Time for marketers to abandon the safety of the high ground

Engagement in the age of tribes means engaging face to face – and pissing the right people off on purpose

SpinThis excerpt is taken from Spin: How Politics Has the Power to Turn Marketing on Its Head, copyright © 2014 by Clive Veroni. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press. HouseOfAnansi.com

Smart marketers, like smart political strategists, understand that avoiding consumer anger and controversy is increasingly difficult. The trick is not to attempt to dodge it but to learn how to manage it and turn it to your advantage.

Self-defence instructors counsel that when someone throws a punch your way, the best strategy is not to duck but to redirect the energy of that punch to destabilize your opponent.

Rather than avoiding consumer anger, marketers should be seeking ways to leverage that anger. It takes a fearless marketer to face the hostility of an oncoming crowd. Not just to face it but even to encourage it.

There are some who have done it to powerful effect. They are the ones who have taken the lessons of wedge politics and applied them to the world of consumer marketing. They have actively provoked a hostile reaction from one tribe in order to win the support of another.

That might seem unnecessarily daring, even foolhardy. But these days, in virtually every consumer arena, people are splintering into tribal groups and demanding to know where the brands they purchase stand on any number of issues—the rights of garment workers, fair trade for farmers, GMO foods, the list goes on.

In recent years there has been much talk in the marketing world about the growing power and presence of consumer “tribes.” The term refers to the idea that consumers tend to cluster around common needs and desires, and want to connect with others who are like them. Brands that help them make this connection, and that can lead the tribe, will be more successful.

A tribe (or herd, as some call it) is different from the typical way in which marketers define their target audiences. A target audience, the tribalists point out, is defined from the marketer’s point of view (through demographic and psycho- graphic characteristics), whereas a tribe is self-defining.

The tribe members’ self-image grows organically out of their particular interests and behaviours. Tribal consumers tend to be more active in shaping the products and services they consume, rather than passively consuming whatever marketers want to feed them.

To connect fully with these groups, a brand must become part of the tribe and demonstrate that it shares the same values and interests. By doing so, brands can forge a deeper connection with these consumers.

Strong brands can actually help to form and lead tribes, connecting people who might otherwise not have found each other. This is a compelling idea — the notion that marketers need to go beyond traditional target audience definitions and into a deeper, more tribal understanding of their consumers.

But by focusing solely on what makes a tribe unique and what holds it together, this theory misses the bigger and more important idea about tribes. It misses something we all understand intuitively, something that goes back to the very origins of human civilization.

That is, the minute you create a tribe, with its internal cohesion, you are by default creating an opposing tribe, with its attendant conflict. A tribe, after all, exists in opposition to others who are not like it. And tribes that are diametrically opposed to one another tend to go to war.

In some parts of the world, ancient tribal wars are still part of everyday life. In modern democracies, however, the tribal conflict tends to play out on, arguably, a slightly more civilized battlefield, the political one. What are Democrats and Republicans, what are Tories and Labourites, what are Conservatives and Liberals, if not tribes in conflict with one another?

All the values and beliefs that build cohesion within a given political tribe also put them in opposition to those who don’t share their world view.

This is where political strategists depart from marketers. While the marketer is focusing all of his or her attention on the internal workings of the tribe, trying to understand its every characteristic and nuance, the political operative recognizes that it’s equally important to understand the opposing tribe.

It is the tension that exists between tribes that, to the politician, can be a source of tremendous power and leverage. That’s why political campaigns put so much effort into researching and analyzing not just their own sup- porters but those of the opposition as well. Put in marketing terms, who you’re not marketing to is as important as who you are marketing to.

Thanks to social media, individual brand choices are becoming more public and more vocal. These loud and passionate declarations are causing people to take sides on any number of issues, from the melting of the polar ice caps to the twerking of Miley Cyrus. Individuals are identifying themselves with one tribe or another and making their choices known on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and the like.

As ordinary individuals increasingly head online to declare their allegiances, they are not just announcing what they stand for but also what they stand against. It’s not enough that my brand of choice serves as a connector to others who are like me.

I also need it to distinguish me from those who are not like me. What defines me as a Tea Party member is precisely what differentiates me from a liberal Democrat. What defines me as a Coke lover is precisely what sets me apart from a Pepsi lover. And I’d never want to be mistaken for belonging to the wrong group.

The next generation of marketers won’t have the option their predecessors had of playing it safe and barricading themselves behind the castle walls. The revolution is here. Every time a marketer does something new, they open themselves up to the potential for backlash and angry words from the crowd beyond the gates.

Whether marketers like it or not, they will have to abandon the safety of the high ground and engage with people face to face, some of whom won’t like them. Smart marketers will understand that using the anger of some will allow them to win the support of others.

The question is, how do you antagonize just enough people in the right way, so that the entire populace doesn’t turn on you with pitchforks and flaming torches?

Most marketers aim, at all costs, to avoid the conflict between tribes. The political strategist relishes it and uses it to gain advantage. In fact, pissing off the opposing team is not only a sport in the political world, it’s a vital strategic tool. They even have a name for it: wedge politics. The idea is simple enough: say or do something that appeals to your base of supporters, even though you know it will antagonize others.

One senior political strategist describes this dog-whistle approach as “Something which is absolutely the heartland sound your people want to hear. Everybody else won’t like it or won’t hear it, but it doesn’t really matter.” In fact, the angrier your opponents get, the more ginned up your supporters become.

For more information about Spin, visit SpinTheBook.com

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