Great brands made by following ‘Primal Code’

September 1, 2006


Call me driven. I like to mix business and pleasure while on vacation. I have trouble turning off my brain especially when pondering thorny questions. Why are some brands successful and others failures?

What makes Google, Apple, Intel, Yahoo! and eBay powerful brands? How do you create great brands? Is there a formula or framework? Are there tools that can help marketers construct leading brands?

Doctors have protocols and procedures. Attorneys have precedents and case law. Bean counters have generally accepted accounting principles. Software engineers have methodologies. What about brand builders? Do we just get lucky when we create a great brand?

Google and Starbucks did it without advertising. Go figure.

Every communications agency has a proprietary approach. Leo Burnett talked of reaching for the stars and presenting a product’s “inherent drama.” Fairfax Cone sought to create advertising that spoke “person to person.” David Ogilvy spoke of the need for “big ideas.” Corporate identity industry founder and chairman of New York-based branding consultancy firm Siegel+Gale, Alan Siegel, offers a research-based process for building “brand voice.”

It’s all so confusing, convergent and insufficient. What makes a great brand great?

As Mary Minnick, president of marketing, strategy and innovation for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola Co., appeared on the cover of Business Week’s best global brands issue talking about consumer’s “primal need states,” I set out to wander the trails of Maine seeking branding inspiration.

Among the fog-shrouded, rocky outcropping along the mouth of Maine’s Kennebec River--near one of the earliest North American settlements--on a peninsula filled with more than 100 cemeteries, I pondered branding. There must be more to branding than simply listening to consumers. That’s too easy. There has to be more than 3 C’s and 4 P’s.

Somewhere near Popham Beach and a lobster lunch, branding insight arrived. I picked up Patrick Hanlon’s book titled Primal branding. The lights went on. Amidst the crickets and owls of New England I felt a rush of excitement.

Hanlon is a former Madison Avenue advertising executive who is CEO of Thinktopia Inc., a Minneapolis-based branding consultancy. He sought answers to the same question: What makes a great brand? His book offers an answer, “The Primal Code.”

What’s the Primal Code?

Says Hanlon, “All belief systems have seven pieces of code that work together to make them believable. When products and services have all seven pieces of code (the creation story, the creed, the icons, the rituals, the pagans (or nonbelievers), the sacred words and the leader) they become a meaningful part of our culture. They become the Googles and the Nikes of the world.”

Could Hanlon’s Primal Code be salient? I headed straight to Main Street in Freeport, Maine, to evaluate Hanlon’s Primal Code. I went to the mecca of direct mail and online marketing--L.L. Bean.

Walking into the 24-hour L.L. Bean store, the creation story was much in evidence. There were pictures of L.L. himself in hiking boots in the wild. There were separate sections devoted to fly fishing, hunting and guns, kayaking and every aspect of the outdoors. There was a department where you could sign up to learn fly fishing or how to paddle a kayak.

I tested out all seven parts of the primal code:

  • The Creation Story: Where are you from?
  • The Creed: What do you stand for?
  • The Icons: Logos, sounds, smells, tastes.
  • The Rituals: Repeated interactions with your enterprise.
  • The Pagans or Nonbelievers: Who are the believers? Who are the outcasts?
  • The Sacred Words: Specialized words from your belief system.
  • The Leader: The risk taker, catalyst, iconoclast, visionary.

The code worked like a charm. L.L. Bean had all seven elements and their stores were hopping with customers.
I went back to my room in the Black Point Inn and applied the primal code to Apple Computer Inc. The results were equally stunning. The Cupertino, Calif.-based creator of Mac computer systems is a powerful brand because all seven primal branding code elements are powerful and interlocking:

  • The Creation Story: Two Steves (Jobs and Wozniak) create their computer in a garage.
  • The Creed: “Think Different.”
  • The Icons: The Apple logo, the “bong” sound.
  • The Rituals: MacWorld conferences.
  • The Pagans or Nonbelievers: IBM users.
  • The Sacred Words: The unique Apple language including words like: iPod, iMac, iTunes.
  • The Leader: CEO Steve Jobs.

Maybe the seven elements of the primal branding code are the sacred truths of brand-building. Time will tell whether Hanlon’s Primal Code is a durable addition to our body of academic brand-building knowledge. Either way he’s created a terrific tool for deconstructing a brand into seven relevant components that explain its power.

Michael Krauss is a partner with Market Strategy Group based in Chicago, Ill., and can be reached at or


 ©2006 Marion Consulting Partners