There’s your school community, your neighborhood community, your religious community, your sports community, and probably a few more that you’re a part of. We’re all part of various communities and, increasingly, those communities are centred on a brand. Harley Davidson riders attend rallies, Apple users meet online, Nike+ members blend the two. In each case a higher level of relationship is formed: a brand community.
Last blog I talked about how people form relationships with brands. Well, when several people with shared relationships get together, it’s only natural that a brand community forms. Muniz Jr. and O’Guinn (2001) were among the first researchers to examine this phenomenon in detail. These brand communities are not, however, simply about like-minded people hanging out together. Other researches began to demonstrate that brand communities actually have complex social structures and rituals that require introduction, socialization, and maintenance. Once initiated, members tend to be more forgiving of poor service or performance from the brand and typically act as brand missionaries - spreading the good word about the brand. Furthermore, they are less likely to switch to competitors even in the face of superior products, they are happy to purchase more brand extensions and licensed products, and they are key contributors of feedback to the firm. Members meet, physically or digitally and share experiences, stories, and consumption of the brand, which in turn reinforces the brand’s lore.
Greater loyalty, increased likelihood of purchasing extensions, brand missionaries pushing the good news about your brand… It sounds like a brand managers dream. And it is, but brand communities are fickle things. If they are perceived to be overly controlled by the brand itself, the community loses its authenticity. Consumers too can feel excessive pressure to conform to the community’s rules. Brand managers must walk a fine line of controlling the conversation, while still remaining independent enough that the community remains organic. One way this can be achieved is through the creation of subgroups within the greater community where people of similar commitment levels can gather. That way the “diehards” don’t exert undue pressure on the casuals and the casuals don’t deteriorate the commitment of the diehards.
Are brand communities for everyone? No… Your average gas station doesn’t have the potential for self-expression to build the sort of personal and community investment that a brand community requires, but that doesn’t mean you have to have a huge marketing budget or a national presence to make it work for your brand. Do you and friends choose a specific local coffee shop for your get togethers? It may not be the flashiest around, but why do you always end up at that dingy pub with all your buddies? What are some brand communities that you might be a part of that you didn’t even realize?
*This is my fourth blog in a series that examines how Aasman merges academic theory and research with 25 years of experience to help our clients develop new and exciting ways to engage with their customers. These insights and references are drawn from the branding thesis I wrote for my Masters of Science in Administration – Marketing Specialization. If you’d like to read the full thesis, you can find it here.
Muniz Jr., Albert M., and Thomas C. O'Guinn (2001), "Brand Community," Journal of Consumer Research, 27 (March), 412-433.