Experience Marketing | What We Can Learn From Birds & Bees

By in Experience Design + Management, Featured, Insights, Thought Pieces

I read an article recently that got me thinking about the true nature of long term, sustainable growth and the importance of creating experiences that offer real engagement with target stakeholders to achieve optimum success.

Believe it or not the headline of the story I’m referring to was: African Tribesmen Can Talk Birds Into Helping Them Find Honey. A well written article that I highly recommend.

The article detailed how Yao honey-hunters in Mozambique have secured the patronage of a woodpecker-like bird species known as the greater honeyguide to achieve a win-win relationship. For purposes of this post we’ll call these tribesmen the “marketers or brands” … and the tiny birds will represent the target “stakeholders.”

By collaborating in the mutually beneficial experience of procuring wild-harvested honey, they have built a long term, sustainable relationship that has resulted in magnificent growth for the Yao tribe over a very, very long time.

In case you don’t know, honey has been a staple source of calories and energy for millennia – also offering other more subtle micro-nutrients and natural immune system boosters that have contributed to growth of the human species. However, the African honey bee is notoriously aggressive and protective of their valuable liquid gold – mostly hiding their hives in the tops of very tall trees.

Enter the greater honeyguides (the target stakeholder in this story) – a natural ally to the human bee-hunters because not only can they easily soar to explore the tree tops, but they have unusually large olfactory systems that allow them to accurately sniff out the hive locations. If only their was a way for the Yao to engage them.

According to the article, the Yao tribesmen have most success when they “recruit and retain honeyguides with a distinctive vocalization; a firmly trilled ‘brrr’ followed by a grunted ‘hmm.’” This (marketing insight) is significant because the Yao (marketers) who searched while playing recorded messages of the “brrr-hmm” (advertising) were more than twice as likely to create interest in and sustained help from the birds (stakeholders) to find honey (achieve their objective).

But why do these birds want to get involved? What inspires them to complete this circle of engagement with the Yao? The way I see it, this smart, free-willed species is excited by their passion for fine, waxy honeycomb cuisine and they know access to this wonderful delight will improve their lives. They also clearly understand that the Yao are inviting them to collaborate in the experience, and that acquiring honeycomb without the help of the Yao is not easy. The Yao, you see, have demonstrated a powerful benefit to the greater honeyguides. They have technology to smoke out bees, cut down the trees and collect the golden treasure, leaving them to gorge on the delicious, waxy honeycomb.

Because this collaborative experience between humans and birds creates high levels of engagement – the birds (stakeholders) are motivated to share their excitement and quite literally begin tweeting about the opportunity. According to the article’s author, Natalie Angier, “the birds can recruit helpers with a chatter, or be recruited with a trill-grunt. They can show their human companions the right trees with more chatters or a flick of their white-tipped tails.”

So, what are the marketing lessons can we take away from this successful story of natural experiential engagement?


    The Yao tribesmen and the greater honeyguide birds are two completely different species – about as dissimilar and disconnected as you can imagine. This is in parallel to how brands and their target stakeholders are also thought of as being different “animals.” The birds in this case are free-living creatures in the wild – with their own interests and pursuits. The Yao tribesmen are looking to achieve their objectives in order to grow. Marketers and stakeholders almost always have different needs and wants, but they can form authentic relationships built around mutually beneficial experiences.


    Finding an authentic and natural commonality is vital for marketing success. In this example, not only was there a mutual benefit in the functional sense of securing food for life, but there seems to also have been an equally important emotional benefit resulting from the unique inter-species communication, friendship and relationship. For every brand seeking to create a relationship with consumer, customer or employee stakeholders – there is ALWAYS a common ground incentive that will naturally connect and inspire engagement.


    According to the research presented in the article, Yao hunters found their targeted beehives 54 percent of the time, versus just 17 percent when not assisted with honeyguide collaboration. This amazing, inter-species relationship has achieved results that are three times more successful than when working separately. In nature, just as in marketing, it’s always about the experience. A natural, authentic experience that connects brands with stakeholders through shared passions will most often achieve win-win results.


    According the article, scientists suggest the relationship between Yao tribesmen and the greater honeyguide bird species could be “more than a million years old,” which would absolutely meet anyone’s definition of long term. Growing brands takes time. While rapid acceleration is often required and attempted, creating a sustainable relationship with stakeholders built on mutually beneficial motives will drive steady, incremental growth. When you consider that the oldest brands in the world “only” date back to the 16th and 17th centuries (brands like Cambridge Press, Bushmills and Barclays), this “million year” example of sustainable growth can only highlight the simple elegance and long term approach of nature.

In the end, the article sums up the win-win relationship quite nicely. “Nothing can match the relationship between honeyguide and honey hunter. ‘Honeyguides provide the information and get the wax,’ Dr. Spottiswoode said. ‘Humans provide the skills and get the honey.’” Both groups enjoy the delicious fruits of the partnership – and both groups enjoy long term, sustainable growth.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.