The Code of a Brand Community

Create Sustained Differentiation With Flocking Enthusiasts

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I am standing inside an electronics store, facing a wall of flat-screen, plasma-screen and hot-tube TVs. They all loop the same mind-reeling sequence from "Mission: Impossible III." I can buy any of them; I just can't decide which one. I drive to another mall and stand facing another wall of televised eye candy and still can't make up my mind. A friend once told me that choices breed insanity. That is when I am reminded that our world is no longer characterized by excess demand. After six decades, the new economic world order is characterized by excess supply: in cars, clothing, consumer electronics, foodstuffs, toothpaste, everything.

The result has been commoditization across almost all industry sectors-as well as a lack of differentiation among many products and services. In today's new global economic order, when TVs, computers, jeans and other products can be manufactured in a handful of global factories, even innovation is only innovative for a few weeks before a Chinese factory spews out a knockoff.

Companies today have two choices. They can be the low-cost provider (which almost no American company can achieve faced with foreign competition) or they can create sustained differentiation by surrounding themselves with a community of enthusiasts who flock to the brand and stick to it no matter what. The result is a powerful brand community that resonates outward and becomes a part of the culture at large. Like Starbucks, Nike, iPod, New York City.

Vibrant communities exist when they clearly articulate a belief system that attracts people with similar beliefs. We call this voicing the Primal Code, and we have identified the seven pieces of that code.

Communities that sparkle with the seven pieces of Primal Code can find themselves poised for growth, financially and culturally. Just as it would be hard to imagine a company without an accounting system, it is difficult to imagine a brand community functioning without code. This constellation of seven elements attracts people who want not only to share in the hopes, dreams and aspirations of your community, they want to become a part of it. They want to belong.

Working together, the pieces of code create a belief system.

These seven pieces of code are what brands such as Nike, Apple, Starbucks and Martha have stumbled upon through years of gut instinct, smart thinking, hiring talented people and spending millions of dollars. Many of us have worked on any one or several pieces of code, but it takes the combination of all seven to create the constellation that attracts community.

Products, services and companies-even civic communities-can use these seven pieces of primal code to help differentiate themselves and attract others who want to share in their beliefs. They can launch new products, certainly, but they can also re-engineer and retool existing ones. Using Primal Branding, they create an experience, a sense of place, a feeling, a community. And those communities can be the vibrant lifeline or the ultimate downfall of a brand.

Today we are working with software, media, consumer-products companies-and yes, even personalities and civic causes-to identify their primal codes and design belief systems around their brands that help differentiate them in the marketplace and attract others who want to belong-a community. While these are disparate companies in vastly different industries, in a world where creating preference is still the name of the game and success or failure can be determined by one click, these companies all have one thing in common: They understand that community is the killer app.

The first piece of the code is the creation story. Every brand has an origin, whether fact or myth: It started in a back room (eBay), in a college dorm (Google), on a napkin (everyone else). One of our fundamental human instincts is to ask, Where are you from? The creation story begins the brand narrative. Any story without a beginning is not a story well told. (Hewlett-Packard just spent $1.2 million renovating the garage where Hewlett and Packard started the company.) We all want to know where we are from.

The second piece is the creed. All communities ask the question, Why are we here? Perhaps it is to Think different. To be The ultimate driving machine. To create Freedom for all. To be The city that never sleeps. Or Just do it.

Why are we here? is a fundamental question people ask themselves each morning, at every meeting, at the end of every workweek. Shared vision, values and reason for being are the spine of any vibrant community.

The third piece: The icons. All belief systems have symbols that identify them. From flags to swooshes to the white Starbucks cup, icons identify which groups people belong to. Icons can also be product design, packaging, corporate headquarters or store entries. Icons also involve the other senses including taste, smell, sound and touch. And don't forget that people come in packages too. It's summer now, and as we drive through the verdant suburban subdivisions, well-pruned lawns are iconic reminders of who "fits in" to today's Chemlawn cul-de-sac communities and who does not.

The fourth piece: The sacred words. Every community has its own lexicon that identifies those who "belong." Try saying "iced grande decaf skinny mocha" at McDonald's and see what you get. Use hexadecimal language at Starbucks and you'll get the same blank stare. All groups have a specialized vocabulary that lets you know who belongs and who does not. It also establishes hierarchy. To be a baseball fan, you must know the teams, players, famous games and stats. How well you know them establishes where you fit in the group hierarchy.

The fifth piece: The rituals. Rituals are the community in motion. Each community has its own way of doing things. "That's how we do it here" and "That's not how we do it here" are telling phrases that set up the success or failure of any community. The Starbucks community acts differently than the Dunkin' Donuts community. Baseball fans sleep, soccer fans riot. Paper, not plastic. Rituals are the repeated, positive interactions that strengthen the communal bond. Negative rituals weaken the bond. How endeared are you to the insurance company that insists you push 100 buttons before you can place a claim vs. the company that offers up a real, live person?

The sixth piece: The nonbelievers. For every trend, there is a countertrend. For every revolution, a counter-revolution. For every frozen chicken dinner out there, there is a free-range chicken. Some people are dying to become a part of our community, while others would rather die than be one of us. That's not just target marketing; that's life. Nonbelievers exist not just so that we can vilify them (doves/hawks, Democrats/Republicans, Yankees/Red Sox); there also is great power in understanding who does not want to become a part of your community.

Finally, every community has a leader. This is the person who sets out against all odds, and against the world at large, t o recreate the world according to his or her own point of view. At the macro level, these are the Bill Gates, Richard Bransons, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfreys of the world. At the micro level, they are team leaders, project managers, group directors and production-line supervisors.

About the Author

Patrick Hanlon is CEO and founder of Thinktopia, a branding consultancy with clients including Samsung, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy. He is also author of "Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company and Your Future" (Simon & Schuster/Free Press).
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