As humans, we have an inherent desire to belong and to be part of something greater than ourselves: a movement, a crusade, something we can relate to and truly get behind. So, what does this mean for your business, and how can you learn to take advantage of it?

In 1901, William S. Harley, completed a blueprint for a new engine which was set to transform the motor industry. An engine which would fit into a bike and revolutionise personal transport for the masses. This first prototype was set to become one of the biggest and best known motorbike brands to this day, the Harley-Davidson.

What is it, exactly, which has made the iconic American motorcycle so enduring? At the time the motorcycle was pretty revolutionary, but today there are thousands of other bikes on the market. Yet still, whether you’re a motorbike enthusiast or not, the Harley-Davidson conjures up images of long dusty open roads across the States, leather jackets and that all-important hint of rebellion. Undoubtedly this is an image which appeals to the hard-core motorcycle gang, but it’s more than just a strong persona which has seen Harley-Davidson survive, and indeed thrive, for over a century in business.

What Harley has successfully done is to create something far more fundamental than simply selling a great product. They have created a business which people feel so connected to, they in affect are the business. They’ve created a sense of belonging among their audience which has in turn created a fierce loyalty.

They have created followers, long before the word become synonymous with a large social media presence garnered by some of today’s celebrities.

“We’re not about transportation; it’s not about getting from Point A to Point B. It’s about living life in the way you choose.” – Mark-Hans Richer, Harley-Davidson

Through treating business as more than just a product, Harley-Davidson has created something iconic and enduring which their customers feel part of. This sense of belonging really took off in 1983 with the inception of the Harley Owners Group (known as ‘HOG’), a forum for owners within which they can connect with other enthusiasts, attend events, and feel part of an elite member’s club. They have created a tribe.

The ‘HOG’ network now spans the globe, with regular gatherings and online forums for people to meet and compare notes. It’s far more than just a vehicle to sell motorcycles, for many, it’s their life. At the time, this was a ground-breaking idea in terms of marketing a business. Today, with the advent the internet and social media, it’s become easier than ever to create a loyal following, but it’s one which many brands fail to implement.

Creating a tribal business

So, how do you go about creating a tribe, and what does it mean for business today?

A tribe needs to be built over time and have a strong connection to the desired lifestyle underpinning everything within it. As with Harley-Davidson’s ‘HOG’, it’s not simply for selling – a tribe fundamentally offers people something to believe in.

Traditionally, a tribe would have been led by an elder, with tribal members having a common thread such as proximity, family or a common purpose. As our society becomes increasingly dissonant, with families spanning continents and more and more people living independently, the need to feel part of something bigger than oneself is as strong as ever, but it’s morphed. For many, the traditional religious or political leaders no longer resonate, but the desire to connect with like-minded people still prevails. This is where the savvy organisation can step in and fill a gap in the minds, and hearts, of the consumer.

The concept of brand tribalism was first conceived by French sociologist Michel Maffesoli in his 1996 book ‘The Time of Tribes’, where he asserts that modern-day tribalism is much more focused around consumer culture.

The rapid rise of the internet has seen people’s circles expanding, and allowed the ability to connect with like-minded people across the globe at the touch of a button.

Take Lululemon Athletica, a big player in the ever-expanding athleisure sector, who saw net revenue for the fiscal year ending 31 January increase by 15% to $2.1 billion. With a mission statement of ‘creating components for people to live long, healthy and fun lives’, they have become far more to their followers than simply the yoga pants they sell.

Their social media platforms provide an insight into the level of loyalty they’ve garnered from their customer-base. Their Facebook page alone has over 1.5 million followers, and is a fun, inviting and vibrant community where people can connect on a human scale. Visitors are called guests, and personal interaction is high, enabling people to feel like they are co-creating an experience with the brand, and actually becoming part of it.

Introducing brand ambassadors

The feeling of connection within Lululemon’s tribe is heightened by the introduction of ‘brand ambassadors’- real-life people like Lysha Kamisato, a yoga teacher and dancer living on Maui who embodies the lifestyle their followers aspire to.

You can read each of the ambassador’s stories on the website, and watch videos on Lululemon’s Youtube channel. Their stories are inspiring, taking the viewer on a journey with them, celebrating their achievements, and creating a deeper connection with the people behind the brand. Lululemon have created a virtual community, which crucially they have let spill over into the ‘real’ world, encouraging people to ‘sweat with us’ by attending festivals, retreats and hosting yoga, wellbeing & sporting events.

Their website continues this theme, showcasing the lifestyle behind the brand, through providing nutritional advice, behind the scenes style blogs and personal stories of staff members, building on that feeling of connection even more.

Another of the biggest players in the sportswear sector, who has taken the idea of brand ambassadors to the next level, is Nike.

Nike’s revenue for 2015 was a staggering $7.5 billion, and with a Facebook following of 26 million, we could all learn a thing or two about creating a tribe of loyal followers from what is essentially a company selling trainers. Since they worked with MBA star Michael Jordan in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, Nike has partnered with world-class athletes to help promote their footwear. Forbes estimates Jordan still makes a cool $100 million a year from footwear, showing just how profitable this has proved to be for all involved.

But how does this create that sense of community and tribe?

Through partnerships with inspirational athletes, the athletes themselves take on the role of the tribal leader. People admire them and aspire to be like them, and so they connect with the brands that these ‘leaders’ are linked to.

Nike’s most recent YouTube video, titled ‘Unlimited You’, has been watched over 36 million times since it was published just one month ago.

Speaking directly to the viewer, it invokes feelings of triumph, people being great and reaching their potential, all against the backdrop of family. By working with current athletes like Mo Farah, and using taglines like ‘you could do it, anyone could do it’, Nike invoke a feeling of being part of something big, something which we can all aspire to.

Not only that, from that very first partnership with Michael Jordan, Nike has tapped into our relentless desire to be accepted and part of the group. By targeting sports stars and creating a product which is appealing to the youth market, they are enabling their customers to feel part of the Nike tribe simply by wearing the right shoes. What’s more, this spills over into real life, with customers becoming intrinsically linked and feeling connected to each other through their shared taste, fashion and lifestyle choices.

The how

So, how does the savvy business leader go about building a community of loyal followers? The key is to create compelling stories, to allow followers to co-create within your business, and to move away from simply ‘transactional selling’.

To do this, you need to build your tribe from within. As Richard Branson says: “Good people are not just crucial to a business, they are the business!”

It should go without saying, that if your workforce isn’t behind your brand, then how can you expect consumers to be as well? At Harley-Davidson, their employees are 100% behind the brand, even becoming their best advocates. By building the tribe from within, they have nurtured a deeply loyal workforce which translates to their following too.

“Ensure your employees understand what your brand stands for, so they can be your first line of word-of-mouth advertising.” – Simon Mainwaring, CEO, We First

With Lululemon, we see a perfect example of a business moving away from marketing products, to creating a whole lifestyle which consumers can easily get on board and join. Through watching videos, reading blogs and attending events, they are enabling the viewer to get a snap-shot into the lives of the people who embody all that their tribe is about, and to find out exactly how they can have a piece of that lifestyle too.

This is where the people behind the business become key. The ability to share personal stories allows for that all-important personal connection, but of course you need to have the buy-in from your staff, ambassadors or celebrities in order for them to allow you to use their stories in such a way. The community culture needs to be embedded throughout every element of your business, in order to successfully adopt the tribal approach.

The business case for belonging

So, what does this all mean for your organisation? And is there really a business case for belonging? When you’re focused on selling your product or service, building a tribe to compliment your offering will benefit your business in these key ways:

  • Differentiation: people don’t remember things, they remember feelings. By building an engaged following centred around a core ideology, they are far more likely to remember you, above your competitors.
  • Loyalty: both inside and outside of your organisation. Unified through a common bond, customers and employees alike will stick around much longer.
  • Attraction: by creating an inclusive environment that people naturally want to be part of, you’re far more likely to attract the best talent out there.

Tribes are about faith, identity, and human connection: they give members a sense of camaraderie around a shared interest. It could be a love of the outdoors, the open road, a healthy lifestyle or the feeling that anything is possible – whatever the core ideal behind your business, people are able to connect to it and each other, on a deeper level.

Through sharing stories and leading the tribe, your organisation becomes far more than just a logo, a catchy tag-line and some great products: no longer are you just another company to buy from, you’re now a movement for people to belong to.