What does Brand Tribalism mean to Consumers?

'In Conversation with Huw Thomas'

Our ‘In conversation with Huw Thomas’ series is written by blogger Bethan Williams, alongside PMC. Based on conversations with our Managing Director, Huw Thomas. Bethan is an anthropology graduate turned dance teacher turned blogger and writer. This series takes snippets of the conversations between Huw and Bethan, where their interests and areas of knowledge overlap, and turn them into pieces which are relevant to retail and business in general.

I’m continuing on my theme of Brand Tribalism. In my previous piece, I looked at tribalism in different contexts, I’m thinking now about what this sense of powerful collectivity means for business.

Throughout history, people have used material goods - commodities - to say something about themselves; to project a physical, branded version of their identity which others understand, interpret and connect to. They could symbolise a person’s class status, wealth, sub-culture, heritage or ethical values. Alternatively, people use branded items to signal their allegiance to a team or profession, a music genre or political leaning. In short, the material goods we choose to surround ourselves with, in many instances, speak for us and signify to others something of our personality or preferences.

I’m going to delve a little deeper into three examples of this phenomenon. This will follow on, in my next ‘In Conversation’ piece, to consider what this could mean to businesses and marketing teams.


As far back as the ancient world, we find examples of people using material goods to express something about their identity. Egyptian Pharaohs and Kings have been discovered, buried in pyramids alongside vast amounts of gold and other valuable goods. Even after death, it’s obviously crucial for them to signify, via the objects they chose for the afterlife, that they occupied a position of power and authority in life.

Obviously, the ‘branding’ of Egyptian gold isn’t exactly as we understand today but I think it’s worth hypothesising that it functioned, socially, in a very similar way to designer or high-end goods now. It symbolised the hierarchy via its materiality.


Another example is sub-cultures, particularly those created by teenagers and young people, who use clothing brands and styles to symbolise their affiliations, or tribes! Think Mary Quant and the 1960s Mods or the tartan and leather of the Punk Rockers in the 70s. The theory even stretches as far as the rip-off Burberry clothing which symbolised the Chavs of the early 2000s; the teenagers of my generation!

There are hundreds of similar examples which could be used to show how youth culture has latched on to this idea of branded clothing or clothing with a specific aesthetic as saying something more about them as a collective. In these instances, the brands develop a personality and personalities attach to brands.


As a final example, I’m going to refer to a news story a couple of years ago about a Native American Tribesman who appeared in American courtroom dressed in full traditional tribal wear. Despite having a very traditional lifestyle, his day to day clothing was similar to most other Americans. However, he knew that the symbolism of his headdress and tribal paint would spark something in the jury; it helped his case to be a clear outsider when fighting for his rights as a Native American. These weren’t branded goods as we know them but their materiality spoke for him in a way words wouldn’t.

These are just a couple of examples of the ‘Brand Tribalism’ phenomenon I’ve been exploring as an offshoot of my conversations with Huw. It’s clear, just by looking around, that people use material goods to communicate aspects of their personalities and allegiances. This, in turn, creates tribes of consumers who are loyal to the brands they connect with. There’s more to goods than just practical value and, in my opinion, marketing and businesses could tap into the emotional connection people make with objects to generate deeper brand loyalty.


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