Hotel Online  Special Report

Winning Brand Loyalty; Discerning Your
Guest’s Tribal Loyalties


by Richard K. Hendrie, April 2005

According to one of my favorite authors, Sam Hill, we are in the midst of the ‘re-tribing’ of America. It’s a phenomenon spawned and fed by several forces at once:

  • We’re no longer contained by geographical boundaries because of universal connectivity, 24/7.
  • We hunger to belong to some group or institution that reflects true expression of self, not one imposed by convention from the outside.
  • We’re willing to embrace the worlds of aesthetics and feeling as legitimate areas of serious discourse and economic value.
  • We now recognize that successful brands reside in the amygdala, within the brain’s frontal lobe – a place where emotion, visual memory and pleasure hold court. By and large, purchase behavior is not rational.
  • We embrace ritual, not just of the traditional sort, but those that reflect the deepest values of the tribes to which we belong.  Ritual plays a different and greater role in providing meaning to our lives. Rituals are orchestrated experiences.
In effect, we seek others not just of like interest or mind, but of like spirit. Hence we have Dead Head’s, Oprah’s Book Club members, The Burning Man Festival, Star Warriors, Hobbit Fanatics, the Organic consumers, The Apple –only-ons, LINUX zealots ad infinitum, all of whom share a passion that transcends the product or service. There may have always been fanatics of various kinds, but the lack of boundaries and the other factors listed above, change it from fringe group phenomenon to a tribal tidal wave. Businesses are paying attention. What used to be seen as ‘niches’ are now seen as being organic collectives.

You don’t think isn’t trying to create a tribe of Amazonians with its ‘learning’ technology? That it’s doing it ass-backwards is secondary. They understand the consumer wants to be understood, but Amazon’s mistake is to think that technology alone is the key. It’s the connectivity, communal passions, on-going conversations and shared experiences (real and virtual) that produce and nourish tribes. With tribes come rituals. With ritual comes selling opportunity that offers value beyond the product or service itself. The Experience Era has a reason for being, fueled in part by the ritualistic experiences being orchestrated by brilliant marketers. If you want any further proof take a child to Build-a-Bear.

Another river feeding into this grand Tribal Ocean is the structured search for personal development and well being. Just do a Google on Personal and Life Coaches to see just how many of us are seeking transformation and connection in our journey. Ponder its gigantic growth on the order of some hundred fold in the last ten years. It’s no longer, ‘No pain, No Gain’, but rather, the following, courtesy of my personal coach, Lissa Bergin-Boles:

Inside each and everyone of us is our true, authentic swing.
Something we was born with.
Something that's ours and ours alone.
Something that can't be learned...
Something that's got to be remembered.

~ Bagger Vance ~
From The Legend of Bagger Vance

In effect, ‘Joy to the World, my journey to self realization has begun’.

This journey is not taken alone. I have millions of fellow human beings moving alongside me as we morph our daily experiences into golden wisdom: mostly in experiential, tribal terms.

Perhaps the most obvious evidence that tribes rule comes from popular culture: the proliferation of channels from cable and pay per view that reflect and feed various Tribal cultures. Look at how different channels position themselves.  The Home and Garden Network isn’t about women 24-49, (or men, for that matter), it’s about garden enthusiasts interested in all things green and how they might help shape their world into a more beautiful place. Spike TV isn’t about men 18-49, but a particular type of feeling some men like to indulge in at times – ‘guy’ activities and attitudes that you might expect Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson to have had in their younger days. Radio is about to undergo the same transformation with Satellite radio. Again, programs will emerge based on tribal needs and feelings. And of course, we can belong to more than one tribe depending on mood, stage of life, cultural interests or plain old genetics.

Tribes are powerful because they tie into a deep, abiding desire we have to have personal relationships and a safe harbor from the dishonesty that runs rampant in our society.  In other words, these tribes aren’t weird conclaves of eccentrics, but you and I. Harley Davidson discovered, by accident, that they had a tribe under their nose. Called HOGS (Harley Owner Groups), these men and women shared a passion for all things Harley – particularly the lifestyle Harley represented (branding 101): safe adventure riding en-mass across America. HOGS transcend demographics and belie any stereotype of Hell’s Angels ‘bad boys’. The recently retired Secretary for Health and Human Services is a HOG, as are hundreds of thousands of others. They share a brother and sisterhood that is as passionate as it is irrational. And Harley went from bankruptcy to billions of dollars in sales and profits.

When Malcolm Gladwell ( wrote The Tipping Point, one of his theses was that big changes come from viral moments that by their unpredictable but dynamic nature move and grow until some break out into ‘The New Thing”. I believe that Tribes might be subject to some of the same viral evolution. How does that impact you and your business in hospitality and retail? It behooves you to take a much deeper look into the nature of your guest’s attitudes and feelings about why they do what they do, not just why they’ve included you within their journey’s itinerary. 

Our culture is shifting to a time when we are more likely to join groups with innate experiential connection to some deep place in our soul  or seek a tribe based on shared passion (Red Sox Fans, anyone?) than simply fulfill a mechanistic need. Our investigation should not end at statistics. This is not to whip poor marketing types, rating services or obtuse corporate minions whose only means of understanding their guests are by using the old, stale demographic averages. Tribes include 18-49 year old adults. They surely have women. Many members may hunger for the +$100K household income. But, maybe there is a new way. 

The aesthetics of those tribes (color, shape, flavor, aroma, look, feel etc.) become important to understand. I look at Kimpton Hotels and its brilliant use of aesthetics and activities as means of segmentation. They aren’t appealing to ‘the working woman’ or others interested in high style, but to those guests with a desire ‘to live lives of enlightened, activity surrounded by beauty. That’s a tribe, my friends, not a demographic. Heck, in a more primitive way, when a consumer can say Krispy Kreme’s are to angels what donuts are to people*, that’s not a brand, but a conclave of raving fans. 

Divining the nature of the tribes you serve (and believe me, you do), I’m reminded of the words of Horst Schultze, when he used to ask all Ritz employees to understand, “They (the guests) are not coming to drink – they have drinks in their rooms and at home. They are not coming to eat. They are coming to feel well. You have to understand their purpose.” - Horst Schultze, former President & COO for Ritz Carlton quoted from Harvard Business School Case Study revised 7/02. 

This training, offered over a decade ago, is truer today. 

When your guests come to your place, understand their purpose. Even cleverly worded psychographic descriptors that try to group consumers into clusters will neither give you the wisdom you need, nor  create the brand loyalty that ensures ongoing success.

"To win brand loyalty, companies need to establish strong emotional bonds with their guests, more-over this builds ‘one transaction at a time, involving face-to-face contacts. A brand…has a face of the people who interact in the marketplace.” - According to John Fleming of the Gallup Organization as quoted in New York Times 12/7/04:  Sandra Blakeslee ‘Say the Right Name and They Light up’

Tribes are not driven by logic, nor can their zeal be understood rationally. It behooves us to key in on the tribal ‘mojo’ rather than on strictly left brain logic,“…those who indicated an extremely strong attachment to the  (brand) …showed a distinct pattern: three areas of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, the temporal pole and the amygdala – lit up brightly. All are associated with visual memory and emotion.”*

Duke University and Gallup proved through an exhaustive study of brain function, that the center of this three ring jamboree of brain activity is the amygdala, where loyalty to brands resides. The most brand addicted subjects showed the greatest activation in the amygdala, the sensory gateway to the emotions.”*  It means that if you excite the passion inherent in your guest’s tribe connections to your brand, you implant those feelings safely into the amygdala, where they remain virtually impervious to competition. That being said, you’ve got to deliver on your basic brand promise and keep your quality at peak performance 

Now, this focus on tribe marketing isn’t a ‘nice to do’ activity, because there are other cultural currents at work. Patently phony branding that promise and renege, corporate chieftains who deny malfeasance in the face of a host of smoking guns and other sundry lies has created a cynical consumer whose distrust has gone to critical mass. There is, however, an equally deep hunger for authenticity and rigorous truth, whose untapped power offer marketers new avenues to find meaningful measures of success like the loyalty of the guest over time.

Nonetheless, companies continue to focus on customer satisfaction, blissfully ignorant of data that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that between 60 and 80% of all consumers who say they are ‘satisfied’, go right out and purchase from a competitor.**  What’s that tell you? For one thing, it suggests that satisfaction is no measure of intent to repurchase. 

In the quest to discern your guest’s tribal loyalties, seek first to uncover and provide those experiences that delight consumers. Then accept that the only meaningful standard is whether they return. In other words, have you earned their loyalty? 

Pull out a calculator and determine just how much cash a loyal, regular guest would generate for you over their lifetime. 20 visits a year at an average of $50 per check times 20 years equals $20,000 from one guest. A bunch of those guys and we can all retire. Further, the beauty of tribal marketing takes old fashioned ‘word-of-mouth’ and makes it a more powerful than ever. Look at the emergence of the blog as a viral marketing tool. The logic of appealing to tribes rather than demos, becomes even more compelling.

What this trend offers us is a new way to both celebrate diversity and profit from it in a way in which all benefit. Isn’t that a world worth pursuing? So, from now on, when I look at a brand, I seek the tribes to whom it appeals. 

* New York Times 12/7/04:  Sandra Blakeslee ‘Say the Right Name and They Light up’
** *The Loyalty Effect by Frederick Reichheld
Rick Hendrie
Chief Experience Officer
Also See: The Why, What and How of WOW / Richard K. Hendrie / March 2005
Creating Customer Loyalty: Beyond Food and Bed, A Good Relationship Is Your Best Marketing / Richard K. Hendrie / March 2005
Ask What Makes You Great; Questions for Hospitality to Ask Itself / Richard K. Hendrie / February 2005
Great Service Grows From Great Praise / Richard K. Hendrie / February 2005
Is it ROI, Return On Investment or ROL, Return on Loyalty / Richard K. Hendrie / January 2005
Brand Enhancement: Invite Surprise and Delight Into Your Operation / Rick Hendrie / November 2004
Your Experience Is The Brand; Good Hospitality, Food and Service Are Merely Entry Points into Being Competitive / Rick Hendrie / November 2004

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