Social Code: The Brand As A Village

Times have changed.  The so-called “gateway” method of Branding – where goods and services were marketed, distributed, ‘vouched for,’ and deified by corporate via a deluge of advertising and marketing support are over.  The public is no longer unsuspecting, and advertising has never had less influence.

Today, people gather as communities around the products and services they like through a host of participatory activities as they post, pin, share, Like, poke, Yelp, text, upload, download, Skype, stream, chat and more.

As we try to discover the longitude and latitude of brands in today’s market, looking at them as actual civic communities – little villages – is a useful exercise.

The first question for communities of every size is, How did we get here?  The origin mythos or creation story is the foundation of all brand narrative.  Dublin and London were founded by Vikings, as was Moscow; New York City was founded by Dutch merchants; Beijing was founded by Mongols.

The village of Google AdSense™ started while a group of Google engineers chatted playing pool.

Polly Wolly Doodle, the largest retail enterprise on Facebook, started when founder Brandi Temple shared a photo on her Facebook page of an outfit she had sewn for her daughter.  A friend of a friend asked if Brandi would make the same outfit for her daughter.  Today, Brandi has revitalized the textile industry in her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, USA, as well as manufacturing designs in China.

Nike sales started with Phil Knight selling their new-fangled running shoes from the boot of his car.

These stories are foundational.  They begin the community narrative and hint at utility, purpose, and future-forward possibilities.

The next question is, Why are we here?  We make steel.  We make cars.  We make porcelain.  We brew beer.  We are a port town.  We have a bridge.  Because we have these things we believe in something slightly different than the people who live on the other side of the river – or on the other side of the country, continent, or planet.

We are attracted together by a common sensibility: we feel the same way about things, we have a common thread that brings us together.  Whether we make oaths, pledge allegiance, sign contracts, or agree to privacy policies and terms of use, communities implicitly or explicitly agree to common bonds, interests and goals.

We think different.
We just do it.
We imagine.

After we know where we’re from and what we’re about, we identify ourselves.  We hoist a flag.  We have a crest or coat of arms, a mark that identifies us for trade or war.  People understand immediately from these iconic signals if they want to approach or avoid.  They understand the marked difference between Burberry and Gucci.  VW and Mini Cooper.  The Economist and The Wall Street Journal.  Manchester United and Arsenal.

Our community pings these markings, sights, sounds, smells, taste and feelings to the outside world.  And the outside world determines whether they should approach or avoid our community.  Some of these iconic signals are hard-wired to our internal survival mechanisms.  The smell of fire.  Police sirens.  Barking dogs.  The smell of a baby’s skin.

All communities have rituals that are not only everyday activities like getting up, brushing your teeth and going to work.  Rituals also mark the things that we celebrate as a community.  The harvest.  The beginning of spring.  Independence Day.  Christmas Day.  Boxing Day.  Market Day.  The London Marathon.  World Cup.

For centuries, rituals have guided the spiritual and economic health of communities.  It’s no secret that Christmas Holiday sales have the biggest retail impact of the year.  And it’s not just in the Western capitalist world where the sacred and profane collaborate.  In Nepal, the holiday Dashain is celebrated by slaughtering hundreds of goats to the god Kali.  Each year, drovers from distant remote villages in the Himalayas guide their goatherds down dangerous mountain passes to Kathmandu.  The high altitude villages depend on the sale of these goats for their economic survival.

Sliding centuries into the future, today’s 21st century villages are online.   Rituals bring members of the community together as they post, share, pin, poke, Like, Yelp, text, upload, download, Skype, stream, and more.

Searching on Google is a ritual. Selfies are a ritual.

Next.  All communities have their own lexicon, their own verbal village.  Their own idioms known to those who are a part of our community, and verbal traps for those who are not.

One universal example of this is ordering an “iced grande skinny decaf latte,” words we all had to learn if we wanted to enter the community of Starbucks drinkers.

The anagram LOL (laugh out loud) is used similarly in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere around the world.  It has become the lexicon of a transglobal village of digitally adept young persons who go forth from Moscow to Manhattan to Singapore to San Francisco to London.  And back.

The next building block of community is the nonbeliever.  The people who don’t want to live in your village, they want to live somewhere else.  On the far side, this “We’re not like them” thinking can be xenophobic.  But understanding what we are not, and what we never want to become, helps reinforce our own values and reminds us of who we are as a people.

At the moment of this writing, ISIS is a strong example of a community of nonbelievers.

Finally, all communities have a leader.  Think mayor of Four Square.  This is someone who set out to recreate the world according to their own point of view.  Examples of leaders vary, from Ghandi to Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sir Richard Branson.

Together, these pieces of social code: creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicon, nonbelievers and leader, form a construct that designs and attracts social communities online and off.

The Internet has redefined how we view societies, as we create a webbed complex of tiny villages online.  These communities include not just the friends we already know, like Facebook – but also those aligned to our interests: the family of fandom.  We are not only brothers, sisters, friends, spouses, parents, we are also fans: book lovers, sports enthusiasts, technophiles, music fans and more.  Enterprise builds bricks of online delight to tease, propel and succor our enthusiasms.

Each village has its own rarified language, customs, legacy, leader, nonbelievers, aspirations, and things we celebrate.

Connected, reinforced, and energized by the gluey attachments that individuals have for people, places and things – those things that move people, that embrace people, that are sticky – are created not only with digital code.  They are derived from something far more primal, far more powerful.  They are designed to create and attract communities with a construct we call the social code.

The makings of community are more volatile than ever before.  In today’s information-loaded environment, quality and quantity are assured.  Which means that distribution and marketing blitzes are useless.  Community-making has flipped from corporate marketing and advertising solutions to consumerist reviews, yelps, thumbs up, and cheering enthusiasm.

Brands must understand their strategic brand narrative: they must implicitly know where they’re from, who they are, what they believe in, the language they use to differentiate themselves, what they’re not and never want to become, and who leads them.


Because these are the emotional touchpoints consumers are using to make the decisions where they work, live, shop and play. They are a collection of seven data points that connect and attract social community, at the deepest levels of human behavior.

Strung together, these pieces become the core of fandom and advocacy.  They create a strategic narrative that moves ideals from being meaningless to becoming meaningful.  And the magnetic core that attracts others to your beliefs – the community of fans, advocates, zealots and citizens who believe in and belong to your beliefs and become so passionate about your success, they are willing to create it themselves.

We have been testing these principles with Fortune 100 companies for the last seven years, designing both strategy and community.

The next stage is to apply metrics to each piece of social code, measure their effects, and adjust accordingly.  Hashtags, pins, likes, and attendance are the rites of belonging.  And when those rites are embedded with more and other pieces of code, they become more powerful and more connected to your strategic narrative – all of which makes your community more relevant, resonant, noteworthy and powerful.

Those who employ the social code gain an unfair advantage over those who do not.  In most categories, this advantageous leadership is worth billions.

The future is here.
It’s time to find your village.