Imagined Realities, Shared Myths, And How to Build a Tribe Around Your Idea

“The real success of our species is that we alone can talk about things that don’t exist at all” Yuval Noah Harari

From religion to politics, money, and corporations, many of the fundamental structures that govern our daily lives exist only in our imagination. And yet millions of strangers are willing to do extraordinary things in service of these myths.

People work 80 hour weeks in service of a green piece of paper with $1 written on it. They go to war in service of a nation that exists only as lines drawn on a map. They worship gods no one has ever seen.

These imagined realities are unique to Homo sapiens. Our overdeveloped prefrontal cortex enables a ‘sense of self’ and imagination that does not exist in other mammals.

Our ‘sense of self’ is made up of:

  1. Individual attributes (personal identity).
  2. Shared attributes derived from belonging to social groups (social identity).

We strive for a positive self-image by comparing ourselves favourably against other individuals in our group, and by our group comparing favourably against other groups.

While social groups or ‘tribes’ have been core to the human existence for millennia, the prominent groups defining our social identities over the last few centuries have seen a precipitous decline in recent decades. Religious institutions struggle to engage today’s youth, while local community organisations have closed their doors.

Urbanisation, globalisation and the rise of the internet dismantled previous group structures and enabled new tribes to form based on shared interests and ideologies. We may not interact with our local community every Sunday at church, but we can connect daily with those around the world who also love knitting, jiu jitsu or cryptography.

These new tribes are exciting because connecting around shared interests provides both a sense of identity and an active community for individuals who otherwise could have felt very alone in their physical surroundings.

Ken Robinson goes as far as to state in The Element that:

“Finding your tribe offers more than validation and interaction, it provides inspiration and provocation to raise the bar on your own achievements. In every domain, members of a passionate community tend to drive each other to explore the real extent of their talents.”

So how do you define a tribe? Seth Godin suggests “a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader and connected to an idea”.

Some of the most successful tribes today are businesses that use a shared sense of identity to sell their products.

When companies build a tribe around their mission, they are no longer just selling a product to a customer, they are issuing a rallying call to their followers to pursue a cause. By building an identity around a brand, companies grow organically through word of mouth and find people willing to buy everything they produce.

A few examples of companies that have done this well:

  • CrossFit: The CrossFit brand has taken advantage of growing trends like social media, fitness and affiliate models to grow from 13 gyms just over a decade ago to over 13,000 today. Established companies like Reebok are dying to be associated with the brand, and CrossFit has even helped change historic ideals of female beauty by stressing that “strong is the new sexy”.
  • Harley Davidson: One of the original tribes, you only need to count the number of Harley Davidson tattoos to understand the power of the brand’s social identity for its followers. Promising freedom, individualism, rebellion and the ‘American Way’, the Harley brand has dominated for decades.

So how do you build your own tribe around your company’s mission?

Russell Brunson, the founder of Clickfunnels, a SaaS software platform that has seen explosive growth since its launch in 2014 believes that every tribe needs three things:

  • A Charismatic Leader with a compelling hero story
  • A Future-based Cause filled with hope
  • A New Opportunity for a better world and a better you

Donald Trump and Barack Obama are examples of how this succeeds in practice. They are both charismatic leaders, who had future based causes (“Make America Great Again” and “Yes We Can” respectively), and promised a better world that would be achieved with very little effort expended by the American people themselves.

Seth Godin corroborates this and adds that great leaders create movements by empowering the tribe to communicate with each other. This way ideas will spread, the tribe will self-organise, and growth will compound in a decentralised way.

So spend some time thinking — how are you a charismatic leader? What is your future-based cause? What will the world look like when you succeed? And how can you help your followers communicate with each other to grow the movement?

I’ve barely scratched the surface here in explaining the power of tribes, shared myths and community in helping build and grow brands through social identity. I recommend reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger, Tribes by Seth Godin, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and anything by Joseph Campbell for a deeper analysis of the shared myths and the power of tribes.

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