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Patrick Hanlon On Primal Branding, Beliefs & Bands

Part 1 of a 3 part interview for Hypebot by guest blogger Kyle Bylin.

Patrick Hanlon is the founder and CEO of Thinktopia and author of Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company, and Your Future which was recently featured as one of the ten books to read for a "crash course" in marketing/branding in Britain's Drum magazine. He is an idea engineer who's company is dedicated to building communities around brands. In his book he talks about how the brands we care about have belief systems and that it is when you have a well-structured belief system and a leader that you have created a tribe.

Primal Branding asserts that brands that we care about are belief systems, embedded with seven pieces of primal code (the creation story; the creed; the icons; the rituals; the pagans, or nonbelievers; the sacred words; and the leader) that work together to make them believable. This attracts people who share your beliefs, which becomes community. Those communities can surround product, services, personalities, movement, even cities and towns.

Q: What other pieces were under consideration at the time? Have other pieces branched off or been added since then?

Hanlon: I was working in my garden in Connecticut, imagining that great brands like Nike, Lego, Apple, and others all had something else going for them other than advertising. As a matter of fact, brands like Google and Starbucks didn’t even advertise (at that time). Yet it was obvious that everyone felt something very visceral about those brands. Just as they do about the Grateful Dead, R.E.M., U2, Phish, John Mayer, and even lesser-known artists like The Bird And The Bee, Hound Dog Taylor, Iron & Wine, The Bad Plus, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, and more. They’re fanatics. Fans.

At the time, I didn’t know how to put all of that together, except that if you believe in something, it probably has some sort of statement about what it is: a creed. There’s also probably a story about how it came to be. There are icons that reveal who or what they are. And rituals that dictate how believers come together, or how you use a product. There are words that believers use to identify themselves (ignorance of those words also identifies those who do not believe). There are also nonbelievers: people who prefer the Beatles to the Stones, prefer Tony Bennett to hip hop, etc. And often there is an acknowledged leader. That makes seven. I didn’t set out to come up with seven, but things usually seem to come in threes, fives, sevens, nines, twelves, 21, fifty and 100. It’s like divine proportion or something.

Q: In your work as CEO of Thinktopia, what music industry examples are you often brought back to in order to explain the current environment of the business world?

Hanlon: That is not an easy question, because most people in business look at the entertainment industry – even with all its billions – as sort of an anomaly. It looks like so much fun, it can’t be real business. And of course just the opposite is true. The music and film industries are brutal. I often hold up Madonna as an example because, love her or hate her, she has reinvented her brand every 18 to 32 months since Material Girl. In real world terms, this would be like coming up with the Mini Cooper, then creating the iPod, then Starbucks, then Halo, then the Google phone. Then she’s an amazing marketer. Puff Daddy and Prince tried to do the same, with less success.

Q: In workshops called Primal Digs, you work together with companies to help them engineer and reverse engineer their brands and company culture. If you were brought into any of The Big Four major labels, where would you begin with your shovel?

Hanlon: The prequel to all of our work inside companies is that we immerse ourselves in their business. We gather up all the reports and factoids and landscape and meld that with macro and micro trends and then we mush it all together. That is where we begin, which partially answers your question. During the Primal Dig we deconstruct the brand during the first day, then reconstruct it the second day and all the days that follow.

What we would suggest is that the Big 4 better understand the intangibles that drive brands. That way, they might be better able to knowingly help drive successes rather than imitating what others do. The other thing is understanding what drives internal cultures: this helps define success at many companies. People work all night and weekends trying to come up with the next thing, whether it’s a computer game, great design, or hit song, because they are driven by a higher ideal. They want to be great. That is an infusion that can be designed into a management company. It can be managed.

Professor Mike Wesch states in An anthropological introduction to YouTube that, "There is this cultural inversion going on where we are becoming increasingly individual, but many of us still have this strong value and desire for community, we become increasingly independent while longing for stronger relationships, and we see increasing commercialization all around us, therefore we seek authenticity."