Primal Branding

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While it's easy to describe how Coke has become a brand after 100 years of Super Bowl spots, price promotions, end cap displays, taste tests and other marketing efforts, it is virtually impossible to describe how Starbucks has become a brand in the same category with virtually no advertising. Why? While traditional explanations point to great product, great experience, great locations, great training (the people behind the counter in London seem like their L.A. counterparts), we all know of great products that have failed, retailers with great locations that have failed and companies with great experiences that have failed. Clearly there is something else at work, but what?

The fact is, there is a pattern. Like binary code, the pattern is simple yet incredibly powerful. We call it the primal code. Seven elements that work together to create a belief system that attracts others who want to believe. That group becomes a community of people who surround products and services (like Nike, Apple and Starbucks), brand personalities (like Oprah, Martha and U2), political and social movements, even civic communities. What are the seven pieces of code? The creation story, creed, icons, rituals, sacred words, nonbelievers and leader. Many people have looked at these pieces individually, but the breakthrough comes only when you put them all together. Only then do they become a holistic powerhouse.

1 All belief systems start with a creation story. Sometimes it's about two guys coming up with computers in a garage (HP, Apple), a product that failed in one respect but was a breakthrough in another way (Post-It Notes); Saab, for instance, was born from jets. Sometimes we like to start in the middle of the brand narrative, but that's like walking into a movie after it's started. Consumers are not a captive audience-they don't take the time to figure you out. And the confused do not buy.

2 All belief systems have a creed. A declaration that all men are created equal, a belief in life after death, a call to think different.

3 Belief systems have icons that identify themselves. Quick concentrations of meaning that sum up what we stand for. The flag. The swoosh. The Michelin Man. The A&F moose.

4 Belief systems have rituals-the repeated engagements we have with the product or service. Going to Starbucks; logging onto the web; getting that 10,000-mile tune-up. Rituals can be either positive or negative and, as marketers, we have the power to decide which.

5 Remember, this is about creating belief systems and designing community. If you want to be part of the group, you have to know the words. This is true whether you want to be an ad nerd, computer geek, bricklayer, brain surgeon, musician or simply want to order at Starbucks. Iced grande skinny decaf latte, iPod, download, and ttyl lol are all sacred words. Sometimes the words are given to us, sometimes we invent them as consumers, like FedEx, Coke and Levi's.

6 Belief systems also have people who don't believe. For every trend there is a countertrend, for every yin a yang. The conflict of opposites between believers and nonbelievers sometimes polarizes, sometimes offers opportunity. If we discover people who do not want sugar, we can create sugar free. If we find people who do not want caffeine, we can invent decaf.

7 All belief systems include a leader. The person who set out against all odds and the world at large to recreate the world according to their own point of view, like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. You can take successful brands like Starbucks, Coke, Apple and Nike and easily fill in each of the seven pieces of primal code. But look at so-called brands like Lestoil, Goodrich tires and MCI; it's difficult, if not impossible, to backfill the seven pieces of code. Consequently, they don't resonate with consumers except at a functional level, and they have no advocates, no loyalists. As soon as a product that is better, faster, cheaper, or more powerful comes along, they'll switch. Of course, between the Nikes and the Lestoils of the world are thousands of products. While some people have talked about belief systems before, it has all been observational and descriptive. Primal Branding is prescriptive. Understanding the pieces of primal code can help launch new products and re-engineer existing ones.

Pat Hanlon, formerly a creative at such agencies as TBWA, O&M and Lowe, is the founder of branding consultancy Thinktopia, ( and the author of the new book Primal Branding.

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