Tribalism is defined as the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group. Humans are inherently tribal; we tend to gravitate to groups or “tribes” with similar interest or habits for a sense of belonging or familiarity. It’s a core need that gives our lives a sense of structure, purpose and beliefs. Hyper Tribalism is essentially that primitive approach to trust. We trust those that are like us.

But, who or what is contributing to this Hyper Tribalism, and do these tribes impact our trust as consumers and in turn our buying decisions? Are these tribes further dividing our society and causing mistrust of brands? And what can brands do?

Birds of A Feather Flock Together

Tribalism or Hyper Tribalism is not new, as demonstrated by this old proverb, but there has been a surge in tribal groups as we, as a society, become polarized by brands, government, leaders, the media and technology. Our modern-day tribes may be friendships, social groups, work colleagues, sports affiliations, religion, political affiliation, ethnicity, etc. We tend to affiliate with these groups because they have similar beliefs or have influenced us in some way.

This philosophy is no different than level three in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – the need to belong, or in Caldini’s seventh persuasion principle, “Unity”– i.e. “this person is one of us.” However, hyper tribalism has evolved and become even more prevalent with the advancement of technology.

Technology Feeds Hyper Tribalism

Technology has largely reinforced and even exacerbated primitive tribalism. As a result of technology, specifically the Internet and social media, people can express themselves more freely, more often and with conviction, but with this expression of opinion, the facts get diluted, and it perpetuates the spread of false information. People believe people, regardless of whether it’s just their own opinion. We’ve also evolved into a society of telling people what they want to hear, reinforcing their beliefs, and exploiting their fears, all things that encourage hyper tribalism and mutual distrust.

Social Media has made connection easy and brand awareness greater, but it’s also largely the culprit of hyper tribalism and mistrust. While it provides a way to find and connect with peers easily and the platforms allow for people to express themselves and be transparent, it’s also an opportunity for people to share only what they want others to see – in other words inauthenticity. Social media has encouraged the formation of groups, small groups with strong opinions. This leads to polarity.

Hyper Tribalism Feeds Loss of Trust

As mentioned briefly above, people trust people, especially those in their social circles or tribes. But this trust also leads to mistrust. The clearest example I can offer is political affiliation. Your political party affiliation is a tribe. We identify with those that have the same political beliefs as our own. But the current perception is that we are being lied to by our societal leaders such as the media, government, politicians, business leaders, etc. for their own economic and political gain. So, how did that loss of trust develop and how do we differentiate fact from tribal opinion? Societal leaders are propagating tribalism by encouraging beliefs that if others don’t think like we do they are the problem, further enhancing the divide among society. So, who can we trust? Can we trust brands to tell us the truth? This loss of trust has led to the rise of influencer marketing and more targeted marketing campaigns for brands.

Tribal Affiliation Impacts Consumer Behavior

In order to reach a specific target market, brands are also dividing us into tribes to appropriately target their marketing efforts. This is where technology comes into play once again. Our technological advances (smart phone, internet, social media, television, etc.) allow us to gather a wealth of information about a person, their habits, desires, shopping preferences and more. Brands then use these preferences to target consumers with advertising.

So, does being a part of a tribe impact a consumer’s buying decisions? I believe that it does…thus the success of influencer marketing. Influencers have become tribal leaders. And, while we most of the time don’t know the influencer personally, we grow to trust them over time – if we relate to what they are posting and it aligns with our lifestyle, we will develop a sense of trust for that person and in turn the products or services they are promoting. Consumers make purchasing decisions based on what they relate to and the reason we participate in tribes or groups is because we relate to that group or ideology. Associating your product with a particular tribe that your target market admires or relates to will likely boost sales.

For example, we buy certain clothes or vehicles, live in a certain neighborhood, and even go to certain restaurants because we think it appeals to the tribes we associate with, whether that’s family, friends, workplace colleagues or other groups. Another example is parents considering the purchase of certain products for their children. While advertising may target children themselves for brand awareness the parents may look to their tribes for the ultimate purchasing decision. Is the product safe for my child? Is the product educational? Will it break easily? These are all questions we may look to our tribes for answers before making a purchase.

Brands Must Build Trust

Above, we discussed how hyper tribalism and technology has led to a loss of trust. And not only has trust decreased, but, by nature, people often distrust until provided with evidence that something is trustworthy. Brands have a unique opportunity and responsibility to reverse that erosion of trust and if they are to disrupt the effects of hyper tribalism.

There are many ways in which brands can build trust. For example, publicizing their sustainability practices, taking a stand on various issues, or even showing consumers that they represent certain societal values can build trust. But these same qualities may not appeal to everyone. This example perpetuates tribalism but builds trust with particular tribes. Brands must continue to look for ways to build trust with consumers whether that’s through tribal affiliation (behavior) or appealing to certain demographics in addition to behavior.

Another example is video games becoming popular in the 80s with teen boys. Had companies only sought to appeal to teen boys their success would eventually have dwindled. But those teen boys became 20-somethings and women even got in on the action. So, while teen boys were the original target market, gaming companies had to evolve and find ways to appeal and build trust with a broader audience. This demonstrates how tribalism can also hurt a company by only appealing to a niche target market.

Hyper Tribalism is Here to Stay

In a digital world it’s never been easier to find and engage with those that are like-minded. For consumers, tribes represent common interests and give us a sense of community which is paramount in a world of polarization due to competing interests, beliefs, and the divisive information we get from the media and other news sources. As a result of technology there is far too much information available, and tribes make it easier for us to process the information and take a stand one way or another. Brands must understand the power of hyper tribalism and figure out how to appeal to commonality of groups but also continue to think beyond tribes and see the bigger picture for their future.