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January 18, 2006
What do Starbucks, al Quaida, Mickey Mouse and Las Vegas have in common? Part 1

More than they might think. Each of them sparkles with a construct that first entices us and then does its best to help make us a part of the community of people who believe in what they’re all about.

For years, inchoate products, fads, reactionary groups, concepts and imaginary characters have sprung from the mud of social consciousness and seized our imagination.


There is a pattern. Like binary code, it is simple, yet powerful. Like the alphabet or mathematics, the pattern helps you arrange the elements into something that is recognizable and repeatable.

That pattern is called the primal code. Seven elements that, when put together, create a belief system that attract people who want to belong to the group that shares those beliefs. That group becomes a community that can surround a product or service—like an Apple, Nike, Coke or Starbucks.

They can surround a personality brand like Oprah, Martha Stewart, or Donald Trump.

The community can surround social or political movements like the Republican Party, the anti-war movement, the fight against HIV/AIDS, or al Quaida.

Even civic communities like New York City, Las Vegas, L.A. and Napa Valley become can be shaped in part by the primal code.

The seven pieces of primal code are: the creation story, creed, icons, ritual, sacred words, nonbelievers, and leader.

This is a brief description of the pieces of primal code.

If brands are a narrative, then the creation story is the beginning of the tale. All belief systems come with a story attached. Brands that start in the middle of their story are like walking into a movie that’s already started; you spend the next few minutes trying to figure out what’s going on. But consumers don’t take the time. They just keep walking. The creation story is all about origins--where do you come from? We all know about a pharmacist creating the formula for Coca-Cola. There are myriad stories about guys in the garage creating computers, suntan oil, videogames, and more (thank God for the garage!). Clothing company Patagonia was founded by mountain climber, Yvon Chouinard. Kinko’s, FedEx and Google were created by college students. EBay was founded in a back bedroom. Google was founded in a dorm room.

Once we know where you’re from, tell us what you’re about. All belief systems have a creed, a declaration that all men (and women) were created equal, a belief in life after death, a belief in open platforms, a belief in independent filmmaking, a belief in peace on earth, a belief in the Red Sox. After we know where you’re from and what you’re about, identify yourself.

All belief systems have icons that instantly identify us. Icons can be the company logo, the flag, the building. But icons can involve any of the five senses, including sound—the Star Spangled Banner, the Intel Pentium gliss, “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. Taste is also iconic, like the taste of Oreos, McDonald’s French fries, or Starbucks coffee. Smells—like the smell of Cinnabons as you walk through the airport concourse (Omni Hotels just announced a “corporate scent”—a mix of lemongrass and green tea) is also iconic. Touch is also iconic: leather seats, fur, fine wood, soft skin.

Product design can also be iconic. Think of the Absolut and Coke bottles, the iPod, and VW Beetle.

Packaging is iconic. Like the Amazon.com box whose smiling graphic arrives at your doorstep. Like the blue Tiffany box.

Environmental design is iconic. Walking into a Starbucks is different from walking into a Target is different from walking into your local hospital.

Belief systems also have rituals that embrace the products and services. One new ritual is how concert-goers hold up their mobile phones at rock concerts instead of lighters, to take photos or let friends listen in. Rituals fill our lives, yet many rituals we do not even recognize—going to the dry cleaners, the grocery store, taking the car for its 10,000-mile check-up, searching the web, going to the doctor, or paying bills. Rituals are the repeated engagements we have with products or services, and they can be either positive or negative.

Look at Starbucks (you’ve heard of Starbucks?). Coffee is a daily bean ritual measured in megatons, but Starbucks has made the morning rite its own. The creation story is about a guy in Seattle who named his coffee shop after a character in Moby Dick. The creed was originally about a place where people could hang out, wear berets and smoke clove cigarettes while discussing Sartre. These days, Starbucks talks about being the third place; the first two being home and office. (Starbucks is also talking about a fourth place: your car. Watch for Starbucks driv-thrus.) The icons are that white paper cup you can spot across a parking lot, the corrugate comfort ring, the mermaid logo. Even the Starbucks retail environment is iconic; the “feel” is the same whether you’re walking into a Starbucks in London or in L.A. The coffee ritual at Starbucks is very specific: we stand in line to order, then we stand in another line to get our latte, and finally, we go to the minibar to finesse our purchase with milk, sugar, and grab a napkin. A sophisticated vocabulary exists for all who want to participate in the Starbucks experience. “Iced grande skinny decaf latte”, “tall, grande and venti”, that’s no ordinary Joe whipping your Frappucino it’s a “barista”, and it’s not a counter it’s a “bar”. The nonbelievers, or pagans, are people who drink Maxwell House instant; in the South, people drink Coke to start their day; and others drink tea (they do that at Starbucks, too) or Mountain Dew. The leader of the band is Howard Schultz and, while most people may not know of Howard Schultz we can rightfully suggest that there is a sense of leadership when you walk into Starbucks that you do not get when you walk into Kmart.

The same construct works for al Quaida. If someone had told us before 9/11 that there was a pan-global terrorist organization determined to slay not only our military, but mainland Americans and their families, we probably wouldn’t have believed them. The thorn of truth is that our leaders did not believe it (nor the leaders of other Western nations). Yet after September 11, 2001, a narrative was quickly outlined of a leader named Osama bin Laden who was is front of an organized band of terrorists spread from Minnesota to Afghanistan. This motivated group was created in the disenfranchised third and fourth world country refugee camps and temples of Islam. Their creed was a jihad determined to destroy Christians widely and Americans specifically. The icons of this terrorist organization that we quickly learned was named “al Quaida”, were the imams, the anonymous black hooded youths wielding automatic weapons and ubiquitous rocket launchers. The photographs of the smoking twin Trade Towers, and the bloodied victims in Madrid and London were also haunting icons of the stealth of al Quaida. The rituals are the acts of terror, the phone call to CNN and other news agencies acknowledging responsibility, the videotape of hostages and executions; the most powerful ritual, of course, is the ritual of surprise. The words known to us Westerners that identify this group are “jihad”, “al Quaida”, and “Allah Akhbar!”, the last words spoken before these zealots blow themselves up. There are probably other words that identify members of al Quaida to each other. Not to mention the lengthy anti-Western and anti-American manifestos exchanged between members of this group. Pagans or nonbelievers in al Quaida include Christian nations, the U.S.A. and George W. Bush. The leaders are Osama bin Laden and other leaders both known and unknown.

You can do the same thing for Mickey Mouse (after all, an icon for Disney Brand) and civic communities like Las Vegas.

As simple as it is to outline the seven pieces of primal code for these brands, it is virtually impossible to cite pieces of code for so-called brands like Lestoil, Goodrich tires, or DSL. These brands are based primarily upon functional attributes, and once a product or service that is better, faster, cheaper, longer lasting or more powerful comes along, they will be swept off the streets and no one will care.

Of course, between the Apples and Lestoils lie thousands of other products. Some of these products and services have a few pieces of primal code in place (and a relative advantage over their competitors). their task now is to fill in the remaining pieces of code.

Creating a brand that people believe in, means they want to belong with you and with no one else. They prefer you above all other choices—even when competition leapfrogs you with innovation, price, or other advantages.

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Patrick Hanlon is founder and CEO of Thinktopia, an idea task force whose slogan is "Better Thoughts Through Thinking." He has served as EVP, creative director, and writer at various advertising agencies. Clients have included Samsung, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and others. Patrick is the author of "Primal Branding: Create Zealots For Your Brand, Your Company And Your Future."

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