These days, everyone knows about branding. But it wasn’t always so. Early in my career, an enlightened CMO gave me the title of branding manager for an enormous telecommunications company, one of the Baby Bells. My colleagues made cattle jokes, and once they had me wear a cowboy hat for a department photo. I enjoyed the attention, and used it to initiate conversations about branding. Eventually they started to bring me in for brand consults on all their projects. We would discuss the visual and the verbal elements that help express a cohesive corporate brand.
Today everyone seems to know just enough about branding to be dangerous. This means every discussion doesn’t have to begin with Branding 101. Now I run the marketing department and we get daily requests to “brand this,” or “brand that.” This usually means, “plop the logo into the empty space there.”

Even more challenging are the requests to create a special logo or brand for a department or project team. Typically the rationale is, “we’re different,” and, “nobody knows what we do, so we need to stand out.” This starts the discussion about how brand strategy is done at the corporate level, and as special as that division feels, the identity we express in the marketplace needs to be executed at the highest levels. The response is polite nodding and complete agreement with these important brand principles. Then the request is re-stated, because this is a “unique situation” and “important to the success of the project.”

Marketing scholars have turned to anthropology to explain this identity-seeking behavior of humans. They call it tribalism. There are consumer tribes, social media tribes, and digital tribes. And there are corporate tribes.

Branding has become the expression of our primitive tribal nature at the office and the work site. You start to see this very human of social instincts on the school playground, and it becomes refined in middle and high school when we wear the t-shirts and uniforms of our clubs and teams. When we’re at the big game, we’re true to our school, but our hearts belong to our little tribe of nerds or jocks, scholars or band geeks. Not much changes when we enter the working world.

Strategic marketing professionals create thoughtful campaigns intended to make every company employee a brand ambassador. The most effective of these campaigns links visual imagery with clear messaging outlining the company’s brand promise. But individual teams and departments still feel the need to express their tribalism in ways meaningful to them. That’s why you’ll see hats or shirts emblazoned with a project theme or safety motto of a particular work group. These expressions are meaningless to the company’s clients or consumers, but they tie teams together as insiders with tribal connections.

Is there a place for this tribalism in modern corporate culture? The better question is, can it be suppressed? Not likely. Groups will always be looking for ways to define their common bond. They can be encouraged to do so within guidelines for good taste, inclusion, and appropriateness. The key is to help teams understand the difference between internal and customer-facing communication. Brand communications will always be planned at the corporate level, but the tribal spirit can bring an energy that’s real and satisfying and good for the soul of the team.

Copyright 2016 Liz Behlke