Brand purpose, it’s a tribal thing…and that’s okay

It’s an age-old truism of the marketing world that when you’re trying to decide how to best capture your customers’ wallets and attention, you need to answer the fundamental question ‘what’s in it for me’?

‘What’s in it for me’ is the yardstick most often deployed to sort through the different appealing functions and features that a client has to offer the market. It’s there to determine a winning proposition from a self-important statement the company wants to make about itself. The simple trick of putting yourself in your customer’s shoes is, in a way, a microcosm of the entire practice of our industry, and the day to day job of planners all over the world.


Principles vs. rules

In any discipline, it’s important to understand the difference between a principle and a rule. ‘What’s in it for me’ is a principle. It says, “consider things from your audience’s perspective,” so you can understand what they want, and how what you’ve got responds to those needs.

But it is not a rule. It does not mean, “the only thing that matters is the personal gain of the individual we are selling to at the moment we are selling to them.” Put simply, if you misunderstand ‘what’s in it for me’ to be short hand for ‘people only do things that directly benefit them’ you have a crap model of human behaviour.

The fact is that people often act in ways that don’t directly benefit themselves but instead benefits the group they belong to. Think of any loving parent. Think of any member of the emergency services, a teacher or a politician (okay, maybe not the last one). In reality we often put others’ interests before our own. But not just any ‘other,’ the others that are part of our group or the group that we feel we belong to.

You may say, “that sounds great, but when I’m selling my widgets, they’re mostly for selfish pleasure.” Perhaps they are. But there’s one field of communications where the ‘we’ comes before the ‘me,’ and that’s purpose.


Appealing to our innate tribalism

Daniel Pink, in his ground-breaking book on management and leadership Drive, identifies purpose as one of the three key motivators for building a successful, modern workforce who can solve the complex, creative and rapidly changing challenges that face business today.

Pink explains that embedding purpose in your organization is about fulfilling the higher-order needs of your workers. Your aim is to satisfy people’s desire to contribute to something larger than themselves, to play a meaningful role in contributing to a worthwhile group effort.

That contribution to a group effort is a fundamental driver that we all have within us. Humans are not simply selfish actors or ‘utility maximising, rational individuals’ as the economists would have us believe; we are group collaborators. In short, humans are tribal, and we forget that at our cost.


Rethinking Maslow

Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, traditionally thought of as the motivational drives of an individual. But if we reconsider it through a tribal lens it becomes far clearer: At the bottom are the most individual-focused needs: food, water, warmth etc. But these are most easily achieved in cooperation with others, whether it’s a hunting party or a division of labour that spreads the tasks evenly within a group. All the other needs either revolve around others or involve belonging to a group. Security and safety, best achieved through trusted relationships. Belonging and love? Hard to do on your own. And then esteem; your own self-image greatly influenced by the way others see and respond to you.

At the top of the pyramid is self-actualisation or fulfilling your potential. At first, this one sounds like it’s all about the individual, until you ask, ‘how is this actually done?’ The answer is simple. Parroted by the self-improvement coaches, drilled into you by your parents and teachers and expounded as truth by the messiahs, philosophers and gurus of the past – the only way to fulfil your potential is through service to others. As Stephen Covey says, “life is not accumulation, it’s about contribution”.

Despite this, people continue to misunderstand purpose, confusing it with a unique value proposition or something that will appeal to people’s individualistic, rational brain. But if you want to create a nurturing environment that will unleash the potential of the highly skilled people you’re working with, you need to understand the importance of making those individuals feel part of a group. Purpose is all about setting the guiding ethic of your culture. It should be a banner under which your people will rally, a cause that people will be prepared to sacrifice for, take risks for and do their best to prove they belong to.

Purpose, it’s a tribal thing.


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