How to tap into the human psyche to build a brand?

Patrick Hanlon unlocks the code in his book Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company, and Your Future.

Patrick Hanlon’s book Primal Branding: Create Zealots for Your Brand, Your Company, and Your Future is the most influential book I have read in my marketing career. It is not a new book. However, it is one that has stayed on my bookshelf this whole time. Despite having read other marketing books, this one book remains to be the one that I would recommend to any marketers. The premise of the book is that every brand should connect with people on a “primal” level based on a belief system. By belief system, he did not mean religion, etc., but rather the common belief system among people. There are seven elements to any given belief systems, and how would a marketer put these seven elements together to make people believe in a brand. After all, our customers are people, human first and foremost. We are all governed by our basic instinct and our human psyche. Let us have a look at how we can tap into that primal part of ourselves.

1. Creation Story

Every brand should have a creation story. For people to believe us as a brand, they have to understand where we came from. If they do not understand where we came from, what our motives might be, they would not believe us, and they would not trust us or what we say. We would not appear authentic, and anything we say in our marketing materials would appear salesy or pushy.

The creation story is the beginning of the story about us. Where we came from, what we had done since, what brought us to the here and now.

There are many examples of this in the marketing world. Think of any strong brands, and we would at least vaguely know their creation story. Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in college. Apple was started in a garage. Warby Parker thought glasses were unnecessarily expensive.

How do brands establish the creation story?

Simply put, this is the “about us” section. This is where we begin to build trust with our audience. For example, Starbucks is one of my personal favorite brands. Most of us know that it started in Seattle with a vision to be a “third place.” But, do not worry, Starbucks is more than happy to share with us their creation story. From their “about us” section, the entire story about Starbucks is detailed in their Company Profile.

Every “About” page is about telling the creation story. Every interviewer asking “Tell me a little about yourself” is prompting for a creation story. A creation story is integral to any brand, business or personal.

What is your story?

However, it is not just about how we want to tell our creation story. It is about what others hear when they listen to our creation story. Our story needs to be authentic to ourselves, and be congruent with our actions. Someone can tell a story about being professional. But what happens that person shows up in an inappropriate miniskirt or torn clothings (assuming we are in a professional office setting where the standard for professional would be suits)? Whatever story may have been told, that isn’t going to be the story that sticks. Actions speak louder than words.

So, it is one thing to have a story, but it is another to embody it and to live it. A story could evolve. A story could have new chapters. However, the story must be accurate and true. Lying is never good for a brand, any brand. Everything in our brand should be consistent with the story we are telling. Every encounter in person, online, in the media, etc. becomes part of the brand, part of the story.

2. The Creed

The second piece of the primal code is the creed. It is what we believe, and what we want others to believe. This is what we want team members to believe. This is what we want customers to believe. It is the foundation for a company mission. But it is so much more because the creed encompasses everything that we do.

So, in many ways, activating the creed is not simply a tactic. We cannot just build an “about me” page and call it a day. It is a soul searching session in what we believe, and why are we doing it.

What do you believe?

On the surface, this looks obvious. But if we just pause for a moment, we can all think of many examples when this code is obviously violated.

50% of small businesses fail. Now, there are many reasons why. In the context of the creed, there is one obvious reason that contributes to this failure rate. Many people launch their business because they can. But the fact of the matter is with competition, technology advancement, etc., whatever it is that one can do today is unlikely going to be sustainable forever. What one can do today may become obsolete tomorrow. Therefore, if the founders did not first sit down to think about what the business stands for and what is the aspirational goal, the business would not know where to go next once it has exhausted its current options or advantages.

If we, as the business, became confused ourselves on what it is we are supposed to be doing, our partners (internal / external) would be confused and our customers would surely be confused.

The creed is the foundation for a positioning. Positioning is a statement of what we want to do. Therefore, to define a positioning, we first need to understand what it is we truly believe in and what it is we truly want to achieve.

3. Icon

An icon is something that allows people to able to instantly identify our brand. The iconic yellow border lets people know that it is a National Geographic magazine. That iconic swoosh tells people that it is Nike, even if the brand name is nowhere to be found. Remember the iconic white earbuds for the iPods? Or how one can spot a Starbucks cup from a distance away?

Therefore, in essence, the icon part of the primal code is made up of the various physical, tangible, and recognizable attributes of your brand. However, these tangible attributes may very well evoke intangible feelings.

Women can instantly recognize a Tiffany box by its distinctive color. That color evokes a variety of emotions. That color is so important to the Tiffany brand that Tiffany trademarked it.

But, it is not just about colors or logos. For example, most of us cannot say much about the logos or colors of our local utility companies. There are countless forgettable logos out there. We could spend a lot of time creating one, and it would be meaningless with our audience. Why? Because a logo, or color, or any other attribute cannot stand on its own. Like every other part of the primal code, it needs to be incorporated into everything that we do as a brand.

The fundamental question we need to ask is what truly symbolizes our brand in the minds of your audience. UPS is brown because UPS has brown trucks, brown uniform, brown everything. Swoosh is Nike because Nike put much advertising dollars toward building up the Swoosh. But it is all a very carefully orchestrated effort.

What symbolizes your brand?

Allow me to make up an extreme example to illustrate my point.

You are a caterer. You painstakingly designed a logo that is an abstraction of a red pepper. It symbolizes so many things about your food. The red represents passion. The pepper is that little extra kick in your food. Also, the veggie represents the fresh ingredients that you use, etc. That logo is on everything. It is on your website. It is on your business card. It is even on your apron, which you wear to every event. You have spent much time networking in the community to build your business, and it has paid off. You get referrals after referrals. At this point, you do not even need to call people. People call you.

In fact, you are so successful that your phone number is just on phones and laptops as a contact at this point. People can pull up your number in an instant. But, this also means that people are not really looking at your business card or website anymore.

People do see your apron though at every event. Yes, the bright yellow one with the red pepper logo properly embroidered just above your chest.

Let me tell you how this story ends — the red pepper may be your logo, but it is not your icon, but the yellow apron is.

As for myself, I have found this to be the hardest part of the primal code to fully establish. Because the effort has to be really carefully orchestrated, and it takes a long time to establish an icon. We have to identify those attributes that are unique and ownable to our brand to be our icons. We have to be diligent and consistent with our icons. We have to invest in our icons, so we can strengthen that association with our brand.

4. Ritual

“Rituals are the meaningful repeated points of contact between you and your guest, customer, client, or target market.”

These rituals come in many forms. For example, a piece of lime is put into every Corona. That is a ritual. That was not based on history or culture or taste. That started as a bartender’s invention. Capitalized by marketers. Once the masses adopted this practice, a ritual was born.

In the blogosphere, a commonly adopted ritual is to post on a regular basis. If a blogger posts every Monday, the readers can build a ritual around reading that blog every Monday.

On another front, let’s consider how else a business could apply rituals and build this primal code into everything we do.

Let’s look at the definition one more time: “meaningful repeated points of contact”.

What rituals are already in place?

That is something that happens already! Naturally! The trick is to identify them and to leverage them. Like anything, it is much easier to leverage what organically and naturally happen with our brand. It is virtually impossible to build something artificial. Leveraging existing rituals is much easier than building new rituals, and it would also make our brand more authentic.

Let’s consider an example. If you have a book store. Your products are already part of an existing ritual. Your books are part of book club meetings. So, why not capitalize on that ritual and host the meetings? Perhaps suggest the next book to read for the club? Chances are the club would buy your suggestions at your store, rather than your competition.

On a personal branding front, what rituals are already in place? What do people expect?

At work, I keep a candy jar in my cube. Many people think of me when 3pm comes around. That is a ritual, and, yes, there are many ways to leverage this. In addition to just building goodwill, it also offers me great opportunity to connect with different people in the office that I may not be working with right now. Sometimes, I could just bounce ideas off of them in those moments that they are in my cube.

But like any branding efforts, any mistake could derail the whole campaign. If someone is always late to meetings, that would become that person’s ritual and part of the brand !

Rituals are powerful, primal. We use rituals to celebrate. Weddings are rituals to celebrate partnership. Graduations are rituals to celebrate academic success. Sunday brunches are sometimes our rituals to celebrate friendship. Likewise, we can establish rituals as a way for our customers to celebrate our brands. So, what ritual is our brand already part of? Is there a way for us to leverage that to positively reinforce our brand?

5. Pagan

This is perhaps the easiest code to understand as a marketer. We always go to the market with a single-minded message, and this is what this code element is all about. Each brand needs to know what we stand for, who we are. More importantly, we need to know what we are not.

A brand cannot be all things to all people.

If someone is the creative type, that person is not going to be the all about math type.

If someone is selling imports, that person / shop is not going to be carrying locally produced goods.

Therefore, for each brand, there are pagans and there are non-believers. There are fans for our brand. There are people who will never want what we have to offer.

Now, there are several important caveats.

A business can have more than one brand. Coca-Cola owns the soft drink brand Coca-Cola, but it also owns the much healthier water brand Dasani. Therefore, a business can be selling imports and locally produced goods. However, they would be under different brands. They may be sold in different stores, as fitting of those different brands. The different brands would have different positioning, with different target audiences. Coca-Cola and Dasani have completely different positioning and completely different customers. The brands are managed by different teams, but both brands contribute to the growth of the business.

On a personal branding basis, this would be harder to execute. In the end, a personal brand is built on a person. Therefore, as one person, there are limitations. Even for a Jack/Jill of all trades, a person can only be a true expert in one thing. It takes a lot of work to be a subject matter expert. So, if a person claims to be an expert in everything, that would create a credibility problem.

Just because a brand stands for one thing, this does not give license to be bad at something. There is still a cost of entry (i.e. minimum requirements). For a business that focuses on imports, this does not mean locally produced goods are no longer relevant. They are still potential competitors. They are still the benchmarks against which consumers compare. Therefore, the business still need to understand the locally produced goods market.

Who is your target market?

By identifying who are the pagans and who are the non-believers, a brand knows who is the target market. With a clear target market, marketing can be more effective, and products can be more tailored.

6. Sacred Words

What are the sacred words? Apple gives the best examples with the “i”s: iPhone, iPod, iMac, iWatch. Apple has created a language all their own for their products.

Smaller businesses have sacred words too! Remember that bake shop / candle shop / soap shop that has really smart names for their flavors? That is sacred words in action.

How about when someone just have the following phrase just roll off of somebody’s tongue? “A grande non-fat sugar-free vanilla latte, extra hot, no foam, please.” That is sacred words in action.

Allow me to share with you a story. My co-workers and I regularly visited this sandwich shop for lunch. They had many options for sandwiches. What size? What kind of bread? Cheese? So, we challenged ourselves to go through the entire ordering process without them having to ask us one single question. This was us learning their language, their sacred words. That is sacred words in action.

Why are sacred words important? Because every culture has a language of their own. A brand can create its own culture with its own tribe. Each culture needs to have its own language. That is why sacred words are important. The words is part of creating the culture.

What words are part of the brand?

We probably already have words that are sacred already. A product has features that are unique. Such features were named, and those names are sacred words. An app has functions that are unique. Names for those functions are sacred words. A business has events that are unique, such as specials or promotions. Names for those events are sacred words. There are words that have been created as part of the language of the brand. Those are sacred words.

6. The Leader

Every brand needs a captain. Someone to steer the ship. Someone to set the direction. Someone to make decisions.

Do not confuse the leader with the icon. This person is not necessarily the spokesperson or the face of the brand. This is the person that truly decides how to put all the elements of the brand together. There are famous cases where the leader was also an icon, such as Steve Jobs. However, usually, the leader is someone behind the scene.

Without this necessary element, all the other parts of the brand would fall apart. Without someone with a vision, the icon could not work with the sacred words. Without someone who knows how to listen, the pagans would not practice the rituals.

Here it is: The entire primal code.

The code is designed to help a brand tap into the existing emotion of a consumer as human. The code helps them believe us, so they could follow you and our brand.

  • People need to know where we came from — the creation story
  • People need to know what we believe in — the creed
  • The unique attributes of our brand would become our icons
  • Repeated interactions between our brand and our consumers become rituals
  • Acknowledge that we cannot be all things to all people — we will have pagans and nonbelievers
  • Give those who follow our brand a language all to our own — the sacred words
  • Have a person to put all the pieces together — the leader

How can you apply the primal code to your brand? How can you tap into the human psyche to grow your business?

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About Jeannie Chan

Jeannie Chan founded Curious. She is a brand strategist who takes on business problems big or small. She inspires organizations to raise the questions no one dared to ask or thought to ask. She has ignited new thinking and delivered growth to Fortune 500 companies, startups, and nonprofits. Jeannie loves espressos, and lives in New York City with her two cats and her beloved. Learn more about Jeannie at
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