Building Brand Authenticity With Primal Code

Patrick Hanlon

“People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.”

― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

If you ask a dozen people what “brand” means, you will likely get just as many different answers. The media expression of brand stories has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. Still, the psychological levers that cement a brand narrative in the minds of consumers have stayed intact. After stripping away the distribution channels of awareness, messaging, and sales, we are left with fundamental principles that have been governing human behavior as long as we’ve had fires to tell stories around. Brands are human belief systems.

Patrick Hanlon, the author of Primal Branding, has labeled these ancient belief attributes as seven pieces of the “Primal Code.”

1) Story: Every brand needs an origin story, or more specifically, a way for brand advocates to meet the brand on common or recognizable ground. This is where trust is built, and entities become more relatable and “human.”

2) Creed: This is what brands hang their hats on when it comes to belief systems. It props up the ideas and principles that they want their following to define them by. You’ll often see these expressed in mission statements or a tagline that becomes synonymous with the brand itself, making them either relatable to other concepts, or standing out from the crowd completely.

3) Icons: These brand associations can be visual, auditory, or burrow in any of our other sensory inputs. The Nike Swoosh, McDonald’s Golden Arches, and the white bedazzled and fringed jacket donned by Elvis are all icons.

4) Rituals: These are the little (or big) things a consumer comes to expect as being part of that brand. It might be that scalp massage at your hair salon or the intro on your favorite podcast. Rituals can help cement certainty, which is another inherent human craving.

5) Pagans: Also called the non-believers, every yin needs its yang to be positioned globally. Democrats and Republicans, pro-life and pro-choice, iOS and Android. Knowing who you don’t resonate with is just as important as finding your tribe, a necessary step in that journey of discovery.

6) Language: Every belief system and brand has its own lexicon. In jiujitsu, you “roll,” in cycling, you “ride,” and in startup culture, you “grind.” Before you grind, you might get a Venti coffee, but only at one brand’s beverage chain.

7) Leader: These come in all shapes and sizes and, like creed, are often synonymous with the brand. It is hard to think about Apple without seeing Steve Jobs, even after his death. Bezos has thrust himself into the public view even more after flying to space in a giant phallus, and Elon Musk is inseparable from Tesla and all his other companies.

Nailing all of these pieces of primal code unlocks the potential for creating cultural belief systems. As a result, those who resonate with these beliefs will find a sense of belonging and subsequent brand advocacy and loyalty.

Patrick Hanlon is the founder and CEO of He has worked with billion-dollar brands and those who aspire to be such. His book “Primal Branding” anticipated online social communities. The book has become required reading for employees at YouTube for helping to break down the root code for building authentic online communities. Hanlon has written for Forbes, Inc., and Medium. During his long career in advertising, he wrote Super Bowl spots. During these times of taking marketing moon shots, his spot for H&R Block with Willie Nelson was once named one of the Top 10 Superbowl commercials of all time.

Patrick and I get into these pieces of primal code and his journey which include all of the changes he has seen in the evolution of advertising and how it relates to brand.

You can listen to my chat with Patrick on Apple Podcasts and Spotify and can find the show notes here.