Your Brand Is A Tribal Signal


About a month ago, my brother and sister-in-law opened a café in Abbotsford BC called Oldhand Coffee. That’s right, a café! Sheesh. So they’re bravely struggling, brainstorming ways to get coffee-drinkers in the door, right?

Nope. Business has been BANANAS. Their space is consistently packed, the social media shares are numerous and passionate, and they already have four staff members.

But howww? Everybody knows that the restaurant industry is a tough row to hoe. Furthermore, their chosen destination of Abbotsford is a fairly standard-issue big-box-dominated Canadian city. It’s a place where small businesses easily get lost in the mix.

I believe Oldhand’s success is related to the quality of their products, for sure. It’s also definitely a reflection of their networking gifts, since hype for their café originated in their sprawling social circle. But what was their big-ticket maneuver? Which winning move sealed their happy fate?

Well, here’s the thing. My bro and sis devoted time, attention, and labour to branding Oldhand from top to bottom. Their confident branding functions as a powerful signal that calls out to a particular tribe.

Who is this tribe? Masses of suburban kids on bicycles. Folks of all ages who resonate with those bicycling kids’ values. In the interest of expediency, why don’t I just apply a handy-dandy label? These folks are the Hipster and the Hipster-Sympathetic.

I personally define branding as Tribal Signalling. Anything related to branding functions as a Tribal Signal. A Signal is anything that clearly communicates a message in the blink of an eye. For example, a hand raised up to stop traffic is a signal. A Tribe is a group of people who are bonded by common values. They can congregate in person or virtually, as capitalistic modernity has paved the way for us to form alliances over the consumption of products, media, or cultural artifacts. Meaning: ‘Oh…you watch Fox News? Ugh. Not my Tribe. Oh, you listen to NPR? Great. You’re my People. We no longer throw spears at competing Tribes, but here’s a generous volley of snark.’



Obviously, Oldhand’s Tribal Signals are predominantly visual. They opted to produce an artful logo and their marketing materials are minimalist and clean. They took time to thoroughly renovate their café so that it is light-filled, gallery-like. But their Signals are also technological. Their main social media outpost is Instagram, where dem young folks just love to like professional-quality photographs of white-lit interiors and artisanal products. These are a few of the Signals that draw a particularly passionate hipster demographic to them. This is what a Brand is. It’s their Bat Signal.

Soooo, Oldhand Coffee, you breakaway success of a darling little Abbotsfordian café, what are the takeaways? What does your example teach those of us hoping to succeed, serve a niche, and reap the rewards of effective branding?

1. It’s not the steak, it’s the sizzle, but the sizzle is in your mind, maaan.

Human beings are not inherently rational. Homo Economicus? As if! I do believe that marketing should focus on benefits (ie. what’s ‘in it’ for the customer), but we are often mistaken when we assume that the most important benefits are straightforward, concrete, and measurable. ‘Saving money’ is a great benefit, but at Oldhand Coffee, customers are happy to forgo that benefit in order to access a different one: inclusion in a community. People are driven to bond to other people. It’s a primary need, right up there with eating and sleeping. Don’t ever forget how tremendously the desire for community factors into a brand.

2. In order for brand to function, it needs to be everywhere, in everything.

If Oldhand’s branding was not consistent in every facet of its public presentation, the illusion would be broken, and the Tribal Signal snuffed out. When they decorated their space, my bro and sis put up pictures of past generations of European family members who inspire their café’s traditional emphasis on hospitality, and they back those values up with a particularly warm customer service style. They create an immersive experience for their customers. Their branding is much deeper and more resonant than a mere logo.

3. The best brands ain’t fake

This is connected to the last point. Oldhand’s brand of quality, artfulness, and pausing to enjoy a centuries-old delicacy emerges from a very sincere place. My bro and sis did not open up a ‘hipster coffee shop’ in Abbotsford because they knew they could nail that demographic. I mean, they could have done that. Woulda worked just fine. But in the long-term, their job as actual human beings would be a lot more arduous, because they’d have to keep faking it and faking it. And since their brand is so dependent on communicating a sense of community, cracks in the veneer of their brand’s sincerity might be fatal. It’s much easier for Oldhand to serve their tribe in accordance with their actual, heartfelt values.

Anyway, hurrah to Oldhand Coffee. You’ve flipped on your Bat Signal and the good bicyclists of Gotham have come a-flocking. Branding well done.

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

March 19, 2015

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