The Primal Branding of Tyler Cowen

At the end of this weekend's Unconference, I felt different.

Two weeks ago I attended a conference. And next week I'll go to another. But neither will replicate that feeling.

As I reflected on why I felt different, I came to a unique conclusion. Well, unique for the setting. Some argue my conclusion is fundamental to how societies flourish and that the principles have existed since humans developed culture. But it was unique in that I have never seen anyone apply it here.

This conference made me feel different because Tyler Cowen has crafted a primal brand.

What is a primal brand?

The term primal brand comes from Patrick Hanlon's book Primal Branding. He argues that a primal brand is when a product, personality, or position transcends its functional purpose and becomes a belief system. We see primal brands all around us. The easiest to observe are religions. But there are also primal brands that are far from religion and yet cultivate that same religious zeal.

Think of Tesla. Elon Musk has convinced hundreds of thousands of drivers to buy one of his high-priced cars. Many rebut that Tesla's are overpriced, making them the Apple of cars. But such critics miss that being the Apple of cars is the point. Buying a Tesla is not about owning a means of transportation. Tesla owners are part of a broader belief system about the future of technology.

Patrick Hanlon argues that for a brand to become primal, it has to communicate seven messages. Tyler Cowen has (unintentionally, I think) managed to transmit all seven to many of his readers and especially to those who attended this conference.

The first messages: Who is Tyler Cowen and what is EV?

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor at George Mason University and is the coauthor of the leading economic blog, Marginal Revolution, where he and Alex Tabarrok have posted daily since August 2003. Tyler also has written many books, helped build Marginal Revolution University, and hosts the most interesting podcast you'll ever listen to, Conversations with Tyler.

But Tyler also runs a program called Emergent Ventures (EV for short). Emergent Ventures is "a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center, [that] seeks to support entrepreneurs and brilliant minds with highly scalable, 'zero to one' ideas for meaningfully improving society." With EV, Tyler is experimenting with a new model of philanthropy to see which improvements he can create on the margin.

This conference that made me feel so different was part of the EV program. In 2019, Tyler gave me a grant to start Market Power, my YouTube channel geared at changing the way people are introduced to economics. Over the weekend, Tyler invited me and over 100 other grant winners to meet and discuss our ideas, challenges, and interests.

With that short explainer, I've basically covered the first three messages of primal branding. A primal brand needs a creation story, the unique narrative of how this brand conquered all odds. Harry Potter began with J.K. Rowling's idea on a train when she was a single mother, and the manuscript was rejected several times before being published.

From the beginning, Tyler crafted the creation story. When he launched Emergent Ventures in November 2018, Tyler wrote about the philosophy and practicality of EV. He lamented the failures of mainstream philanthropy. EV began as a contrarian innovation looking to fund other contrarian ideas.

With the creation story, primal brands create a creed, the set of core principles held by the adherents. Apple challenged you to "Think Different." Crypto believes in the democratization of finance and the creation of value in the digital economy. EV displays its creed on the landing page. "Bold Ideas. Transformative Social Change."

My impression from the conference is that EV's creation story and creed have succeeded. I asked one winner how he found Emergent Ventures. "I had this idea and I just googled 'moonshot research grants' and this was one of the first results." The beliefs were so ingrained in participants that I often felt intimidated by the projects I heard others were working on. There were so many cool ideas!

Finally, among the core messages, a primal brand needs a leader. "All successful belief systems have a person who is the catalyst, the risk taker, the visionary, the iconoclast who set out against all odds (and often against the world at large) to re-create the world according to their own sense of self, community, and opportunity." It's hard to think of a better description of Tyler.

The hard part: the next three messages

Arguably, the first three messages are the easy part. Brands love to tell their creation story and creeds, and often a leader naturally emerges. But to really move the brand into primal territory, making it a belief system, you need to hit the other four messages. While anyone can see the first three, I feel the conference is where Tyler delivered.

Primal brands have their own lexicon, sacred words that only the adherents understand. Tyler has a knack for creating these. Throughout the internet you'll see people talking about the great stagnation, or commenting on how average is over, both terms coined in Tyler's books. If you ask someone about their production function, you're signaling that you listen to Tyler's podcast. As part of the conference, we went to the National Air and Space Museum. I asked a docent what was the most underrated exhibit. A few participants in my group chuckled and commented, "That was a very Tyler question you asked.”

Tyler is skilled at creating his own language that other believers recognize. And while I have mainly used examples that Tyler's regular readers or listeners will recognize, I think if I said, "The bus leaves at 9:00" those readers would have no idea that I'm speaking a Tylerism. But the EV participants will all know that I've spoken sacred words tied with Tyler's brand and what it means to belong to it.

(Just as an aside, in response to my "very Tyler question," the docent gave a very Tyler answer. He said not to look at the Big Five exhibits but to realize that every piece of the museum was included for a reason and we should take time looking at the smallest and weirdest stuff. Maybe he's a Marginal Revolution reader?)

Primal brands have rituals, the repeated interactions that people have with the brand. "Tune in next week. Same bat time. Same bat channel." (You might not understand that allusion, but that's because you don't know the sacred words!) While Tyler has a gift for creating branded language, it pales compared to his gift for rituals. When I say he has posted daily on Marginal Revolution since August 2003, I mean he has never missed a day. But on top of that ritual, he adds rituals within his posts. Every day you can expect to find a list of assorted links. When you listen to Conversations with Tyler, there's a set of rituals you can expect: overrated or underrated? what's your production function? These rituals create a familiarity with Tyler. An understanding of what to expect.

In a two-day conference, it is hard to create rituals. But Tyler overcame this by tapping into societal rituals and making them his own. Every conference session has to end at some point, and usually endings come looking at the clock. Tyler replaced that ritual with a gong. No matter where you were in conversation, there was a ritual that when you heard the gong you returned to the main room. Another ritual he coopted was meals. You eat at every conference, but not like you do at Tyler's conference. To no one's surprise, every meal was fantastic. Tyler chose excellent restaurants, and I came home raving about the food.

The hardest primal branding message for me to find was icons, the sensory imprints that instantly summon the brand essence. A Nike swoosh. The default ring on an iPhone. You can see some of this on Marginal Revolution, with its unmistakable green banner, or when you listen to Conversations with Tyler and hear the intro music. At the EV conference, I didn't think there were distinct icons. That is, until I realized that Tyler himself has his icons.

David Perell captured them in his interview, Tyler Cowen: Production Function (sacred language!):

David Perell: What is the quirkiest thing about you that people don’t know?...I’ll give an answer. You always have the same tote bag from the same London bookstore, and you don’t even hold it normally. You throw it over your back and then you hold it like this, and your arm must get tired.

Tyler Cowen: Well, that’s a good answer. But I kind of assume a lot of people know that because I carry the tote bag.

David Perell: How many wool sweaters do you own?

Tyler Cowen: It’s a good question. Over 10. To me, they’re comfortable. I like the patterns. I like the dark colors. Obviously, I’m not wearing them now because it’s summer and there’s nowhere to go. But again, that’s a quirk about me I kind of assume people already know.

This is a detail I never would have known about Tyler except for observing it at the conference (I can confirm sightings of the tote bag and wool sweaters). So maybe EV winners get exclusive access to those icons?

The final message: The non-believers

Every primal brand must communicate who the non-believers are. That's because to be a part of something, you must know what you're not part of. Apple achieved this with its famous 1984 commercial, and Epic achieved this with its Fortnite parody of Apple.

Tyler clearly communicated this with the name of the conference. In fact, it was not a conference. It was an Unconference. It was different than what we normally attend. It wasn't the economics conference I attended two weeks ago or the conference I would be attending next week. It was an Unconference.

Which brings me back to the end of the conference, that closing message that made me feel different. Part of it came from Tyler's comments on those other conferences. "I've been to conferences where they serve dry salmon and rubber chicken. It's not cheaper to do it that way, so I make sure we have good food." Our gathering was different.

Of course, that links back to the creed. We were a group engaged in bold ideas. A collection of people hoping to change the world. Of course we would not have a normal conference with non-believers. We gathered in an Unconference.

And with all of that setup, I was primed for Tyler's final line. The sentence that made me feel different. He closed his remarks with, "You'll always be a part of Emergent Ventures."

Anyone can deliver that line. But for most, it would be contrived. "You'll always be an economist." What does that even mean? But when Tyler said it, it stirred something within me. I realized I was part of something bigger. I had been incorporated into a belief system.

And I wanted to be there.

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Do you have a bold idea that could become an Emergent Venture? Applications are still open, and maybe I'll see you at the next Unconference.