Dear CMO:

I’ve just re-read Robert Ardrey’s “African Genesis” after many years. If you haven’t read this, go pick it up. Not only is Ardrey a wonderful writer, but he covers a universal topic that leads us in many directions, one of which is thankfully marketing.

“Not in innocence, and not in Asia, was mankind born.”

To over-simplify, Ardrey’s theme in “African Genesis” is that man is a killer ape. Our bigger brain, our musculature and sense of balance, our binaural vision atop our bipedal frame, and our social structure evolved to make us better wielders of weapons. Our carnivorous nature – originally a genetic mutation that provided humanity with greater nutrition in less time — freed us from the forest and the need for constant grazing, giving rise to human thought, communication, and social development.

So, in short, we’re all primates in suits whose highest art form is the development of better weapons. That clarifies things.

Why do infants with little or no exposure to the cold, harsh world that only intrudes on most of the developed world through television still point at us with cocked fingers and say, “bang!”? Time Magazine recently did a piece on “why boys were in trouble,” noting that more boys were in prisons than girls. Why more boys in jail than girls? Why do you think? We’re genetically programmed to kill each other, that’s why. And sometimes, we do.

What does this have to do with marketing and branding? Quite a bit, actually.We identify with our various groups, some strongly and some weakly, and constantly shifting. Here’s an example to illustrate the point. Put me in a natural social situation with a group of strangers and I’ll probably gravitate to people somewhat like me.

. All things being equal, I’ll talk to another adult before I’ll approach a small child.

. I might strike up a conversation with another professional before someone who looks like they live on a street grate.

. I’ll talk to a parent before a non-parent, and so on.

I might find I have more to talk about with another marketer when the two of us are standing together with a guy who’s a plumber — until I find out that the plumber is a Redskin fan and the marketer has a Dallas Cowboys tattoo on his arm – which changes everything. My “group identity strength” has shifted from “profession” to “football.” And, given the circumstances, the other marketer might get ostracized. Or killed and eaten.

Our groups shift. We stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are with us and repel those who are not. Some group identities – which are still shifting around us, moment by moment – are stronger than others. Our job as marketers is to define the group that uses our stuff: who is with us – and who is not with us.

Think “Coke versus Pepsi,” as defined by Pepsi, where Coke drinkers are presented as old and tired.

Think Mentos (without the Coke this time), where every core user is a MacGyver.

Defining who we’re not allows our group to identify who is with us and who is excluded. This is the basic anthropology of branding.

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Key Takeaways:

> Branding means clearly signaling who you are and who you’re not so that those like you will watch your back and those not like you will be repelled. Even if it’s pretty conceptual, it still works. Show your colors and let the market self-select.

> We can shift between different group connections as long as we can authentically connect with each. Be professional (and premium, successful, pragmatic, informed) and also family oriented (not all about business, with family, relating to your kids, have a great marriage), as well.

> Defining who you’re not gives your core users something to measure themselves against. What is a Mac user not? (An un-hip corporate type in a suit who lacks individuality and has no creativity). What is a Harley rider not? (A lightweight).

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Your branding may be a loose connection (I usually drink Woodford Reserve bourbon, but am OK with a few others) or a very tight one (discuss Japanese bikes with a Harley rider. Go ahead. I dare you). It may be based on pure functionality (Mac versus PC) or pure positioning (Absolute Vodka).

If you think of your market as a loose collection of armed primates, it tends to simplify and polarize your branding choices.PS: if any friends and associates from the anthropological world want to chime in and tell me I’ve got a sloping forehead for the above over-simplification, they’re welcome to it.