Patrick Hanlon, founder and CEO of global brand practice Thinktopia. Picture: SUPPLIED
Patrick Hanlon, founder and CEO of global brand practice Thinktopia. Picture: SUPPLIED

US-based marketing guru Patrick Hanlon needs little introduction in industry circles. A veteran of the industry, he is also the founder of and author of the books Primal Branding and The Social Code.

Hanlon is set to make a presentation at the Future of Media Conference in partnership with Vodacom and EziAds. As a prequel to the conference, he spoke online from the US to co-founder and COO of Tilt, Arye Kellman, about his strategy for building belief systems and how to take brands and products from meaningless to meaningful

“Brands are essentially belief systems,” said Hanlon, adding that it is the audience that creates the brand as opposed to the brand itself. Products and brands alone are meaningless until they have built advocacy among consumers. Brands are fundamentally human, and once the belief system has been created it will attract others who share those beliefs.

Hanlon’s process of bringing meaning to brands consists of seven steps, or codes, that all belief systems have.

The first is the creation story – where the brand started. “All belief systems have an origin myth that tells where they came from. This is not the history of the brand, but rather its legacy. Think of iconic brands such as Apple (which started in a garage), Nike and Amazon – they all have a back story which is well known to audiences,” he said.

Second is the brand’s creed. This is a simple statement that stresses what the brand stands for and believes in – what the brand is about. It takes time to figure out the brand’s purpose and in the process, interesting questions can arise that can change the way you think and frame things, said Hanlon.

The creed is followed by icons. “Belief systems have sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touch that engage any or all of the senses to differentiate them,” Hanlon said. Icons include flags, logos, colours, scripts, custom typefaces, graphic design and packaging, all of which fill in our sensory spaces. Tattoos are another type of icon that identifies a tribe. People learn to identify certain icons – the smell of smoke signifies fire, a twig snapping in the dark could mean danger – icons become hardwired into our brands and show us whether we’re safe or not, he said. It’s essentially a cycle: we see an icon, we become used to it and see it as safe, and eventually it becomes boring. This is how fads die, and it’s why we constantly see brands working to refresh their logos and icons.

Rituals are belief systems in action. They are repeated positive interactions that are closely linked to icons. For example, Starbucks transformed the ritual of drinking coffee at home in one’s kitchen to a ritual where you go out and get coffee, Hanlon pointed out. Other rituals include working out and wearing face masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Smartphones are ritualistic and have replaced maps, movies, cameras and calendars.

Rituals are how tribes are formed. “Think about what your audiences are interested in and find partners in other brands that share the same values and would interest your audiences,” he advised, adding that reviews and ratings are important ritual; audiences will always believe what other people say about a brand over what the brand says about itself.

The lexicon is the unique language that surrounds belief systems and forms Hanlon’s fifth code. “Words are what make people a part of a certain community. If you don’t know certain words, you are not part of that community,” he explained. How familiar someone is with certain words will identify their place in the hierarchy of that community. If you want to be part of a community, you have to know the lexicon.

Nonbelievers are a critical aspect of Hanlon’s code. These are people who believe something other than what you’re about. They help brands to acknowledge what they are and what they are not, to understand who they are and who they aren’t.

“Brands will have zealots and potential zealots. Potential zealots are those who have tried the brand but for some reason have not stuck with it, and by understanding who they are, marketers can try to create friction points that will make them stick with the brand and become zealots,” he said.

Patrick Hanlon points to seven codes through which brands should define themselves to create belief systems and meaning: creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicons, nonbelievers and leaders.

There will always be nonbelievers; Apple versus PC; YouTube versus Netflix; Tesla versus Mercedes; Coca-Cola versus Pepsi. “Brands that can find their nonbelievers can also find opportunities to create something else – a new market to open new opportunities for consumers. The opportunity is not only to drive people to your site; that is a short-term goal. The opportunity is to steer them towards your mindset,” he said.

Finally, all belief systems have leaders: a person who steps forward to show the way and who has the ability to recreate the world according to their point of view. Leaders are found in all aspects of life: political, social, cultural, religious and business.

Hanlon concluded by saying that brands can remain valuable even if they do not identify and fill in the blanks according to the seven codes. But they will be vulnerable to other brands that have defined themselves in this way. Hanlon insisted that this is not an exercise that requires a huge budget, but that once these codes have been defined, they can be distributed everywhere to ensure that consumers can enjoy positive experiences of the brand across all platforms in their ecosystem and maintain their relevance in the lives of consumers.

If you would like to further your journey with Primal Branding - visit and register for the next session using the unique code FOF.

Additional information about the Future of Media and its partners, including Vodacom, WAN-IFRA, Everlytic, Proudly SA and The MediaShop, can be found on the event website.

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