Clique Marketing: A New Way to Understand Your Audience

clique marketingEverything you really need to know about marketing you learned – in high school – and probably the hard way!  Think back to your alma mater or picture a film like Mean Girls, Breakfast Club, or Sixteen Candles. High school is all about finding your place in society and discovering where you fit in. Everyone wants a place where they belong.

Teens handle this by forming cliques. Cliques are self-selecting social groups, which have a very profound impact on the school environment. Membership in the clique could be dependent on a shared interest, such as sports, drama, academics or band, or it could be a matter of other, more nebulous, identity based qualities. Think back to your high school days. Chances are you can remember specific groups – the jocks, the Goths, the Stepford-Wives-in-Training – and the efforts you made to find the place where you belonged.

This was the very first market research you ever did. Securing and maintaining a position within any clique meant that you had to follow certain unwritten rules. To be accepted by the group, you had to present yourself in a specific way.  Teenagers are obsessed with fashion for a reason. The clothes we wear are a powerful social language and behave in an expected manner.

The Big 3 Rules of Cliques

Associate With Your Own

Cliques spend time together – lots of time. Group members prefer the company of the people in the group to that of people not in the group. Clique members are trusted more than non-members, and receive preferential treatment in any situation of scarcity. In other words, if you only have room in your car to drive three friends home, you’re going to offer those seats to members of your clique first.

Exhibit Common Interests

Cliques often form around a shared activity, such as sports or drama. But having that in common isn’t nearly enough. Bonds between clique members are strengthened by having multiple points of commonality. It’s great if you and your friends all play soccer. But it’s even better if you all play soccer, all listen to Rihanna, all wear Abercrombie, all wear blue glasses…

Wear A Signature Style

Cliques are visually identifiable. Members deliberately cultivate a specific look, expressing their collective identity through clothing, accessory, hairstyle and makeup choices.

The ability to successfully identify and follow these three rules is what researchers call social intelligence. Also coming under the social intelligence umbrella is the ability to successfully engage with and form relationships with members of other cliques.

Cliques Then and Now

Cliques don’t go away once high school is over. They evolve and enlarge, becoming niche communities or markets. As business owners and entrepreneurs, it’s important to understand that our success is directly dependent on our social intelligence. It’s essential that we can identify the cliques that our customers belong to. That’s the only way we can truly understand the nuanced web of expectations that the clients have of us: meeting and exceeding those expectations is the route to business success.

Clients from different cliques have different expectations. In my own practice, I work with both small business and corporate clients. The two groups are very different. Small businesses are more relaxed and easy going. They want quality work but they also place a premium on the experiential aspects of doing business. They are looking for a personable company with an added social touch. Corporate clients tend to prefer things to be mostly business with little small talk, hard deadlines – no excuses.

The better you understand your client’s clique, the more successfully you’ll appeal to them. One of the fundamental rules of business is that we prefer to do business with people we perceive to be like ourselves. In other words, with members of the same clique.

You have to be able to assure your clientele that you have enough points of commonality with them that you’ll be able to understand their needs and serve them well.

Identifying Cliques

Cliques exist in every field and industry. If you’re a person strong in social intelligence, you may be able to spot these cliques instinctively through the course of your everyday business. Sometimes you may need to be willing to take a step back and consider the situation from a distance.

Look at your client, and where they do the majority of their business:

  • Who are their customers, colleagues, and suppliers?
  • Who are their competitors?
  • What portion of the market is distinctly theirs?
  • How do they spend their time, and who do they spend it with?

The construction company that focuses on leading edge sustainable skyscraper building is a member of a different clique than the construction company focused on manufactured home production.

The products and services you offer to your client must be in alignment with their signature style. This doesn’t mean you need to look like a carbon copy clone, but your presentation must be recognized as your clientele as both familiar and appealing. This creates the necessary comfort level in your customer, enabling them to trust that working with your organization will complement and enhance their brand’s image.

Cliques and Social Mobility

As a business owner, you have to make a strategic decision whether to focus your marketing efforts on one specific clique or to position yourself in a way to serve multiple cliques. The ability to present yourself and interact with more than one clique is what researchers call social mobility. You have to really understand your organization’s social intelligence and mobility skills before you make this decision.

Some firms are far better served by focusing on one clique – assuming it is large enough to sustain profitability over the long term – than by attempting to appeal to multiple groups. For other companies, working with a range of customers from multiple cliques provides a revitalizing energy that helps the organization thrive.

High School Clique Photo via Shutterstock


Jennifer Shaheen Jennifer Shaheen, CEO and President of The Technology Therapy Group, captivates business & entrepreneurial audiences by teaching them how the smart, strategic use of great Web design and social media marketing allows them to do less and accomplish more.

8 Reactions
  1. Cliques – what a great marketing concept! I have a small business (just starting out) and am struggling with my marketing plan. Thinking in terms like this gives me one more way to look at things. Thanks!

    • Laura, Thank you so much for the comment. Sometimes looking at things from a different perspective can help you pull things together. Good Luck with your new venture feel free to connect.

  2. Jennifer,

    An interesting look on how cliques work… any tools to discover “cliques” online? Is Google+ circles, LinkedIn groups and so are helpful in identifying cliques?

  3. I like the post, but suggests that ‘tribes’ would be a happier metaphor than ‘cliques’?

  4. This is a great way to group target your marketing. And, the information you gather should be rather effective. Thanks for sharing.


  5. A clique is in essence a niche market. The difference is cliques are usually a dominant force. Others aspire to be a part of the clique and the clique sets trends and chooses what is “cool” and what isn’t. In marketing terms, if you are a business in a niche market, you need to focus your efforts to create the persona that you are the leader and the trendsetter within your group.