Tribal Marketing: What Every Marketer Must Know about Tribes in Social Media

Written by: Karoline Ryll


Brand communities, consumer tribes and tribal marketing, are much talked about terms in the social media discourse, coined by Web 2.0 luminaries as Seth Godin. Yet, do you fully understand the phenomenon behind the buzz? To successfully adapt tribal marketing strategies you first need to understand what tribes are and how their rise in social media has changed the way we connect and consume. Find out about the three factors that drive tribe experiences online and see how they change marketing as it used to be.

THE ADVENT OF SOCIAL MEDIA has changed our lives in manifold ways. Today we contact employers in Australia via LinkedIn, book our Tuscany holiday home on Airbnb directly from the owner and follow the daily routine of ‘stars’ on Instagram. As a matter of fact, years before social media was born sociologists have postulated a nascent re-emergence of community and social links in our fragmented modern society (Cova & Cova, 2002; Maffesoli, 1996). Only now, the technological sophistication of Web 2.0. has become the catalyzing spark for a resurgence of human interconnectivity. 

While the world moves closer together, the amount of information is expanding at unabated speed. The erupting ‘virtual information jungle’ is working as breeding ground for a new form of rudimental tribal behavior, deeply engrained in the human mind. As Dr. Marie Taillard, Professor of Marketing at ESCP Europe Business School notes:

“Not very different from our forefathers we are learning from each other - where is the best place to find the right food, the right goods? What is going to make us feel warm and protected? And so on.” (Cited in Davey, 2009).  

Marketers face the crucial challenge that the internet easily enables direct conversations in between humans, in which a brand or company often finds itself ‘uninvited’ (Fournier & Avery, 2011). In order to find ways of addressing customers in this new virtual reality, you should understand the phenomenon of tribalism. This article provides you with the theoretical background as well as up-to-date examples on how tribalism works in a social media environment and points out to three driving factors you should be aware of to employ tribal marketing. 

Lifting the Fog: Tribal Marketing, Brand Communities and Consumer Tribes

 It was in 1996 that Michel Maffesoli‘s book “The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society” set the basis for an evolving research stream on tribalism in consumer studies. The concept of neo-tribes is best described as a return to social micro-groups, building belonging through shared rituals, emotions, beliefs or consumption practices (Cova, 1997; Mitchell & Imrie, 2011). In marketing theory, the idea of tribes entails a change of focus from individual to micro-social level as unit of analysis (Cova, 1997). To put it simply, “the link is more important than the thing” (Cova, 1997, p.314). 


Neil Davey, editor of the social media platform, sees the internet as trigger that “tribal behavior has now stepped from the pages of sociological textbooks into the real world” (2009). However, while tribal gatherings can serve as strategic resource for new collaborative ways of value-creation (Goulding, Shankar & Canniford, 2013), they take their own forms and do not necessarily act in the marketer’s best interest. 

Brand communities, on the one hand, are often initiated by a company itself and represent “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand” (Muñiz & O’Guinn, 2001, p. 412). A famous example are Harley Davidson riders, passionate about their brand and its value of freedom on the road. 

In consumer tribes, on the other hand, the connecting glue is not one iconic brand but rather the shared passion and the value-creating community itself (Goulding, Shankar & Canniford, 2013). Vegan foodies dedicated to the same cause of good, healthy and sustainable eating might come to your mind. Yet, tribes are amorphous and advancing constructs. A clear-cut distinction between brand communities and consumer tribes may be difficult to draw (Richardson, 2013). With this in mind, let us proceed with current phenomena of tribal gatherings to learn about the three dimensions that trigger tribe building in social media.

  1. Construction of Self-Identity: How Kayla’s Army Shapes Biceps and Self-Esteem

Interactive social media sites offer a medium to expand and share one’s self-concept to a virtual world (Ruane & Wallace, 2015). This brings us to the first factor of tribe building that is highly accelerated through social media: A reaffirmation of self-identity as exemplified by ‘the Kayla Movement’. 

With 4.8 million likes on Facebook (2016a) and 12.6 million likes on Instagram (2016b) Kayla Itsines, a 24-year old fitness trainer from Australia has built her own powerful fitness community (2016c). Being repeatedly asked about particular bikini-shape workouts by her female clients, she decided to build her own business with the mission to help women get their perfect bikini body within 12 weeks. For $50 each, you can acquire the ‘Bikini Body Guide’, an e-book with workout instructions as well as a separate meal planner online (Itsines, 2016c). 

The business gained real momentum through Kayla’s Instagram account: Over 2.5 million pictures are tagged under the hashtag #bbg (Instagram, 2016a), likewise the hashtag “#kaylasarmy” reaches over one million tags (Instagram, 2016b). The core of Kayla’s success is not the e-book itself, but the community it has created. Kayla’s girls share motivation and encouragement through the connection with other tribe members. As Nicole Auerbach in her USA Today Sports article on the ‘Kayla movement’ acknowledges: 

“A community has emerged on Instagram that's unique for its positivity and its role as a surprising safe haven for women interested in fitness” (2015).

The Kayla movement exemplifies a hybrid-form of consumer tribe and brand community. Firstly, ‘Kayla’s girls reveal typical characteristics of a consumer tribe: The value-creating factor is the community itself, based on shared devotion (getting fitter), common rituals (weekly transformation pictures) and reciprocal support for their identity-construction. Secondly, the charismatic Kayla Itsines has turned her tribe into a loyal and profitable brand community. This exemplifies Seth Godin’s idea of the internet, enabling ordinary people to create a business and trigger change through tribe building (TED Conferences). Watch Seth Godin’s insightful talk on this topic here

Not only as an entrepreneur but also as an established brand you can take away a valuable insight from this example: The human inclination towards virtual self-exhibition and group narcissism in social media inveigles consumers to provide highly impactful advertisement. In this case, photographic proof that the work-out is paying off. This supports the idea that outsourcing a part of the brand’s content generation to the customer can be of great value for your company (Muñiz & Schau, 2011). 

  1. Shared Storytelling: Go Pro Makes Pink Monkeys Fly

Would you like to know what a pink monkey is doing in a hot-air balloon over Utah? The desire to share stories and narratives is another central factor when it comes to tribal activity (Goulding, Shankar & Canniford 2011). Similar to the first dimension of identity-construction, social media is opening up completely new scales of storytelling and sharing online. 


A brand that successfully employs storytelling in order to build its brand community is GoPro. The action camera manufacturer is increasingly turning itself into a content provider and user content platform for extreme sports and outdoor activities. 

Users of the GoPro app can immediately share their videos taken online (GoPro, 2016a). GoPro shares the passion for adventure with its customers and enables them, not only to record their stories with the GoPro camera, but to immediately let like-minded people know about their latest activities. Fell Gray, Executive director at Interbrand notes

“To accelerate the business and build a global community of brand advocates, GoPro has seized on a new type of tribalism that is connected to its core purpose” (2016). 

One main advantage of tribal storytelling is that it is almost unlimited in consumption: Although people might not buy another expensive camera within a short time, they might stick loyal to the brand, if they feel to be part of a great community that is all about inspiring and getting inspired. A tribal marketing approach does not stop at telling stories but it should enable the consumer himself to become a co-creator of content and narrative (Gensler et al., 2013).

  1. Meaningful Knowledge Exchange: Mirror, Mirror on the wall - The Netset Knows who is the Fairest of Them All!

While the previous two tribal examples were built around a particular brand, there are many more consumer tribes in social media that are less tangible: Luxury fashion-addicts for example. The decisive question for you as a marketer is how to get in touch with your customers instead of ending up as the “uninvited brand” in their conversations (Fournier & Avery, 2011). 

As an example on how to stay relevant in consumer tribes’ conversations serves ‘The Net Set’, an app launched in May 2015 by the luxury online retailer Net-a-Porter (2016). Obviously, a large part of fashion is not just about the clothes itself, but the conversations on who is wearing what, when and in which combination. ‘The Net Set’ not only enables fashion-addicts to exchange real time information on what they are buying, but to follow and talk to current style-icons, to learn about new trends and last but not least to buy the beloved piece of clothes (The Net Set, 2016). In an elegant way Net-A-Porter manages to connect consumers, content and shopping experience.

‘Be with the In-Crowd:’ Natalie Massenet from Net-a-Porter Presents The Net Set -App (The Net Set, 2016)

Deighton and Kornfeld (2009) argue that rather than passing information on to the customer, companies must enter a cultural exchange with the customer, driven by identity and meaning. Tribal marketers can get in touch with relevant consumer tribes exactly by doing that: Providing meaningful content for the tribe as well as a platform where the tribe members can interact and exchange knowledge. 

Tribal Marketing – Listen TO the Tribe and Talk THROUGH the Tribe

 Let’s summarize and highlight what is in it for you: First of all, we have learned that postmodern tribalism, as predicted by sociologists in pre-internet times, is a phenomenon, supported and accelerated through Web 2.0 technology. The three factors that strongly shape online tribal experiences are identity-construction, shared storytelling and meaningful knowledge exchange. For every brand manager and marketer it is highly advisable to take a look at the mechanisms of tribe building in order to understand the role of today’s consumers and companies. 

While brand communities traditionally gather around one brand, consumer tribes mainly create value through the human link between members themselves. Yet, both concepts have a strong consumer-focus in common.

The fact that “social media was made for people not for brands” (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p.193) opens room to discuss the future role of a brand. One hypothesis would be that future tribes in social media will be less and less manageable by a company or brand. Instead of brands and products, people might possibly rather gather around an inspiring idea or a shared purpose. Consequently, the focus will continue to shift from company to consumer and consumer power will even raise higher when accumulated in tribes. To stay relevant in such a scenario, companies need to understand and to “illuminate the target consumers’ world” (Barwise & Meehan, 2010, p. 3). A tribal marketing approach in social media turns brands into platforms of exchange between humans rather than a cause in itself. The traditional brand must let go of control in order to enter a meaningful cultural conversation with its tribe (Christodoulides 2009; Fournier & Avery, 2011). Social media has changed how we consume and has disrupted the traditional marketing game. Now is the time to ‘Go Tribal’: Listen TO your tribe (understand their identity-projects), talk THROUGH your tribe (share their stories) and stay relevant (in a meaningful conversation)!






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