Maras and Branding

What can lead a man to tattoo his entire skin? Is it a search of identity? Is it expression? Is it belonging to a group? Can we relate these strong needs to Maslow’s theory, such as safety, affiliation and esteem? If that’s true, can we extrapolate these extreme needs into marketing and branding theories?

Maras (organized violent gangs in Central and North America) use tattoos as a code, with specific messages and functions. Their members cover their entire skin with numbers, words and signs which, along with hand signals, are part of their language and identity.

I had my doubts about posting this text because Maras are not the example of a positive image for Latin American culture, exactly the opposite. Also, Mara proliferation comes from a complex social and psychological phenomenon that is not my area of knowledge in any way. But then I thought innovation comes from extrapolating ideas from one knowledge area to another, for example inspiring in nature in order to create a product (bionics). Innovation is also achieved when extreme behaviors and needs are analyzed in order to apply them in a less extreme area. For example, designing urban auto wheels based in the research done in professional race car wheels. I started to do some research on the subject and drew some conclusions.

Why compare brands to Mara’s tattoos? Brands were developed in order to transmit a certain notion of origin (initial ownership) and attributes of quality and price due to that origin. Mara’s tattoos indicate their origin, to which gang does the member belong. Brands evolved to be the marketing “tools” used in order to transmit a message that can easily create perceptions, being a way of telling costumers what to expect and a way to guide their product's or service's “experience”. If you start a fight with a certain gang member with a certain tattoo, you will probably know what to expect.. and what experience awaits you. Brands create association or disassociation groups to fulfill affiliation and identity human needs. Mara’s tattoos definitely associate or disassociate their members with others.

If this comparison is at least partially valid, what could we learn from Mara’s tattoos for branding?

Although a general “brand” exists, each participant creates their own personalized view of the brand. Maras from the Dieciocho (18) group have the number as their distinctive emblem, but still, every person has their own designs and interpretations of the number. It is giving the user some kind of control or participation even in the corporate identity. Some companies have adopted this same behavior over the brand, take for example the 55DSL x Coca-Cola Zero Outstanding Award in Japan, where this two brands held a contest where the winning design bottles are going to be reproduced.

Tattoos are made to maximize impact, to impose a message over others. Brands constantly compete for customer’s attention. Try this exercise: compare your logo with your competitions, same size, same background color. Which brand identity comes out stronger? What does your target market think of them?

It is said tattoos were adopted by Maras because members should identify with their gang “In every moment, in every place”, without being afraid of showing it. That’s exactly what advertising wants for a brand. “In every moment, in every place” sounds like a marketing objective. Try this exercise: Look in the streets, how many people are wearing or using something that advertises your brand? (car stickers, bracelets, t-shirts) How long does it take to bump into your own advertisement? How willing are your costumers to carry around your brand? I once wore a Microsoft Window’s T-shirt that was given to me in a conference, and all my open-source friends, developers in ChromaticWorks, almost had a heart attack. I never wore it again.

Tattoos are also a personal reminder to always keep the gang in your mind. Also try this top-of-the-mind exercise: ask your target market what is the first brand that comes up to their mind when asked a certain trait, say for example, low price, or quality. See if your brand is in their top-of-the-mind.

Tattoos have certain distinctive characteristics that show member’s hierarchy according to what they have done for the gang. I couldn’t stop relating this to credit cards: gold, platinum, hello-kitty… Designs can change according to the client’s importance, like some kind of loyalty reward. What would happen if other type of companies took the same approach? Let’s say having a golden-iPod for the client with the most downloaded iTunes’ songs.

Another important question then arises by reversing the relationship, how can marketing and branding strategies help us prevent Mara? Think for example, if a person wants to leave the gang, what Tattoo would he have to show in order to transmit the message to society that he is no longer a gang member and without being killed? Can a marketing campaign channel new forms of identity and affiliation among Maras other than tattoos?

Some say the word Mara means “alborotar”, to excite, to unsettle. Branding should do just that.


  1. Wow! Unbelievable!

    I have a friend with a tattoo on his forehead (former gang member), however, I've never seen anything like this!

  2. Mike IMT8.9.10

    There's a story around the web of a lady who got a "Company Brand" tattooed on her belly (she was pregnant by the way) and got some descent amount of money for it. Axe did the same on Larisa Riquelme's tits... This just proves your theory. And yes, some companies are getting the grip on it. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!