It’s Not Brand, It’s Community


During the 1992 Presidential election, political analyst James Carville kept reminding campaign workers of the issues they needed to focus on. The first was “the Economy”, and Carville’s oft-repeated mantra became “It’s the Economy, stupid!”

For brand stakeholders, the focus in 2016 is on “the community”. As Branding as a practice has evolved, so has our understanding of what it means to be a Brand.

The idea of brand has flipped from a product or service supported by a corporate power to (here comes the flip) a quality of belief and meaning that attracts individuals who share those same values and ideals.

They can become so passionate about the brand’s values they feel obligated and willing to help create that success themselves.

Nearly two decades into the millennium, it is now essential for anyone trying for mass appeal to move their enterprise from being meaningless technology to becoming an essential, relevant and meaningful part of our world. Many unicorns have died to make that statement true.

Quality and quantity have been flattened through the magic of global logistics. Mass differentiators during “The Madmen” era, today they have become price of admission. So much so, that today people are thinking global and producing local. (For those who know history, this is an 1820s New England Industrial Era construct.)

As many already know, Communities organize themselves around a belief system. A belief that humankind is created equally. A belief in life after death. A belief in good schools. A belief in aspirations. Think different. Just do it. Imagine.

These are the ideals, values and emotional touchpoints that resonate, attract and connect people together. They are a web of connecting points that attach themselves at the deepest levels of human behavior. A few years ago, we called this “primal code”. Today, acknowledging the rise of social community, these same elements have evolved to become the
“social code”.

A collection of seven data points (creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicon, nonbelievers, leader), the pieces of social code design and attract social community. They can be identified, put within context, analyzed, promoted, and create a systematic, strategic affinity engine. Designed with an overlay of individual behaviors they can increase advocacy and behaviors.

Strung together in a strategic brand narrative, they create meaningful interactions that become the magnetic core that attracts others to your beliefs—whether it’s two brothers building a bomb in a Boston basement, or 2 billion people calling themselves a nation.

Using this methodology, you can deconstruct brands for competitive advantage, design counter-narratives and distribute digital, social and traditional media in a holistic manner that creates one-to-one conversations, disrupts apathy and moves people from “Nobody cares” to “Everybody cares!”

This is the core of fandom and advocacy: The community of fans, advocates, zealots, and public who believe in and belong to your cult of passionistas. In fact, they may become so passionate about your success, they are willing to create it themselves.

Hashtags, Pins, likes and attendance are the rites of belonging. When those rites are embedded with more and other pieces of code, your fans become more connected to your strategic narrative—all of which makes your community more relevant, resonant, noteworthy and powerful.

The role of “brand management” is not to belabor your innovation and design thinking, but discover how to become more adept at delighting your brand community in every way possible. Sure, sometimes it might be an innovative new product, but more often it will be just figuring out how you best can welcome them into your brand community. Reminding them how important they are to you. And how you can keep them happy, happier, happiest.

They believe in you and they want you to believe in them.

Too many companies make the mistake of turning their consuming public into aggregate data points indicating growth, share, and margins gained when, in fact, every single sale is precious. Each ring of the cash register is a signal of belonging to your community.

If sales are down, it’s a sign that people don’t feel they belong in your community any more. They don’t identify with you. People might be confused about who you are, or you simply might be meaningless to them. Find out.


Identify what’s sticky about your brand community—what makes them stay? You may not want to mess with that. (When he became ceo of JCP, one of Ron Johnson’s first announcements was that he was abolishing the Thursday sales. Sale shoppers were cast out. Unfortunately, Thursdays were the biggest shopping days and one of the strongest reasons why people were shopping at J.C. Penney. There was no “brand” literally or figuratively, without those sales.)


Next, figure out what’s keeping people away. In classic marketing terms, what are the barriers to entry? If you can figure out how to remove those barriers, (for example, no one’s writing any reviews) you’ll be much better off.

The role of “brand management” today is to offer information, experiences, and interactions.

But it’s all really about the people. Whether it’s 200 people or 200 million, they are your brand community. Stay tuned in.

Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Photo by Rogue King Photography
A version of this story first appeared in Forbes

Primal Branding Featured In Suriname Turnaround Brand Workshop

Turning stagnant brands into dynamic powerhouses was the subject of a workshop at the Anton de Kom University in Suriname this week. Primal Branding was featured in the class, according to attendees.

Primal Branding is the most effective construct for helping turn around brands in trouble. When you deconstruct a brand into its seven (7) pieces of Primal Code (creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader) you can identify what (if any) elements are missing.Primal Branding at ADEK university in Caribbean Suriname

For example, when we worked on the Maxwell House coffee brand for Kraft, few stakeholders at Maxwell House recalled that 100 years ago there was actually a Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. One night, a President of the United States stayed overnight at the hotel. The next morning, as the President was having his morning breakfast, the waiter came over the refill the President’s coffee cup. Teddy Roosevelt held his hand palm down over the cup and said, “No, wait! This coffee is so good, it’s good to the last drop!” Roosevelt lifted the cup to his lips and drained it.

Using the Primal Branding process (which is now ratified and promoted by the largest social engagement community on the planet—YouTube) also helps you to identify and refresh brand elements to make them more relevant and meaningful for today’s markets. Those elements can include the logo, packaging, naming, delivery processes, even ingredients.

The process also helps to identify and single out brand assets. When we worked on an iconography project for Levis, we inspired the internal teams to revision their brand, their in-store merchandising, even their product design. Similarly, when we assessed the Fig Newtons brand several years ago, the packaging was colored an aseptic yellow. A more fruit-colored palette that aligned with healthy figs was recommended—and the new packaging boosted sales into the double digits. Fig Newtons new pkg

This process of deconstruction leads to a more kickass understanding of your brand and your brand community. The process also underlines which elements attract and appeal to your brand zealots. This is not about building your Facebook “likes” or dominating Pinterest. This is about the reality of your brand and bringing it to life, online and off.

Brand Experiences Get Sticky

Brain candy. Eye glue. Today marketers are finding new ways to lock down consumers and get them to stay in place.

Marketers have always tried to get people to stop and stare. The age-old example of a brand experience is that trite mime who always stopped Grandma in front of the store window. This behind the glass concept has been updated in recent years by having people sleeping, reading books, or other dramatic feats of patience.

Another sticky example was the Lady Gaga windows at Barney’s for the 2011 holiday season featured elaborate displays that included a hirsute women draped over a couch, a mermaid floating in waves, and a woman figurine on a moving bicycle. (The Bergdorf-Goodman windows on Fifth Avenue in New York City have also always been consistent show stoppers.)

But today, from iPads in retail locations to digital billboards, corporations and the marketers who serve them are making more dramatic efforts to wow their audiences.

One expert at this is London-based Universal Everything, whose startling videowalls for Hyundai, Samsung, and others have been smashing successes not only at the events and corporate halls where they have been installed, but also on Vimeo. Their Made By Humans execution for Hyundai was favorited by Vimeo last year, and is as stimulating a piece of gobsmack as it gets.

“The commissions aren’t about advertising, but to create an immersive atmosphere rather than a hard sell,” says Universal Everything’s founder and creative director, Matt Pyke. “It’s about creating mesmerizing expressions of brand values.”

To help ideate their Hyundai brand experience, Universal Everything designers were invited to experience the Hyundai culture and create something that expressed the values they felt. The result was a series of massive video walls displaying videos with titles like Primal Creation, and We Are All Unique. The Hyundai installation is 24 meters wide and contains 44,000 pixels. Universal Everything worked with a London-based visual effects company in order to get the high resolution detail necessary.

“It feels like art,” says Pyke. “But is powered by their brand.”

The project took about nine months and several million dollars to complete.

Rather than placing a sculpture or artwork in their main lobby, these days corporations are installing videowalls that serve an architectural function, as well as offer a flexible solution for expressing brand values and brand storytelling.

Brand experiences have become as important for people working inside the company body, as they are for consumer-facing communications. At the DeutscheBank head office, employees entering the lobby each day are greeted by a massive videowall that changes in appearance, color scheme or behavior each day. Sometimes it is an abstraction of the logo. More often, it is not.

From showstoppers like Coca Cola vending machines dispensing free colas, to the interconnectivity of Big Data tracking, we can look forward to even more attempts to stop us in our tracks. 

“It’s a lot of work,” says Pyke. “But there’s a lot of longevity in it.”