QMR Review of Consumer Tribes book

An early concept for the Tribes book cover

In a blatant act of self-promotion, today I’ve decided to post a book review of my co-edited volume “Consumer Tribes” from the international and interdisciplinary marketing journal Qualitative Marketing Research. To attempt to make up for the distasteful, unseemly, and downright rude self-interest of the post, I’m also posting some “highly collectible” alternate book covers that didn’t make it into the publication stream. I hope you enjoy looking at them.

Oh, and I’ll add an offer to the table. If you are interested in writing a blog review of the Consumer Tribes book, let me know. I have five copies of the book that I can send out as promotional copies. I’d be happy to send free review copies to the first five bloggers who contact me interested in writing a review of the book.

Many thanks to my colleague Professor Paul Henry of the University of Sydney for this wonderful book review. In actuality, this review isn’t so much a review of the book as it is, but an extension and development of a number of ideas. The review is a sort of distillation and application, more attuned to marketing and brand management than most of the book’s chapters. It draws quite heavily on the first chapter of the book, and references a lot of the other chapters sites as examples, but what it is doing is arguing for the relevance of the book and its topic not for academics so much as for practitioners, for marketers themselves. I thus thought it would be of particular interest to those of you who are practicing marketers.

Book Review: Consumer Tribes
Edited by Bernard Cova, Robert Kozinets, and Avi Shankar
Publisher Name: Elsevier
Place of Publication: Oxford
Publication Year: 2007
From: Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal
Volume 11 Number 1 2008 pp. 113-115
Copyright (c) Emerald Group Publishing Limited ISSN 1352-2752

The idea of Consumer Tribes has become a hot topic amongst both academics and practitioners. No wonder this is the case, because traditional thinking around market segmentation is looking decidedly tied. This book draws on cutting-edge research from around the world to bring the tribal concept to life across a great variety of social and product setting ranging from Harry Potter fans, Royal heritage seekers, Swedish Goth culture, Italian metrosexuals and pipe smokers, through to Star Trek and Tom Petty fans, Hummer owners, Harley bike riders, surfers and films; to name a few.

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Cova and Cova (2002) drew on Maffesoli (1996) to introduce the idea to marketers that modern consumer society can be thought of in tribal terms. The core point is that need for community and social connectedness has become the priority over that of material consumption objects. The reasons for this relates to the familiar things many of us find missing in our everyday lives. For example, fragmentation of society and value placed on individualism combined with technology and time pressure have left many feeling socially isolated and disconnected.

We are after all tribal creatures. Tribal belonging is a core source of meaning. Tribal rituals perpetuate social bonding and the myths and stories about who we are and where we fit, sustain our sense of esteem.

Thus, the word tribe is used to emphasize the yearning for old style values such as sense of local identification that fosters re-enchantment with the world. Tribes are held together by shared emotions and passions amongst networks of people that often cannot be neatly stereotyped in demographics terms. The binding source is shared passions, not demographic labels such age, gender, and social class.

Smart marketers can take advantage of this yearning for communal identity by fostering and supporting communities of product users. However, they do need to understand that tribal members do not simply conform to marketer actions. They often shape product meanings and roles in relatively independent ways that marketers may not necessary anticipate. Consumers become producers. The tribal approach is different to the traditional idea of market segmentation where consumers are targeted in an individuated manner.

Consideration of consumer-consumer linkages takes priority over marketer-consumer linkages. This is because it is the human connections that provide the core source of emotional value; products simply facilitate.

Tribal is also different from traditional segmentation in that people can be in many tribes, and that tribes themselves are dynamic and fluid. The traditional idea in market segmentation is one of marketers acting on the consumer, rather than fitting in with tribal interactions. This is a challenging mind-shift for marketers looking for short-term results.

Take the case of the Paris association formed to administer the mass night tours through the city by roller skating fans that has seen up 25,000 skaters on a given night. These tours started out organically by a few skaters getting together. It was never about products per se. As it grew marketers tried to sponsor the event, yet the community rejected these overtures insisting that any marketer involvement be on the tribe’s terms, which was most importantly about retaining the tribe’s independence from the commercial.

Tribes are not primarily about the buying decisions made by individual consumers. Rather, in-tune marketers seek to understand the potential for collective action such as appropriating and adapting products in ways that are not marketer-driven. For example, the resurgence of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in 2002 owes little to the marketing done by the company. It was adopted by alternative circles as a brand that was so out it was in. People in the know began consuming without being targeted by the company. The beer’s success is routed in rejection of aggressive marketing. Other tribes are more actively marketer-fostered. Salomon in entering the snowboard category went to great lengths to understand the ritual and practices of the tribe. They started at the micro-community level involving a small group of snowboarders in product design and testing. They embedded themselves in the culture, creating events and finding ways to the support the shared passion of tribe. They triumphed in a competitive market over the likes of Nike, Fila, and Rossignal.

The term tribe is closely aligned to another hot marketing term – brand community. These often consist of more formal organizational structures and as the name implies revolve around a specific brand. An example is The Hummer Club Inc. in the USA for owners of the General Motors (GM) vehicle. Although accredited by GM, this is a private non-profit organization. Interestingly, in-group bonds partly derive from vocal negative reactions to the “gas-guzzling monster” from non-owners.

Another example is the “My Nutella” community. This product category is different to sporting goods for youth culture or very expensive vehicles for the wealthy. Nutella is an everyday grocery product that has managed to attract a passionate following. The marketer has capitalized on this following by setting up a web site that fosters natural interaction amongst passionate consumers.

Identification and affiliative motivations stemming from group membership is an important mechanism for tribal creation. However, another feature is that given these tribes are not usually controlled by marketers is that they do not always act right. There are the extreme anti-corporate activities exemplified in the likes of Adbusters producing “sub-vertising.” Then there are the Harry Potter tribes writing their own stories – hundreds of thousands – and distributing them across the web. Actions like this can make the copyright owner uneasy.

You have to think hard before taking your most loyal customers to court. Thus, the most passionate consumers are often also the most fragile and require careful handing. There are many other examples of consumers playing around with products and even holding on to the product even when the marketer discontinues support (e.g. the Apple Newton community). The suggestion is that marketers risk stifling the shared passion through attempts to curb these activities. Hence, the imperative is to understand this flow of creative activity and foster it in productive ways. It means a rebalancing of power relations, often through consumer’s use of new technology, between consumers and producers. This constitutes a new reality for marketers.

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It is important to emphasize that tribes are not necessarily centered on a particular brand or product as is typically associated with the notion of brand community. A tribe will often appropriate and adapt a range of products. Pabst beer was appropriated by bicycle couriers, along with their obvious set of bicycle-related needs. In-line skating and snowboarding participation is much more than just purchase of rollerblades or snowboards. There is whole constellation of other products and brands that tribal rituals prescribe.

Another even broader example is that of the Italian Metrosexual tribe. This tribe has appropriated a great range of aesthetic products and activities ranging across skin and hair care, fashion labels, modes behaviour and social participation. Given this, it is critical for marketers to flip their thinking from a consumer-product centricity to a social relations perspective … which just happens to involve a range of supporting products.

This book argues for a “true shift in the underpinnings of marketing,” where marketers partner with tribal networks in ways where consumers “teach marketers,” rather than the traditional approach where marketers “study consumers.” Another suggestion is that marketers may not necessarily have to send out completely formed messages to the marketplace. Given the potential for potent creative activity within a tribe, leaving gaps and disconnects opens the possibility for consumers to assert their own productive urges and fosters interplay amongst the network. This may act as a significant mechanism in which ownership is organically nurtured (rather than communicated and injected) throughout the tribe. It also leaves room for possibility of mystery and fantasy in one’s life.

Tribes personalize, authenticate and enrich members’ lives. This is far more potent than a marketer-directed brand image message.

5 Comments

  1. pablosan76 June 9, 2008
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