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

Thinktopia Explains ‘The Cult Of Cool’ On Australian Prime Time TV

Australia TV The Cult of Cool copy
In a six-minute segment on one of Australia’s most popular television shows, Thinktopia founder Patrick Hanlon explains The Cult Of Cool: how ‘fandom’ and community create beacon Brands. Using the primal code of creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicon, nonbelievers and leader create a belief system that attracts others who share your beliefs. It can be complicated, says Hanlon, but so are human beings. Because companies and brand managers don’t take the time and energy to fill in all the pieces of code, is why there are so few really great brands like Apple, Nike, Google, and others. People don’t want to simply buy you these days, they want to buy into you. The way to turn meaningless products into meaningful Brands is to help people feel so passionate about your success that they are willing to create it themselves.

7 Ways Bob Dylan Doesn’t Think Twice About Brand Strategy

bob-dylanThe Basement Tapes, Volume 11 from Bob Dylan and The Band will be released this week (for a free sampler click here).

These rough recordings Dylan made in Woodstock, New York during the spring and summer of 1967 (two years before the famous Woodstock Music Festival) were created, as we all know, after Dylan his flipped his Triumph motorcycle on a country road and suddenly went dark. After pushing out two albums in 1965–“Bringing It All Back Home,” and “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde On Blonde” in 1966, the so-called basement tapes created between “Blonde On Blonde” and “John Wesley Harding” (also in 1967) hardly seem like down-time.

Dylan, who had already gone from folky protest singer to electrified warlock, was just resetting the table.

“Nashville Skyline,” which came out in 1969, was a kick on the side of the head for fans still getting stoned on Rainy Day Woman #12 & 35. And the album birthed an entirely new era of country rock.

The Basement Tapes have all the production value of just letting the tape roll, but include the not-yet-gelled versions of Quinn The Eskimo, and gangly but listenable takes on classics like I Shall Be Released, You Ain’t Going Nowhere, and This Wheel’s On Fire.

There is no question that Bob Dylan is a major brand in every sense. From the manufactured name “Bob Dylan” (his birth name is Robert Allen Zimmerman) to a lifetime of continual innovation and rebranding, Dylan-as-brand seizes the attention of a global fan community in the millions.

It is worth deconstructing the “Brand called Bob” to see the strategic touchpoints that lay  behind what all the fuss is about.

Like any powerful brand, the brand called “Bob Dylan” contains each of the seven pieces of “primal code” that design a narrative that attracts a community of believers, zealots, and the other advocates that create full-spectral fandom.

“Primal code” includes creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader that, when combined together, form a holistic belief system that attracts others who share your beliefs. These touch the emotional connections that we have with all brands, and create a template to help us understand why Bob Dylan has been attracting fans by the millions since the 1960s.

1. Creation story: As mysterious as it is famous, the spine of Dylan’s origin myth is that he made his way from Hibbing, Minnesota to New York City to visit legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie who was hospitalized in New Jersey. Along the way, Dylan shed his name Robert Zimmerman, for a hybrid based on the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Dylan joined the folk music scene in Greenwich Village and recorded an unspectacular eponymous album of cover tunes in 1962. But the release of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album the following year (1963) included Blowin’ In The Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, Girl From The North Country, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, and rightly changed the world.

2. Creed: Probably expressed best in Dylan’s track You Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine. Dylan has always zig-zagged across musical styles and affiliations, leap-frogging genres, and creating bridges to new times and places.

3. Icons: The fact that Bob Dylan is an icon in popular music is no question. He is in the Rock And Roll Music Hall of Fame and Songwriter Hall of Fame. His personas as Greenwich Village folksinger, masked member of the Rolling Thunder Revue and never-ending leader of the Never Ending Tour (as well as his role in the aborted film Reynaldo and Clara), are images forever imprinted on Dylan fans and music public alike. But icons are not just images. Sound is also iconic: Dylan’s voice is iconic, and so are the iconic melodies in some of his most popular songs. This “sound” instantly identifies it’s Dylan, which is what being “iconic” is all about.

4. Rituals: Concerts are rituals. And so are interviews, appearances, signings, going into the recording studio and all the other seemingly random events that are woven together to create the map that designates the Dylan landscape. Waiting to see what Dylan comes up with next is also a ritual.

5. Sacred words: “Dylan.” One word, two syllables that represent a mountain of meaning for fans. The lexicon of Dylan album titles, the incredible song lyrics (the books, articles, student papers and blogs written about the meaning of Dylan lyrics number in the hundreds of thousands), and quotes from interviews and elsewhere become part of the sacred liturgy that surrounds the Brand Called Bob. These stimulate, provoke and titillate his global fan community.

6. Nonbelievers: For every “pro” there is a “con.” While Dylan has a global fan-base of millions, like all artists there are millions of others for whom his voice is a nail scraping a tin roof. His lyrics are too incomprehensible. After decades of deification, most of these critics have been beaten down or died off. And still. I used to have a dog who howled every time he played harmonica.

7. Leader: Bob Dylan is certainly the character who set out to recreate the world according to his own point of view. And now even at age 73, he continues to push the reset button.

Or maybe all this fuss about the release of yet another round Basement Tapes is just another set-up. Following press on the Basement Tapes, producers have announced a new Dylan release in 2015. Watch for “Shadows In The Night.”

To anyone born before, well, whenever, Dylan’s role in contemporary music may seem suspect. The words to Dylan’s first hit “Blowin’ In The Wind” might seem light and insipid. Until you realize that issues of race, freedom, war, ignorance, and myopic politicos are as contemporary as it gets. The wind is timeless and the questions raised are unanswerable.

It is testimony to Bob Dylan’s stature as a songwriter and generational muse for the last 50 years that even these scrappy 138 songs in a six-CD box set deserve consideration. (Bob Dylan is the only rock musician to ever win a Pulitzer Prize: “for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power”.)

Last word. Bob Dylan doesn’t have to think twice about brand strategy because he has created a community so enthralled by his music and so committed to his success, they are willing to do it themselves. And that’s all right.

‘The Social Code’ Follow-Up To ‘Primal Branding’ Now Available On Amazon

The Social Code_cover_HanlonThinktopia announces the release of The Social Code, the much-anticipated sequel to Patrick Hanlon’s widely acclaimed book Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company And Your Future, published by Simon & Schuster Free Press in 2006.

The Social Code illustrates how to design and attract social communities in the digital age, using the underlying principles that help create viral brand communities. What Hanlon proposes is the agreeable notion that 21st century social communities are created not just from digital code, but from the emotional connections that bring us together: the social code.

YouTube, the largest social engagement platform on the planet, already promotes the construct outlined in The Social Code as their recommended method for designing and attracting online social communities. The new mission? To create a fan community that becomes so passionate about your success, they are willing to create it themselves.

A build on Hanlon’s 2006 book, Primal Branding—celebrated by marketing and branding experts as the best explanation written so far on what Brands are and how to create them, The Social Code redefines the seven elements that define belief (creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, nonbelievers and leader) in today’s digitally-centered environment. Facebook “likes,” social media clicks and hashtag counts become meaningless short-term responses unless they simultaneously build the social mechanisms that create long-term community.

Those who build social code attract others who share their values and beliefs—creating community and an unfair advantage over their competition. Those who don’t, don’t.

For the last decade, Thinktopia has been working with Fortune 100 companies honing the strategic and executional principles set forth in the The Social Code. While the cult classic, Primal Branding, anticipated social communities and looked at brands as belief systems in 2006,  The Social Code is a great leap forward and the essential guide for kickstarting entrepreneurs—as well established products and services—seeking to define their community narrative in the new social economy.

This becomes a billion-dollar equation for many companies. And we get the feeling that no one will want to be left out.

The Social Code is available now through Amazon.