3 Ways to Turn Your Brand into a Movement

Harness the power of symbol and watch the world change.

Leaders, and especially founders, if they are honest, actually do want to change the world. Great leaders have some transcendent vision that makes them misfits and mavericks; they dream of rallying people behind a world-changing. There is nothing more exciting to a founder than to imagine their movement fighting through adversity and coming out on the other side to make their dream a reality.

The good news for leaders is that all humans crave this same thing. More than creature comforts and free meals, even more than financial success, we all want to be a part of something meaningful, a story that is bigger than ourselves. It is part of human nature to desire to sacrifice and strive beside others for the sake of something we believe in. This is how we find belonging: with fellow dreamers who come together to do something great.

So then why are our businesses, projects, and communities so often devoid of such a profound sense of comradery and meaning? We at Sherwood Fellows believe that part of the answer is that we’ve forgotten how to communicate in the language of human motivation. Our culture has lost its connection to the language of the subconscious, the language of symbol.

If you are a leader with a vision to change the world, you don’t need bigger budgets and better processes to achieve that vision. What you need is to articulate your dream through symbols because:

  • Symbols instantly communicate vast depths, without words
  • Symbols awaken purpose and belonging in individuals so they can unite together.
  • Symbols turn ordinary moments into extraordinarily powerful rituals

It is a strong symbology — more than an expensive ad campaign — that will multiply your world-changing vision so it can grow exponentially.

It’s not magic. It’s human.

Our belief in symbology might seem a little “out there” at the outset. But it has its roots in how humans have communicated for millennia. Long before corporate logos appeared on our clothing, humans used symbols to denote who we are and what we stand for.

Tribes like the Mescalero Apache have imbued their coming-of-age ritual with symbolism; colors and numbers and clothing take on a spiritual depth as girls dance around a community fire to symbolize their passage into womanhood. The Roman empire built monuments and uthe aquila (eagle) symbol to spread the stories of their power. Early Christians developed the Ichthys fish to denote their religious beliefs under threat of persecution.

While our cultures have changed, the fact of human nature remains: we use symbols to say more than words can. Leaders who have a radical vision and hope to give their people a sense of belonging and purpose don’t have to make their people dance around a fire all night to do so. Leaders can, however, learn from our shared ancestry, and give their people meaning and belonging through what we at Sherwood Fellows call tribe-building methodology.

Here’s how we believe tribal communication works:

  1. Tribes espouse a distinct and transcendent central belief system, which they codify in a manifesto and take risks to live out, even when it’s difficult.
  2. Tribes tell a compelling myth that embodies that belief system.
  3. Tribes use symbols to create a connection with the myth (and, thus, the manifesto).
  4. Tribes create meaningful rituals to tie the belief system to people’s daily routines.

If a leader wants to offer belonging and purpose to new potential tribe members at scale, she needs to use symbols.

1. Symbols Carry Instant Meaning

“What is so poignant here is that words are unnecessary to communicate or convey a message. The symbol, the representational picture or image, conveys the complete thought, concept, or ideal without the use of words to describe it; the proverbial, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’” — Dr. Abigail Brenner

Symbols are the language of the subconscious. We learn to speak this language from an early age as we learn to interpret our world; most babies can speak in sign language before they can form words. Symbolic meanings appear in our dreams, in books and movies, in the brands we love and the gifts we give. When we see a meaning-packed symbol, the reaction is automatic; we may not even have the words or conscious understanding to explain why it evokes attraction, disgust, or excitement. Symbols have the power to move people in an instant.

An organization’s symbolic language matters because of its power to convey meaning immediately. While logos are what people first think about when trying to define their brand, a symbol is much deeper than the thing you put on your letterhead: symbols are physical representations of the tribe’s most core identity and mythology. A symbol that is imbued with a meaningful philosophy and a recognizable mythology will subconsciously resonate with those who share your convictions — and drive away those who don’t.

Your tribe’s symbology unfolds through all of your visual communication: the wall trappings at your office, the design of your logo, the fonts you choose, your photography, product designs, even the images on your Instagram feed. These form a visual “language” that your tribe can begin to “speak” and replicate.

Take, for example, the Walt Disney Company. Walt Disney believed that there is a child in all of us, waiting to be reawakened. In a time when children were meant to be seen, not heard, his love of the unfettered imagination of the child was more than a little contrarian. “That’s the real trouble with the world,” he said. “Too many people grow up.” His fascination with childlike imagination and making dreams come true is reflected in the simple but powerful stories he told — and in the symbology that the Walt Disney Company continues to use. Disney’s “manifesto” comes through in the title sequence that plays before each movie or cartoon, as the words and the images evoke an imaginative, dreamlike scene.

The tune carries the words, “When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are / Anything your heart desires will come to you.” Visually, we see a castle in the distance and a twinkling star in twilight. The use of deep blues and soft, approachable fonts creates a unified symbology that speaks to the child in every person.

If you see this theme, you might be flooded with memories: dozens of songs, heroic characters, roller coasters, and all the whimsical nostalgia of childhood. Symbols have the power to immediately carry immense depths of meaning that simply can’t be put into words.

To harness the subconscious power of symbols, a leader will need to ensure her tribe’s symbology clearly reflects the deepest beliefs, stories, and values of the tribe. What do your website’s photography and your brand’s color choices communicate about you? Is that really who you are or are you trying to follow a trend because that’s what the industry expects? When a leader examines this honestly, she will find that others can better comprehend her organization’s purpose without reading a word.

2. Symbols decentralize belonging.

“With the construction of a symbolic world we can ease the pain of understanding our physical limitations…. That is, we create a cultural world of meaning in which humans are not merely animals, but are symbolic entities. We are part of something larger and more enduring than our physical existence.” — Dr. Clay Routledge

Symbols are also invaluable for a leader because of their power to offer belonging. Symbols are humanity’s most ancient “belonging” technology. A symbol offers an individual a simple way to pledge themselves to the tribe’s mythos (or reject it), because anyone can participate in the tribe’s beliefs by putting the symbol on their clothes, in their homes, on a mug or hat or banner. Donning a symbol to say “I am part of this movement” means belonging can multiply widely and exponentially among those who want to belong.

It’s why the ubiquitous I Love New York (I ❤ NY) logo appears on t-shirts and water bottles and car bumpers around the world — not just in New York. People who take a single visit to New York often subsequently use it as a statement about who they are: larger-than-life dreamers and doers. The I ❤ NY symbol states that New York is more than just a place; it is a way of being.

Jason.Kufer / CC BY-SA

Those who concocted the symbol started it as an ad campaign in 1977 to promote tourism throughout the state, and its creators must have known the power of spreading symbols, because they chose not to copyright the logo for years so that it could weave its way into culture. It’s been replicated in homage and parody all over the world, but think especially of what it meant to those who wore it on key-chains and t-shirts after the 9/11 attacks. It became a banner of unity and of the undaunted will of the whole American people.

Symbols decentralize belonging by taking the pressure off of leaders to decide who is “in” and who is “out” of a tribe. By containing the heart of the tribe’s ideals in a short visual statement, symbols are at once exclusive and invitational: those who desire to participate in the tribe can do so easily, of their own volition, without any effort on the leader’s part; those who do not want to be part of the tribe can ignore or reject the symbol and thus count themselves out.

If the tribe’s vision is truly compelling, then a symbol will stir up desires and visions that are already lying dormant in individuals. A symbol allows the leader to discover fellow kindred spirits, giving them what they are craving — a sense of higher purpose and belonging, a chance to live out their deepest convictions immediately.

A leader can speed up the process of tribe-building and make a tribe scalable if she moves the tribe’s shared purpose from words into visuals, then shares those visuals as widely as possible — in ads, merchandise, a digital presence, etc. A leader can use symbols to awaken a shared “why” in others and find the tribe that will change the world with her. If the symbol is created with intention, then there’s no need for the leader to decide who gets to wear or possess it. Those who want to be part of the movement will be; pay attention to who joins the fold.

3. Symbols make ordinary moments extraordinary.

Lastly, symbols provide leaders with an easy way to create rituals for their tribe. (Rituals are the next component of tribe-building, which you can read about here.) A ritual is a moment that plunges someone into the tribe’s shared identity. Using symbols to share the tribe’s mythology, the participant steps into the story, making it real for themselves. When symbols are utilized in a ritual, ordinary activities are elevated into extraordinary moments, transforming a meeting or orientation into a much more memorable event.

We didn’t pluck this idea from a marketing textbook and dress it up in tribal language — this is how the most tight-knit groups of people have lived for ages. As we mentioned earlier, the Mescalero Apache, who live in south central New Mexico, have performed for centuries a coming-of-age rite to initiate girls into Apache womanhood. This rite of passage is rich with symbolism: the dances that act out myths of the tribe, the pollen the girl uses to bless her community, the teepee structure she lives in for twelve days. As she puts on the traditional buckskin dress, she puts on everything that the tribe believes about womanhood, owning its mythology and beliefs for herself.

By adding the Nike swoosh to a pair of shoes, Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight created a pseudo-religious ritual of initiation for anyone who puts the shoes on. Every time you lace up your Nike Kicks, you enter the Nike narrative, where you are the unsung hero of your own story, victorious because you made the choice to “Just Do It.” The symbol floods you with emotion instantly, making you part of something larger than yourself.

Symbols make it possible to build rituals of initiation where allies and stakeholders can more formally and deeply “own” the tribe’s values for themselves. For a leader looking to deepen people’s attachment to a movement, she should find ordinary moments — with teams, clients, or in a customer’s user experience — that could be elevated with a symbol. Is there a chance to offer a symbolic gift? To give customers a sticker or button that they can choose to wear? Could the next meeting involve some symbolic addition to the office?

Your use of symbols can offer people an immediate signal for what they long for — transcendent meaning and purpose. When you can harness the power of symbols, you’ve harnessed the power to unite diverse individuals around a shared conviction, immediately and deeply, and invite them into your tribe.

We believe this power is available to you.

We’ve put together resources for people who want to lead families, businesses, communities, and themselves.

There’s the 7-day Tribal Transformation for leaders who want to change their culture from the inside out. Each day of the course will walk you through every step of tribe-building, with case studies that show you exactly how to go from personal belief to team transformation. The email that’ll arrive in your inbox each morning includes journaling prompts to tap into your leadership instincts, as well as a concrete step to take during your day to turn theory into practice. Just like Nike and Disney, you’ll learn how to harness the power of symbols to communicate transcendent ideas and offer belonging with your own team, in their day-to-day life.

We have our proven Core Beliefs Session to help individuals or teams get in touch with the purpose that fuels them. In just 2 days you’ll emerge with a Manifesto of values that can guide a transition, establish a family culture, or define a brand.

You can also take our Leadership Archetype Assessment to find out where in the leader’s journey you are — and where you need to go next.

This and more is available at A Tribe of Me.

A creative agency building tribes and moving mountains for brands with a mission. Drop us a line at sherwoodfellows.co