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Journal of Strategic Marketing
ISSN: 0965-254X (Print) 1466-4488 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjsm20
How to manage consumer tribes
To cite this article: Robin Canniford (2011) How to manage consumer tribes, Journal of
Strategic Marketing, 19:7, 591-606, DOI: 10.1080/0965254X.2011.599496
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0965254X.2011.599496
Published online: 25 Nov 2011.
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How to manage consumer tribes
Department of Management and Marketing, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
(Received 4 October 2010; ﬁnal version received 7 March 2011)
This paper reviews concepts of marketplace community, and considers the strategic
opportunities and challenges communities present to marketers. Current attempts to
operationalise consumer tribes by marketing consultants appear to conﬂate consumer
tribes with brand communities. Alternative guidelines to foster speciﬁcally tribal
approaches are considered. In particular, managers are advised to facilitate tribal
consumers’ roles beyond purchase, by offering points of passage and hybrid
community platforms within ‘seed networks’. These are ﬂuid and interdependent
networks of people, places, brands, objects, discourses, myths and feelings where
consumers assemble playful, passionate, and entrepreneurial community around the
linking value of multiple products and services. This approach is applied to the board-
sport tribes that are facilitated by the action sports brand Volcom. Future research
directions are considered.
Keywords: community; consumer tribes; brand community; seed network; consumer
Faced with crowded markets, ﬂat growth and growing cynicism, the most effective
organisational tribe of the 21st Century is a single, united brand tribe. (www.
Consumption communities are a vital element of the marketing environment. Carriers of
meaning and circulators of value, these social groups are capable of undermining
marketing campaigns or raising them up to new levels of success (Brown, Kozinets, &
Sherry, 2003; Cova & Cova, 2002; Hirschman & Thompson, 1997; Mun
˜iz & O’Guinn,
2001; Ritson & Elliott, 1999; Schau, Mun
˜iz, & Arnould, 2009; Schouten & McAlexander,
1995). Amongst some academics, the formation and operation of consumption
communities has been regarded as part of marketing’s unpredictable cornucopia, that
some managers enjoy, whilst less fortunate counterparts remain envious observers (see
Brown, 2007a). For management gurus like Seth Godin, and consultancies such as UK
agency New Brand Tribalism, consumer tribes are sold as a silver-bullet leadership
solution to offer marketing managers the ‘Holy Grail of brand loyalty’ (McAlexander,
Schouten, & Koenig, 2002, p. 38).
This paper treads the line between these two perspectives of complexity verging on
happenchance, and consultative reductionism. The paper begins by reviewing recent work
in interpretive consumer research and marketing in order to explain some of the key
ISSN 0965-254X print/ISSN 1466-4488 online
q2011 Taylor & Francis
Journal of Strategic Marketing
Vol. 19, No. 7, December 2011, 591–606
characteristics of consumption communities, and illustrate how the characteristics of these
communities can be leveraged in marketing practice. Following this, the paper attends in
more detail to consumer tribes, and stresses that while often unpredictable, transient and
ephemeral, tribes extend the role of the consumer in strategically important manners. In so
doing, examples of tribal marketing in practice are critically examined. Following this, the
paper offers the concept of ‘seed networks’ to understand some of the unpredictable
qualities of consumer tribes, and to provide ﬁve interconnected tactics for marketing
managers who would foster a tribe in their life. Finally, the case of successful action sports
brand, Volcom, is discussed. The approach offered in this paper contributes to the growing
literature on the management of consumption communities by offering a mode of
understanding communities as hybrid networks (Thrift, 2007), consisting of (but not
limited to) people, products, practices, services, desires, discourses, market infrastruc-
tures, experiences, and emotions.
Marketplace culture: kinds of community
Traditional versions of marketing management posed a system in which marketing
institutions organised knowledge, dominated promotional language, dictated the rituals of
consumption, and protected the conventions of behaviour surrounding the brand. Hennion
´adel (1989) however, argue that successive failures of advertisers to understand or
control ‘buyers’ in this way, forced a shift in how this relationship was framed. This has
led to the emergence of more complex views of ‘consumers’:
Buyer behaviour became consumer behaviour in a strikingly common progression: a
researcher takes a working hypothesis in his/her study of a given ‘effect’, ... a survey is done;
far from clarifying the domain by bringing positive, solid results as s/he had hoped, this leads
the researcher to conclude that the results were ambiguous and that it is necessary to introduce
more complex model of the elements in play; and the cycle starts over. (Hennion & Me
1989, p. 192)
Furthermore, during the last three decades, marketing and consumer researchers have
recognised that products and services should be thought of as processes rather than
ﬁnished merchandise, meaning that consumers are integrated into the production system
as producers (Firat, Dholakia, & Venkatesh, 1995; Kotler, 1986). So too have conceptions
of marketing promotions departed from top – down enterprises in corporate control, to
multilateral negotiations within complex galaxies of ‘brand culture’ (Schroeder & Salzer-
Morling, 2006). Here, promotional activity circulates amongst consumers to be interpreted
(or roundly rejected) in novel and unpredictable ways (Hirschman & Thompson, 1997;
Ritson & Elliott, 1999).
Of particular importance tothis way of understanding the extended roles of consumers are
studies of marketplace culture (Arnould & Thompson, 2005). These have delivered rich
textual accounts of the extraordinary variety of manners in which consumers interact with
consumable resources to establish social forms and relationships (Arnould & Price, 1993;
Belk & Costa, 1998; Cova, 1997; Kozinets, 2002; Mun
˜iz & O’Guinn, 2001; Mun
˜iz & Schau,
2005; Schouten & McAlexander, 1995). Delving further into this corpus of knowledge
reveals themanners in which power is negotiated between marketersand consumers. At times,
researchers have asked if the market has any power left at all (Kozinets, 2002), but in general,
marketplace culture studies agree that there exist power-sharing situations that destablise the
dichotomous roles of ‘producer’ and ‘consumer’ (Shankar, Cherrier, & Canniford, 2006).
The manners in which this power-sharing occurs offer divergent opportunities and
challenges to marketers (Ponsonby-Mccabe & Boyle, 2006). For instance, in conjunction
with empowered communities of consumers, the brand loyalty associated with Saab, Jeep
or Apple is boosted to new levels (Mun
˜iz & O’Guinn, 2001). Equally however, the
meaning and value of marketers’ offerings can be tossed about on unfriendly seas by
communities such as adbusters (Klein, 2009), or by plundering tribes such as the ‘chavs’
that appropriated Burberry, threatening both brand values and heritage (Hayward & Yar,
Nevertheless, according to a number of emerging perspectives, far from being chaotic,
post-modern terrors for marketers, consumption communities display logics that can be
understood and put to use. In order to appreciate these, the next sections illustrate three
kinds of community to have received attention in both academic literature, and the market
at large: subcultures of consumption; brand communities; and consumer tribes. It is
important to understand how these kinds of community afford different effects and
possibilities that are of strategic importance to marketers.
Subcultures of consumption
Subculture emerged during the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century as a sociological
category to describe social solutions to unfavourable and alienating conditions.
By subverting dominant institutions such as family, schooling, and market relations,
members of subcultures develop marginal forms of value and status around alternative
social ties (Goulding, Shankar, & Elliott, 2002). In some cases these subversions are
directed at and through forms of consumer culture (Hebdidge, 1979), leading to
further delineation of ‘subcultures of consumption’ in which members cohere and
interact through ‘shared commitment to a particular product class, brand or con-
sumption activity’ (Celsi, Rose, & Leigh, 1993; Schouten & McAlexander, 1995 p. 43).
Subcultural membership infers enduring social structures, strong interpersonal
bonds, ritualised modes of expression and unique sets of beliefs that often preclude
other social afﬁliations. These features impact on the identity of subcultural members, as
well as the power that these individuals wield vis-a-vis the market (Schouten &
This impact occurs stepwise through processes of acculturation, evolution of motives
as well as irreversible rituals and markers of commitment (Celsi et al., 1993). This
progression often results in a perceived severance from ‘mundane life’ and ‘mainstream
culture’, as well as political and aesthetic deviance amongst members who challenge ‘the
interellation between technology, culture and consumption’ (Giesler & Pholmann, 2003,
p. 273). Indeed, subcultures of consumption abound with tropes of barbarity, rugged self-
reliance, outlaw status, liberation from authority, relationships and schedules, and licence
to behave in manners barred in more civil sectors of society (Belk & Costa, 1998;
Canniford & Shankar, 2007; Schouten & McAlexander, 1995).
Holt (2004) for example, explains how the contemporary appeal of Harley Davidson
has depended to a large extent on countercultural meanings, bolstered of course by media
phenomena such as the ﬁlm Easy Rider, and by events that catch the attention of news
media, such as those that occurred at Altamont in California, where outlaw bikers stabbed
and kicked to death a spectator during a Rolling Stones set (see Osgerby, 2005). These
powerful stories that circulate ﬁrst in the media, and later in the imaginations of
consumers, contribute to the formation of mythologies that have structured the meaning
and appeal of Harley Davidson ever since. However, whilst the meanings and outlaw
status created through subcultures of consumption may be central to the value and appeal
of a brand (Schouten & McAlexander, 1995), these features are rarely predictable.
Journal of Strategic Marketing 593
Equally, the marketisation of subcultural forms has led to erasure, decline, or
fragmentation of subcultures (Heath & Potter, 2005; Irwin, 1973). Together, these claims
suggest that subcultures of consumption are tricky and unpredictable communities
amongst which the contingencies of history preclude marketers’ attempts to assemble
them (Holt, 2004).
In some cases the relationships between brands, products, and consumers are more
predictable than those found in subcultures of consumption. One such relationship is
described as brand community, a fabric of social relationships in which admirers of a
brand experience shared rituals, traditions, and a sense of responsibility towards other
members. Together these create profound and enduring interpersonal connections amongst
members as well as distinction from non-users of the focal brand (Mun
˜iz & O’Guinn,
2001; Schau et al., 2009).
Moral responsibility and religious zeal characterise the relationships that brand
communities establish with certain products (Mun
˜iz & Schau, 2005). Nevertheless,
socialisation in brand communities seldom displays the political resistance, or strong
social ties peculiar to subcultures. Studies suggest that brand community members are
more likely to develop and seek likeminded individuals on the basis of devotion, lifestyle
differentiation and even patriotic meanings associated with a particular brand (Luedicke,
Thompson, & Giesler, 2010; Mun
˜iz & O’Guinn, 2001). This can occur diffusely in
cyberspace, or in geographically localised ‘brand fest’ events (Cova & Pace, 2006;
McAlexander & Schouten, 1998). As a strategic resource therefore, brand communities
differ from subcultures of consumption since there exist relatively centralised and
conservative power structures located around the products and core values of a brand
(McAlexander et al., 2002).
Also unlike subcultures of consumption, clear recommendations exist for building and
extending brand communities (see Algesheimer, Dholakia, & Herrmann, 2005; Fournier
& Lee, 2009; McAlexander et al., 2002; Mun
˜iz & O’Guinn, 2001; Mun
˜iz & Schau, 2005;
Schau et al., 2009). This is good news for marketing managers. Brand communities uphold
brand values, offer managers effective dialogue with loyal consumers, and enhance the co-
creation of value by consumers and ﬁrms (Schau et al., 2009). These characteristics
maintain appeal, and increase members’ afﬁliation and commitment to the brand (Brown
et al., 2003; Fournier, Sensiper, McAlexander, & Schouten, 2001; Franke & Shah, 2003;
McAlexander et al., 2002). Moreover, brand communities have recently been shown to
exhibit remarkably predictable characteristics in terms of their practices that can be
grouped into four main categories: social networking; impression management;
community engagement; and brand use. Together, these practices can be leveraged
through ‘seeding strategies’ that foster a broad array of consumer-led activities around a
brand (Schau et al., 2009).
More recent research, however, has found that many consumption communities do not
locate their socialisation around singular brands. Less concerned with the brand per se,
many consumption communities establish weaker connections with a variety of brands,
products, activities, and services. This observation has led to another approach to
understand consumption community as consumer tribes. Cova (1997) and Cova and Cova
(2002) describe tribal consumption as the search for social links with people through
the ‘linking value’ created during the shared use of products and services. In general
these communities exhibit four key characteristics: multiplicity; playfulness; transience;
First, tribes are multiple. Unlike subcultures of consumption, tribes rarely dominate the
everyday life of the consumer. Rather, they represent partitions that punctuate the working
week (Goulding, Shankar, Elliott, & Canniford, 2009). Moreover, membership of one kind
of tribe does not preclude membership from other tribes or communities (Elliott & Davies,
2006). On the contrary, tribal theory stresses the occurrence of ﬂows between different
personas under different circumstances such that afﬁliation may vary dramatically. In the
words of Bennett (1999, p. 599), ‘notions of identity are “constructed” rather than “given”,
and “ﬂuid” rather than “ﬁxed”’.
Second, tribes are playful. Tied to this multiplicity of membership and ﬂuidity of
identity, tribal consumption is often devoid of the long-term ‘moral responsibility’ felt
by members of a brand community (Mun
˜iz & O’Guinn, 2001), or the reverence afforded
to social hierarchies and totemic activities felt in subcultures of consumption. Rather, the
consumer tribe engenders a kind of ‘active play’ with marketplace resources (Cova,
Kozinets, & Shankar, 2007). These resources include aesthetics, emotions, discourses,
institutions, material culture, brands, fashion, music, places, spaces, and media
(Brownlie, Hewer, & Treanor, 2007; Canniford & Shankar, 2007; Cova & Pace, 2006;
Kozinets, 2007; Mafessoli, 2007; Otnes & Maclaren, 2007; Rinallo, 2007; Schau &
˜iz, 2007; Schouten, Martin, & McAlexander, 2007). In the process of play, tribal
consumers plunder these resources, this is to say they deconstruct and reassemble them,
initiating fast-moving, intertextual performances in manners that assign little reverence
to products or brands. Instead, the value is placed on the possibility to reinvigorate
passions and generate new forms of linking value (Brown, 2007b; Brownlie et al., 2007;
Third, tribes are transient. Connected to the rapid processes of bricolage, tribes
emerge, morph, and disappear again as the combinations of people and resources alter.
This generates situations that no one really controls; complex and emergent processes of
transaction that may be critical and liberatory at one moment, yet at the next moment
mean little beyond sensory intensity and pleasure (Goulding et al., 2009). Such a playful
acceptance of rapidly changing, contradictory, and ambivalent meanings infers a power
structure between consumers and the market that rapidly oscillates between manipulation
and emancipation. This vacillation leads Cova et al. (2007, p. 8) to describe tribes as
‘double-agents’, groups who are content ‘to be misled, to remember and to forget, and
then mislead, and then manipulate these manipulations in ways that enliven their daily
lives’. Many tribes continue to be content in expressing anti-market values through
consumption of market-based culture for example (Goulding et al., 2009; Kozinets,
Fourth, tribes are entrepreneurial. These possibilities for playful plundering, combined
with an open-minded attitude to the market, all amount to innovations that generate new
paths for entrepreneurial venture (Langer, 2007). Goulding et al. (2009) for instance, chart
the emergence of club culture as a tribal reaction to changing aspects of the political
environment in which raves were outlawed. In response, the ‘house music’ tribe began
temporarily to hire, re-brand, and redecorate regular nightclubs in order to replicate the
atmosphere and appeal of raves. Early ventures of this type launched legitimate careers
for outlaw ravers, and ultimately broke the ground for massive club brands such as
Renaissance, Ministry of Sound, and Cream.
Journal of Strategic Marketing 595
Building consumer tribes
The extended roles that consumers play in customising, subverting, and re-interpreting the
meanings of consumer culture, tend to decentralise and destablise the power of marketing
managers (Shankar et al., 2006). At times this is beneﬁcial, as is the case with brand
communities, who buoy-up market offerings by using them in positive manners. Though we
know quite a lot about how brand communities may be managed and leveraged
(Algesheimer et al., 2005; McAlexander et al., 2002; Schau et al., 2009), tribal thinkers often
prefer theoretical descriptions of the commonalities, ordering structures and unlimited
possibilities of tribes. Managerial advice that occurs within these studies tends to school
managers in the values of acknowledging tribes’ autonomy and integrity (Cova & Cova,
Part of the reason why this should be the case relates to the notion that nobody controls
the plays and plunders that tribal consumers establish. Tribes engender brand culture as
oxymoronic cultural jumbles – jungles even – where fragmented meanings and DIY
entrepreneurialism grow wildly. It is hard to proffer reliable managerial advice when tribes
keep changing what they do, where they do it and what they purchase in the process. To be
sure, marketing with tribes in mind requires us to consider marketing as ‘a massive cultural
constellation’ (Kelley, 2007, p. 53), a boundless playing ﬁeld from which consumers will
select, interpret, and reject a profusion of cultural offerings (Hirschman & Thompson,
1997). Faced with the prospect of dancing an intricate pas de deux with these strange and
unpredictable groups, marketing managers are looking to agencies, management gurus,
and consultants for operational interpretations of consumption communities.
For marketing agency New Brand Tribalism, the tribal approach is a well-spring of
opportunity to alleviate the insecurity of post-modern managers who gingerly navigate the
communal marketing environment. In particular, the ‘brand tribe’ is sold as a solution for
managers who wish to improve loyalty and brand equity. Seth Godin (2008) for instance,
presents tribal communities as a silver-bullet marketing management solution. Godin’s
vision of tribes shares much with the academic literature – multiple afﬁliations, ﬂuid
structures, and constant change. Nevertheless, his and others’ interpretations of
consumption communities often conﬂate tribes with brand community. This occurs at
three associated levels.
First, Godin’s key message is that strong leadership directs consumers to form
communities around a product or service, a characteristic of brand community rather than
consumer tribes. Second, despite encouraging marketers to ‘inspire’ rather than exert
authority, Godin cites exemplar leaders such as Steve Jobs, who are shown to direct from
above. Strong leadership that orientates consumers around a singular reference point skirts
close to a recommendation of the power structures common to brand communities. Third,
Godin (2008, p. 21) informs us that smart leaders, ‘increase the effectiveness of the tribe’,
by creating messages that people ﬁnd appealing. Such advice again misses the point of
tribes, which are more likely to be driven by transient pleasures and emotions than by
measures of ‘effectiveness’.
This version of tribalism is justiﬁably appealing to marketing managers wishing to
inﬂuence linking value. Yet the original appeal of consumer tribes, as transient, multiple,
and shifting, was in many senses driven by the failure of attempts to portray many
consumption communities as singular, uniﬁed or reliant on one element, be this product,
brand, or leader. It would appear that Godin, New Brand Tribalism and others represent an
entrepreneurial consultatribe who playfully plunder the approaches of the tribal school; a
splendid reﬂection of tribal theory in practice!
Despite this pleasing symmetry, the image returned by these consultative reﬂections
offer misshapen portrayals of consumer tribes. Consumer tribes are not brand communities.
To be sure, the approach based on strong leadership, a singular brand and a focus on ‘the
bottom line’ works for Harley Davidson. Grass-roots research and development amongst
consumers is fed upwards to managers, and then back down to consumers in a ‘steady
stream of information ... and a full range of clothing, accessories, and services’ (Schouten
& McAlexander, 1995, p. 54). This is a strategy that enhances consumers’ involvement and
erects barriers to exit.
Unfortunately, it is likely that tribal processes would outrun these deliberative and
strategic communication channels. Indeed, a tribe’s creativity, humour, excitement, and
enthusiasm may have moved on before the organisational ethnographers had even
ﬁled their reports. Moreover, Cova and Cova (2001, p. 70) stresses that ‘linking value is
rarely intentionally embedded in the use value of the product/service concept’ but emerges
from tribal processes that transcend singular categories of products, services, and segments.
By attempting to build and leverage a singular or uniﬁed vision of a tribe, marketers might
stiﬂe the creative productions of linking value from which a tribe draws breath, thus
destroying a potential tribal strategy.
Extending this argument, one might ask whether or not tribes should be managed at all.
Inserting contrived leaders or managers into a tribe runs the risk of creating yet another
form of market-based governmentality (Cova & Cova, 2009; Shankar et al., 2006), as has
been the case with word-of-mouth marketing (Kozinets, Valck, Wojnicki, & Wilner,
2009). These risks, however, are tied closely to heavy-handed applications of leadership
and control. A tribe that retains the characteristics of multiplicity, playfulness, transience,
and entrepreneurialism will stay lively, passionate, full of desire, in constant ﬂux. As such,
the tribe will remain in a state of co-creation with all kinds of market resources. Moreover,
tribes as ‘double agents’ are somewhat marketing-proof; savvy enough to decide when
they need to evade marketers’ attempts to manage them. How then can we make
recommendations to justify tribal marketing as an operational strategy? In the next section,
advice is offered for managers to do just this by working alongside tribes, respectfully
entering themselves into tribal life, through the notion of a seed network.
Seeding consumer tribes
Having described the features of consumption communities and different examples of
attempts to ‘build’ tribal strategies, I now wish to suggest ﬁve interdependent means by
which managers may ‘seed’ consumer tribes in a manner that is more closely aligned with
the tenets of tribal theory. Together these features represent what I will call a ‘seed
network’, a supportive, hybrid collective of people, things, markets, discourses, and
emotions through which consumers can be supported in their quests for linking value. The
key beneﬁt of the seed network is a platform on which tribal consumers can play, plunder,
build passion, community, and entrepreneurial ventures.
Providing the platform
As the editors of this special issue discuss, platform technologies like Linux and Web2,
determine and improve the possibilities for co-production and consumer involvement.
Tribes such as Wikipedia, and the Chinese web-game phenomenon Shanda, perform
Journal of Strategic Marketing 597
through these networking platforms, creating and sharing knowledge, play, communi-
cation, and innovation in open, democratic, and participative manners. Yet, tribes that
perform on these stages do not necessarily feature strict value chains or pipelines, and we
cannot easily draw organisational pictures of them. Leadbeater (2006, p. 8) explains with
reference to the Wikipedia tribe:
Wikipedia is built up by lots and lots of people adding small bits of information and choosing
where to put it ... Just draw it in your mind. What is it like? It’s like a bird’s nest with little
pieces of straws of information all adding up to create a nest. Except this is a nest that builds
itself; there’s no bird building it.
In effect, tribes are huge ‘bossless teams’ (Barry, 1991), that require tools for
innovation over and above strong leadership. Take eBay: not a product or a service as
such, eBay is a ‘self-help platform’ and a set of tools that enable people to determine what
to sell, how to advertise, how to ship, and how it will be paid for. Like many other new
media businesses, ebay is built on open-access platforms that afford, even demand a
participatory approach from consumers. Facebook too, enables users to build and install
applications on its web-platform. At times, Zuckerberg has even held back Facebook’s
own applications in order to enable externally produced programs to succeed (Kirkpatrick,
A key element of tribal marketing therefore is not to seek the establishment of strict
cultural scripts, traditions, or rituals. Rather, tribal consumers want a stage on which to
improvise performances and assemble culture in a continual process of plundering,
creativity, and innovation. These stages are not limited to the web of course; platforms can
be streets, mountains, and beaches, or strange places that emerge only when consumers
and producers bring different ‘things’ together. This is to say that tribal platforms can
emerge from the co-presence of associated elements: rural ﬁelds þDJ þsound-
system þecstasy þpartypeople
¼rave, for example. This leads us to the notion of
Tribal perspectives view consumption communities as symbolically and emotionally
constructed through shared product/service on these platforms. This is to say that
consumers, products, services, spaces, places, and feelings are called into being through
their interdependent associations (Cova & Cova, 2002). Abandoning a priori constructions
and values, distinctions between consuming subject and material objects are dissolved,
and identity and power are seen to exist amongst sets of related ‘things’ (Dant, 1998;
Thrift, 2007). The process of calling these networks together and establishing meaningful
opportunities for linking value is key to fostering a tribal approach.
Many organisations have developed this potential ‘calling’ as an effective strategy.
The BBC for instance, despite its original top –down approach to product and market
development (see Crisell, 1997), now offers the ‘iPM’ news blog, where Radio 4 listeners
are encouraged to have their say on current affairs. BBC television programme Antiques
Roadshow has created this kind of linking value for decades. The Roadshow temporarily
assembles in a new place each week to offer a platform for shared passion, community
evaluation and value, as well as the entrepreneurial excitement of ﬁnding a lost
masterpiece. Likewise, building social capital between local communities and the BBC
through ‘bring and buy’ fundraising events is a strategy that has enabled Blue Peter to
sustain half a century of cross-generational appeal. Together, these tools have helped the
BBC to become less a top – down disseminator of information, and more a platform that
fosters relationships and conversations that emerge from the co-presence of viewers and
listeners, platforms and products; a networked process of power sharing.
Communities of affect
Tribes congregate based on passion. Oftentimes tribes come together just because it feels
good to do so (Cova, 1997; Goulding et al., 2009). The variety of emotions that surround
various dance tribes are a case in point. Dance tribes revolve around shared passions for
music and experiences of profound affectual transformations. Yet with these effects often
comes a temporary loss of the everyday self, and everyday consciousness, in place of
which emerge dream-like states where the individual explores his emotional and
experiential capacity (Hewer & Hamilton, 2010). Such effects are difﬁcult to theorise,
let alone represent (Thrift, 2007). Perhaps this is why the emotional qualities of tribal
consumption remain an aspect of the phenomenon that demands further research.
Nevertheless, for examples of the importance of tribal affect in the marketplace, we need
look no further than Redbull.
Unless consumers developed a sport/lifestyle based on the search for eyeball-popping
caffeine overdoses, it is unlikely that Redbull could have been positioned as a locus for a
subculture of consumption or a brand community. Instead, Redbull has constructed itself
as the high arousal brand, a platform for communities interested in peak performance and
edgework (Lyng, 1990). To achieve this, managers at Redbull construct symbiotic
relationships with for example, big wave surfers, skydivers, and breakdancers. It is not
speciﬁc activities that matter as much as the willingness to engage in adrenalin-pumping
madness that links Redbull’s community. For the elite communities of fearless athletes,
Redbull offers sponsorship and promotional support in order for them to reach the market
and perhaps other sponsors. For consumers, the website provides another platform for
crazy ideas, ﬁlm, music, dance, and action-sports that can provoke visceral responses (see
If a tribe is a heterogeneous network of consumers and things assembled in order to create
pleasurable and sociable results, then the tribal marketer must remain attentive to all the
elements that make up these networks. Studies show that architectures – such as clubs,
streets, and cyberspaces – as well as material products – be these rollerblades, ecstasy
pills, or computers – represent the disciplinary and liberatory tools for community
formation amongst consumer tribes (Cova et al., 2007; Goulding et al., 2009; Kozinets,
2002; Visconti, Sherry, Borghini, & Anderson, 2010). This networked view extends all
kinds of possibilities for enterprises to implement a tribal approach. Rather than seeking to
provide a wholesale platform for tribal community however, as is often the case for
managers who seek to foster brand community, tribal networks offer opportunities to all
kinds of business ventures that can insert their services and products into existing tribal
platforms, as sympathetic network facilitators.
Skateboarders and in-line skaters, for instance, like to use obstacles and features of street
architecture to foster activity and community. By observing the networks that skaters create
around these architectures, a skate-shop, hotdog stand, or cafe
´for instance can be inserted
sympathetically into the existing tribal network as a means of enhancing skateboarders’
experiences in that network. Indeed, with tribal consumption communities, marketing
managers do not necessarily need to locate their market offering as the centralised locus
Journal of Strategic Marketing 599
of consumption (as is the case with brand community). Rather, they are confronted with
opportunities to assign their product, service or brand as a useful point of passage within a
tribal network. This is to say that as much as consumers need focal products and services in
their lives, so too do they need cultural corridors that help them to maintain the
performances of their tribal networks. This is a thin line that the BBC, Facebook, Redbull,
and many small businesses tread skilfully.
Identity in ﬂux
Tribal networks change constantly. As such, it is important for the tribal marketer to
remain close to the network, monitoring carefully those elements that might alter. While
the board-sport retailer or cafe
´might beneﬁt from fostering itself as part of the network
constituting a skateboarding tribe, a council’s decision to alter the local architecture in
order to prevent skaters riding boards on pavements, walls, benches, or steps (commonly
achieved by installing lumps on hand-rails, or bumps on kerbs and pavements) would have
profound effects for the status of that network in which the retailer is embedded.
This is to say, the different people, objects, places, and things that come together in the
tribal experience often have divergent strategic goals (McLean & Hassard, 2004). If the
networked elements of the tribe are unstable because of these divergent goals, then it is not
surprising that tribes are often transient and unpredictable; that their identities are ‘ﬂuid
rather than ﬁxed’ (Bennett, 1999). A key facet of network approaches is an emphasis
placed on the continual performance that emerges from the co-presence of associated
elements (Latour, 1996). Managers do not necessarily like this tribal implication. Indeed,
if tribes are harbingers of increased uncertainty within marketing processes, then why
would any marketing manager in her right mind consider tribal marketing as a potential
The answer to this question lies in consumers’ desires for constant change (Belk, Ger, &
Askegaard, 2003). The potential for constant change within hybrid networks beneﬁts both
consumers and managers of ebay (via the constant stream of goods that pass through its
platform); the iPM news blog (as news issues change daily); and Facebook (as friends
constantly alter the visual and emotional tone of each other’s proﬁle pages by sharing
pictures, applications, and conversations). Constant change can offer other beneﬁts too. For
instance, a close, stable relationship between consumers and the market often crosses a line
beyond which the psychic beneﬁts of being part of a marginal group are lost. Apple, for
instance, in its journey from outsider to mainstream aspirational brand has lost much of the
quirky, warm appeal that Apple users once enjoyed, and is now regarded with similar
scepticism to its rivals (Shankar et al., 2006). Through constant movement and creative
change that blur the meanings of products and services, these kinds of difﬁculties can be
avoided, maintaining instead a sense of edginess and challenge.
Overall, the seeding of a consumer tribe demands a different approach to the building of
brand communities. The seed network is not intended to provide structured advice. Tribes
are too messy for that, driven by strange logics that bear commonality with particle physics
(Cova & Cova, 2001). Indeed, it might be said that tribes obey a kind of uncertainty
principle: the more marketers know about a tribe, the more likely the tribe will do
something to break our rules. The seed network therefore, offers a guide to foster
platforms on which consumers can create hybrid forms amongst products, places, and
people. Following from this are emotional appeals, constant change, and entrepreneurial
opportunities to insert new products and services as points of passage within the network.
Finally, the seed network offers means to understand the contingency and transience of
tribes by recognising that the absence of an element in a network (or the presence of a new
element) can cause the tribe to disappear or change into another form altogether. In order
to illustrate elements of the seed network in practice, let us now consider the case of surf,
skate, snow, and motocross phenomenon Volcom.
The case of Volcom
Volcom was founded by in 1991 by longtime surfer and former Quiksilver employee,
Richard Woolcott. The company designs and manufactures action-sports clothing and
accessories, which it sells through its own retail stores, online retailers, action-sports
retailers, and major department stores including Macy’s and Nordstrom. In 2009 the
company enjoyed 16% growth, and a net income of US$21.7m, based on US$280m sales
(MarketWatch Inc., 2008). My longitudinal, naturalistic observation of surﬁng and skating
culture suggests that by the mid-1990s Volcom was delivering a radical, hip, and
underground image loved by young action sports enthusiasts. This image enabled the
brand to leap-frog over established brands like Quiksilver and Billabong whose market
offerings were felt to offer young skaters and surfers little distinction from non-board
riders, or worse still, their parents. Under a banner of ‘liberation, innovation and
experimentation’ intended to fuel the ‘creative spirit of youth culture’, Volcom’s
The goal of Volcom is to provide clothing to people who share our passion for art, music, ﬁlm,
skateboarding, surﬁng, snowboarding and motocross. We are focused on supporting athletes,
artists and musicians; providing a means for creative individuals to come together and
collectively express themselves. This collaborative effort results in everything from the ever-
growing ‘Let the Kids Ride Free’ contest series to the high-proﬁle ‘Volcom Pipeline Pro’ surf
competition on down to our in-house independent record label – Volcom Entertainment. (www.
Far from merely offering clothing, Volcom extends platforms of support, interest, and
passion to consumers as producers of art, music, and action sports culture. The website
(www.volcom.com) feeds consumers a hybrid platform mix that is structured like a well-
balanced investment portfolio: event management, athlete and competition sponsorship,
local competitions for young board riders, an online store, online gallery-platform for artists,
in-house music label, as well as a ‘Volcommunity’ brand community. These resources offer
a smorgasbord of interlinked platforms through which Volcom consumers can creatively
assemble activities and identity. Consistent with the tribal approach, Volcom prefers not to
dictate what its customers want, or how they might behave on the platforms offered:
Volcom’s belief that ‘the only constant is change’ deﬁnes our willingness to embrace the
complexity and diversity that exists in the world and our ability to apply it to our overall
creative output. It also speaks of our open-minded approach to business and life in general.
This ﬂexible outlook enables Volcom to take on many meanings and stay relevant on many
This quotation illustrates how Volcom is acutely aware of the need for rapid ﬂux and
ﬂuidity of meaning in the youthful action-sports scene. Nevertheless, this does not imply
that they remain ahead of their market by predicting new fashions. Nor does it imply that
they follow their market by cool-hunting the latest styles. Rather, Volcom fashions
itself as an instrument for empowered customers to use its creativity to develop and
fertilise Volcom’s styles and brand meanings. Volcom’s web presence is peppered with
Journal of Strategic Marketing 601
contributions from consumers who orbit around the skateboarding tribe; so too are there
the photographic and video traces of the competitive platforms that it offers to young
surfers at beaches on all three seaboards in the United States. Indeed, Volcom’s web-
spaces intimately connect with real-time, real-place action sports; no skate-park is
complete without a huge Volcom ‘Stone’ sticker installed on a ramp or bowl.
Volcom recognises that tribal consumers exhibit multiple identities, and instead of
seeking to place itself at the centre of any one identity, it seeks to permit hybrid networking
opportunities, offering various beach, pavement, and web-based corridors for its consumers
to stroll, surf, and roll down. Furthermore, Volcom’s strategy of extending support for
whatever values and practices its consumers wish to develop also elides the dangers that
tribal communities are unpredictable and transient. Volcom eschews uniﬁed or concrete
brand values other than creativity and innovation (key tribal characteristics), and instead
offers webspace and events as empowering polysemic platforms. Here, playful activation
and plundering processes occur, such that Volcom – like Facebook and Shanda – enlists
consumers as consultants, developers, and managers. Finally, through this strategy, Volcom
retains its edginess and marginality by staying close to the sources of changing and
This paper began by outlining why consumption communities are an important way to
consider the managerial implications of consumers’ behaviours beyond purchase. These
characteristics of these communities are summarised in Table 1.
Perhaps most difﬁcult of these forms for the marketing manager to implement
strategically is the subculture of consumption. The mythology, authenticity, and narratives
that are so important to brands like Harley Davidson, are built up during long, convoluted
histories that blend haphazard media mirages with unpredictable activities (Holt, 2004).
Note also that many subcultural groups have at some time or another faced legal and moral
censure because of the activities around which they locate (Canniford & Shankar, 2007;
Goulding et al., 2009; Schouten & McAlexander, 1995). Whilst moral panic can do
wonders for one’s image in a youthful market segment (Heath & Potter, 2005; Holt, 2004),
it can also lead to a diffusion of power throughout a wider network than the manager might
desire, through political and legislative action for instance.
Brand communities offer a more easily managed strategic resource. Consumers who
keep faith in a single brand sustain meaning and value through social use and moral
responsibility, and feed information back to managers in order to maintain the relevance of
Table 1. A typology of consumption community.
of consumption Brand community Consumer tribe
Locus Activity Brand Linking value
Power structure Hierarchy of core
core Members þbrand
Purposes Sociality, response
Brand use, sociality Sociality, passion
Time span Long-term Long-term Transient
Structure Slow to change Slow to change Fluid, fast-moving
Social position Marginalised Mainstreamed Mobile
the resources offered. Whilst strong values and loyalty fostered around a core brand would
seem like the gold-standard community to improve brand equity, singular and focused
socialisation around a brand is rarer than the use of a variety of market resources in
combination. Tribal community offers a different solution that helps managers to work
with consumers who do not want to build very strong links with singular brands. Rather
than providing the locus of consumption, tribal marketing involves inserting one’s market
offering (not even necessarily a brand) as a useful ‘point of passage’ in a tribal network.
Tribal marketing demands that managers provide platforms and pathways on which
consumers can assemble community, meaning, and value for themselves. Tribal
consumers do not want to be led; they want to lead, as activists and contributors. This is
part of the reason that tribes cannot be managed through traditional means. Rather, through
the features of a seed network, marketing managers can enter into productive and
symbiotic dialogue with consumers, fostering and nurturing their extended and hybrid
roles in the production of linking value. To be sure, from diffuse power structures and
consumer-led innovation, plundering, and entrepreneurialism there follows transience.
This demands constant vigilance from marketers in order to retain relevance in the
network and maintain their offerings as useful points of passage in a tribal network. On the
other hand however, tribal networks are often full of consumers who are willing to invest
their time and creativity. This feature often sustains members’ interest by constantly
renewing innovation, passion, and play (Kozinets, 2002).
For these reasons, the tribal approach is not a second-place position for marketers who
have failed to create a brand community. Whilst brand values may be less hallowed within
tribes, the points of passage and networks that tribal marketing can offer and facilitate are
highly respected. In essence, this point goes back to Cova’s maxim ‘the link is more
important than the thing’; if marketers can offer foundations for linking value, then
consumers are likely to celebrate (Cova & Pace, 2006).
Future research might seek to understand what makes one kind of community network
transform into another kind. Despite the structure of Table 1, it is not always useful to
observe subcultures, brand communities, and tribes as distinct categories. They might be
fundamentally different theories, but on the ground there appears to be overlap between
hard-core subculture members and less interested tribal consumers. Likewise, through
time, the motivations and challenges faced by subculture members change, often leading
them to seek out new possibilities for community (Goulding et al., 2009). This explains
why there is so much interchange between the labels that marketing academics assign to
community. Whilst the philosophical foci of subcultures and brand communities may be
different, they are not discrete or static categories, somehow frozen in time and space.
Consumption communities face new challenges on a daily basis, and it is these
contingencies, as aspects of the networks that make up communities, that determine
communities as processes of continual performance.
Related to this point, it appears that despite the non-political view cast over tribes,
there are examples of communities that at one moment display values and behaviours
based on aesthetics and style, yet changes in network conﬁgurations can lead them to
political action. This was the case with Cornish surfers so fed up with ﬁlthy water that they
formed Surfers Against Sewage in order to lobby politicians, the National Rivers
Authorities, and water providers. So too is there a necessity to explore further the ethical
factors of communal consumption (Cherrier, 2007; Veer, 2011). Faced with moral and
Journal of Strategic Marketing 603
ethical alterations in the community network, how do consumer tribes or subcultures of
consumption cross-over with social movements? It is questions such as these that may
offer continued potential to develop responsible and ethical roles for consumption
community in socially beneﬁcial and sustainable manners.
The author extends sincere thanks to an anonymous reviewer who pointed out new literature and
generously offered ideas to develop the argument.
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