Designing brand communities

Ever notice how you feel better about some products than you do about others?

Whether you’re shopping for blue jeans, the new iPhone, Reeboks, or a Coke, it’s not just about having a phone, shoes or something to drink—and it hasn’t been for a long time. Jeans, athletic shoes, television sets, MP3 players, even automobiles today are functionally are all pretty much the same. They all work and they’re all pretty easy to come by.

Products today are differentiated by something else—an ability to create desire thanks to a constellation of points that make you feel you’re a part of that “with it” brand community. When you feel you’re part of the community of people who wear Coach or Gucci or Jimmy Choo, for example, you prefer those brands above all others.

That feeling of community is created by something called the primal code. This code is a pattern as simple as binary code, and just as powerful.

There are seven pieces of primal code that, when together, form an almost irresistible belief system and consumer bond.

It starts with the story of how a product or company started. Apple computers started in a garage, Abercrombie & Fitch began as a sporting outfitter, Burberry started in WW1 trenches, U2 is from Dublin.

The second piece of code is the creed. What is the product about? HP is invent. BMW is the ultimate driving machine. Apple thinks different. Nike tells us to “Just do it.”.

Icons are the third piece: concentrations of meaning we recognize as belonging to that brand. The Nike swoosh. The Chanel C. The Levi’s back pocket. Scent and taste are also icons. In fact, icons inform any and all of the senses. According to a recent Fast Company article, Le Meridien Hotels is currently undergoing a revamp of its hotels–and the over 50 points of contact with its guest experience.

Rituals are also code. Netflix reinvented the way we rent movies. Starbucks transported the rite of morning coffee from home to their “third place”.

Communities also have their own vocabulary, a set of words known by those who belong inside those in the community–and gibberish to those who are not. Think about the first time you had to frame the words, iced grande skinny decaf latte.

When all seven pieces of primal code are attached to a product or service, they create a belief system that attracts people who want to share those same beliefs. And people who believe, belong.

Power brands like Starbucks, Nike, Apple, and Oprah seize imaginations with incredible emotional power. People want to belong to these brands, are excited by them and prefer them above other choices.

They also enhance your entire experience. Think about it. You don’t just say you’re getting coffee, you say you’re going to Starbucks. You don’t just go buy furniture, you go to Ikea. You don’t listen to music, you grab songs from iTunes and listen on your iPod.

These brands radiate with primal code and are followed by millions of people who share not just their products, but their beliefs. They belong to us, and we belong to them. We become part of a great (and often global) community. We smile at others we see carrying a white Starbucks cup, wear ear pods for their Nano, or are emblazoned with North Face gear. We are members of the same tribe.

The next time you’re wandering through the mall, think about the stores you find yourself drifting towards. They probably have some or all seven pieces of primal code. Better get out your wallet.