Conventional branding and marketing has been broken and disrupted, says leading brand practitioner Patrick Hanlon. After decades of being told what to think about products and services via expensive advertising, consumers no longer care, he says, adding that in this new ecosystem, what they really care about is what their peers are saying about those products and services. As bottom-up marketing replaces top-down marketing, that five-star rating from consumers counts far more than any advertising.

In this new environment, it’s not only the quality of the idea you build that dictates success, but the quality of the community you build around that idea. The majority of new products fail, Hanlon says, because they have failed to create a storyline around the brand that attracts and appeals to people thus allowing it to grow through word-of-mouth marketing.

A brand, he insists, is not a logo, advertising or a website but rather a community wired together in a common belief system.

Widely regarded as the Charles Darwin of branding by marketers the world over, Hanlon is the founder and CEO of global brand and strategic innovation practice Thinkopia. His book Primal Branding, published in 2006, focused on brands as belief systems that people either opt into or not, and anticipated the creation of social communities around brands. According to Hanlon, Primal Branding’s construct has since become mandatory reading at YouTube as its recommended method of designing and attracting online social communities.

Hanlon’s more recent book, The Social Code, defines how to create communities via traditional, digital and social media and how to attract passionate brand advocates.

He counts a number of Fortune 100 companies among his clients, including American Express, Levi’s, PayPal, Gap, Kraft Foods, Johnson & Johnson and even the UN.

Speaking in Johannesburg recently at a sold-out FM Redzone event, Hanlon explained that at the core of every human being is the desire to connect. These connections are made not just by digital code but what he calls the primal code: seven elements that make the connection with the brand’s fans. The elements are a creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicon, nonbelievers and a leader.

The “creation story” focuses on how the brand’s life started and where it comes from. Apple, for example, started in a garage, Facebook started in an American college dorm while eBay was established in a home office. The creation story explains the brand’s insight or inspiration. “The premise of primal branding is centered on people, places and things,” explains Hanlon, “and all brands have a creation story”.

“Creed” stands for what the brand believes in or its core principles while “icons” are those instant sensory imprints that signal whether we should approach or avoid. Icons can engage any of the senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. They can be logos – think of Nike’s iconic swish – as well as product design, packaging or even environments. “Icons are quick concentrations of meaning that signal whether we should approve or avoid brand community,” explains Hanlon.

“Rituals” represent our beliefs in motion and can be either positive or negative. They include repeated interactions such as searching, texting, tweeting, selfies, uploading, Skype and YouTube, for example. “Meaningful relationships in a social world are repeated, positive engagements over time,” says Hanlon.

“Lexicon” includes words understood by those in a particular community but not by outsiders, while “nonbelievers” refers to those individuals who don’t want to be part of a particular brand’s community. Nonbelievers typically are those who support competitor brands or a counterculture.

Lastly, “the leader” refers to the hero or innovator who set out against all odds to recreate the world according to his or her own point of view. Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are all examples of leaders.

The primal code, says Hanlon, becomes the strategic brand narrative. Successful brands such as Apple, Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Heineken, Uber, Netflix and Coca-Cola have strong elements in each area of the code.

The big take-out

Leading brand practitioner Patrick Hanlon has created one of the most effective frameworks for building a clearly articulated and successful brand in the digital age with his seven-point primal code aimed at building effective brand communities.

You can have a great idea for a new product, but if you don’t manage to build a strong, consistent and compelling story around your brand, it’s unlikely to succeed, maintains Hanlon. “The story is more important than the product itself,” he says.

However, the story or strategic brand narrative must be consistent across social, digital and traditional media, with the aim of touching fans in as many ways as possible, as often as possible.

The power of a belief system, says Hanlon, is that it inherently contains trust, vision, relevance, commitment and passion – things that traditional companies invest in significantly trying to obtain. “Companies and brands don’t come with a soul – you have to create them,” he says.

The new mission, he adds, is to create a community of people who become so passionate about your success that they create it themselves. Achieving this is when a brand moves from being meaningless to becoming meaningful. 

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