised, attraction to others who used the brand. What this means is that while the people who use the brand might identify with others who use the brand, it doesn’t necessarily seems themselves as potentially being friends or having a relationship with others, outside of their use of the branded products.

Tribal brand affinity has more influence on purchase intentions that product and service quality, and tribal brand affinity is more powerful in building loyalty than other typically assumed transactional components, such as product evaluation, and overall satisfaction.

Service quality perceptions, which are traditionally argued to be an important influence over future usage of products with future intentions does not seem to matter as much with tribal brands. What this suggests is that transactional components, such as product attitudes, service attitudes, and customer satisfaction are less important as a motive for future usage, and recommendation, than a sense of brand affinity with the organisation, and what it represents.


Consumption experience has a strong influence amongst those customers who express a willingness to form continuing behavioural relationships with the brand. As consumers remain in their relationship with the tribal brand, their levels of brand affinity, and their future intentions become more pronounced.

In particular, the brand relationship is at its most robust for those customers who are using the product for their second and third years. These findings are similar to research into relationship commitment and trust in the field of social psychology, where the initial arousal or excitement of a relationship (infatuation), is transformed to one of mutual interdependence in the succeeding encounters (commitment). As a relationship develops, however, it encounters potential negation and stress, and is more open to competitive, and reduction in commitment, loyalty, and optimism about the relationship (break-up or regeneration).


Loyalty creation is as much a process, as it is an outcome. As customers build experience with a brand or organisation, marketing managers need to develop strategies that develop meaningful connections between the individual, the group that consumes the brand, and the brand itself.

In terms of many marketing programs, there is little difference in the way that products are marketed between new users, intermediate users, and heavy/long-term users. In other words, specialised marketing programs should be developed to build customer relationships. Specifically for tribal brands,  marketing programs  need to target the weakening relational commitment noticed amongst  customers who had been using the product for a long time.  This is different to many FMCGs, where habit tends to create intertia in their usage. With tribal brands, managers need to revitalise the customers relationship with the brand. The reasons for the reduction of the influence of tribal brand affinity amongst those users is most likely related to a cumulative process, rather than a single “incident”. Much of the relationship literature suggests that maintaining a relationship is a result of both parties encountering, and then surmounting some forms of stress, competitive offerings, and negation by other parties. Marketers of tribal brands need to invest in relational programs that counteract the centrifugal forces that besiege the longer-term relational bond.

More to come soon.

This entry was posted in Branding, Consumer Behavior, Marketing Strategy, Social Psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What is a tribal brand?

  1. natasja says:


    Interesting post! I am intrigued by your comments that with tribal brands, the tribal influence is greater even than the consumption experience. I had a few of questions…
    1. How do you get propose people get to the “anticipation” stage?
    2. Can you share your sources / the research done on tribal brands? It would be great to read the original research too.
    3. How do actually characterise a tribal brand? Are there specific markers to a brand that is tribal? Are there certain aspects that a brand / company requires to be tribal?


  2. Paul Harrison says:

    Hey Natasja

    This post was based on my research into tribal brands. Your questions are very specific, but I’d be happy to talk to you in more detail about the issues you raise if you want to drop me an email (I’m assuming your interest is more than just incidental – do you think that your brand might be tribal?).


  3. danny says:

    hi Paul –
    your post goees to the heart of my current discovery, as a brand owner.

    I run a networked film company called CINEMAHEAD. We have lead film workshops for young film-makers, writers, producers for over 10 years, in two contintents. Folks who have been through the process are approximately 900. They have collectively won over 174 short and feature film awards. They do not all know each other, but have affinity, common ground and interests. In particular, our workhop has empowered film-makers to make movies they believe in, movies audiences can belong to.

    Now Cinemahead is transitioning into an online brand for the same active film niche: edgy, personal, young, brave new content to develop into digital movies for social niches with high expectations for discovery and reduced passion for standard studio output.

    Some folks used the name CINEMAHEADS, plural, to describe themselves as a social group.

    So, singular brand, plural comunity, tribal brand?

    /daniel alegi

    • Paul Harrison says:

      Hi Daniel

      What you say rings true. Once your people started referring to themselves as Cinemaheads, they took ownership of your brand. It is quite powerful, and is the next level of tribal branding, what I like to think of as brand affinity or kinship.

      Good luck with the whole shebang. Keep me posted.


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