Never buy a surfboard from a surf shop owner who doesn't surf

I love to surf, but I am dreadful.

I love to be in surf shops, but I am a poser.

I would love to run a surf shop, but I would be a fraud.

I lack the knowledge, the skills, and the language to be a successful surfboard salesman.

It’s not my tribe.

Developed by Seth Godin, the concept of tribe is a significant force for brands. Describing a tribe as a group of people connected to one another, to a leader, or to an ideal in which they have a deeper connection. Godin says, “Today, marketing is about engaging with the tribe and delivering products and services with stories that spread.”

A tribe is more than a customer base.

Sure, every member of a tribe is a customer, not every customer truly belongs to a tribe. A richer connection is fostered when a service or brand generates something more unique—with the identification of the group by characteristics that bind key customers together, such as a collective passion, vision, stage of life, or a desired long-term objective.

These shared attributes make these people more than just customers. They not only embrace the brand identity; to a significant extent, they help expand and define it.

For marketers, the goal is to discover the shared characteristics that define a tribe, speak to the changes and challenges that its members are experiencing, and create insider language and mystical stories that will strengthen the bonds of the tribe and stoke its passion for the brand. In turn, tribe members will help humanize messaging, evangelize products, and amplify the service.

REI is a great example. Many of their customers live and breathe the great outdoors and express this identification with an REI co-op membership. REI gives their tribe what they need to live out their passion, from gear to workshops which inspires them to new adventures.

Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly believes his company's future will be about getting its people into homes. Joly explains the importance of this strategy: “That lets you have a real conversation. You can talk about what’s possible, be human, make it real.”

Best Buy has mantras like “Be a consultant, not a salesperson.”

Best Buy uses phrases like: "How would you like it if," "Do you think it would help if you could," "Have you ever thought about."

For Best Buy, they want to establish long-term relationships with their customers rather than chase one-time transactions.

Best Buy is providing solutions, knows the gear, and is building a tribe.

It doesn’t just want to sell your electronics.

It wants its in-home consultants to be “personal chief technology officers.”

Nordstrom has long enjoyed a reputation for personal customer service and quality goods.

Nordstrom has gained credibility as a high-end destination, upper-middle-class, if not glamorous retail operator where loyal customers enjoy attentive service and a liberal return policy.

Embracing technology in the rapidly changing retail shopping environment, Nordstrom sees shopping coupled with delivery innovations that will build more loyalty and serve the tribe.

This approach to technology will more than offset their costs—especially if they lure e-commerce customers to brick-and-mortar locations, where they might shop more.

Nordstrom shoppers today can pick up online orders and try on items selected from its website. They can meet a stylist or get an alteration (Nordstrom is the largest employer of tailors in the country, with 1,300, and alterations encourage more store visits).

The tech-plus-touch formula is helping Nordstrom move further upscale, generating more revenue, and further cementing the connection between brand and tribe.

Next time you go shopping, ask yourself if the retailer has the knowledge, the skills, and the language to make you feel like you are a member of the tribe.


Marc A. Ross is a globalization strategist and communications advisor. Ross specializes in helping entrepreneurs and thought leaders make better connections and better communications. He is the founder of Caracal Global.

Marc Ross

Based in Washington, DC, I specialize in thought leader communications and global public policy for public affairs professionals working at the intersection of globalization, disruption, and politics.

Clients hire me to ghostwrite, engage influencer networks, manage media relations, produce events, audit their communications infrastructure, consult on hiring, provide issue briefs and news generating talking points, as well as manage end to end communications projects where I assume a role of project leader and general contractor.

I work independently but provided access to a substantial global network of collaborators with expertise in websites, graphic design, audio, video, polling, data analytics, and research.

Using the latest tactics of an American political campaign with expertise shaped by being a practitioner of global business communications, I help clients tell their story and build trusted relationships with all necessary stakeholders.

Successful communications are all about STOCK = strategy, tactics, organization, consistency, and know-how.