Brand Communities are a fascinating topic in marketing; they are uniquely located at the intersection of branding, consumer behaviour, and sociology. Communities, as a topic of social human experience, have been studied in philosophy and sociology for quite some time, and marketing has utilized these ideas and adapted them to understand the concept of community in a consumption context.
As first introduced by Muniz and O’Guinn in “Brand Community”, Journal of Consumer Research, “A brand community is a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand”. This unique phenomenon has consumers participate in shared rituals and traditions, hold similar values, and together form collective consciousness all focused on the common admiration of a brand. Members of these communities have well-developed understandings and feeling towards the brands they are connected to. These communities are social in nature, and reflect how embedded our favourite brands are in our daily lives.
Important Aspects of Brand Communities
The shared consciousness or “we-ness” of these communities is a very important and powerful aspect of these communities. Members of these communities feel a deep connection, not only to the focal brand, but also to other members, who they feel they understand on a deeper-level even if they have never met in person. Harley-Davidson owner groups, both officially organized and not, are a great example of this. Although there are many different groups that experience Harley in there own unique way, there are common values that all groups share. One distinct value that is shared by this group is Personal Freedom. Most Harley owners identify with this idea of liberation through their bikes. When talking about the freedom of riding, and the freedom to customize your bike to experience your own unique ride, our own Creative Director can verify, “you all belong to Harley, but you all do Harley differently”.
Interestingly, brand communities often define their identity by why they do NOT consume as well. For many Samsung Galaxy owners, they partly define their identity by NOT owning an iPhone. Or for many Mac users and fan groups, they partly define their identity by NOT owning a PC.
Rituals and traditions are also important aspects of these communities, as members often spread meaning through shared practices. Almost all brand communities have little examples of rituals that they share, which adds to the meaning of the brand. For example, many vehicle owners have heard of a specific wave to give the owner of the same brand. The “Jeep wave” and the “Audi wave” that owners give to each other on the road are just two examples of this. Little traditions like these add to the experience that one has when being involved with a brand, and adds to the experience that members have when interacting with each other.
For many years, marketers have harnessed the power of brand communities by organizing events like “brandfests” that gather admirers of a brand together. These events facilitate social relationships and traditions, all while focusing on a brand. Camp Jeep and Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) events are two great examples of companies mobilizing their own communities around their beloved brands. But, brand communities don’t need to be organized exclusively by the parent organizations. There are many examples of fan groups for brands that organize themselves and develop their own consciousness surrounding their favourite brands. Remember Pokémon Go? Many of these loyal users still organize their own events to celebrate and play the game together.
With advances in communications technology and social media, brand communities now live and thrive online. People from all over the world organize themselves based on their admiration of a product, service, idea, or brand and create rituals, have shared values, and experience the brand together. A quick search on Reddit will reveal many different subreddits organized by brands, experiences, ideas, products, and services. Each of these communities has their own unique rituals, values, and understandings that are shared by members. These communities across the Internet can be huge sources of un-tapped value for organizations to directly access their fans and understand how they use and experience their favourite brands.
Benefits of Brand Communities
Brand communities have many sources of value for organizations. As highlighted by McAlexander, Schouten, and Koenig in “Building Brand Community”, Journal of Marketing, this value can manifest in many ways for organizations:
- Research and insights: members of brand communities will often give feedback on experiences, products etc. that can be a valuable source of information into what is working and what is not.
- Learning and Teaching: members facilitate learning for other consumers; members get involved in teaching each other how-to use or the best ways to experience the brand.
- Brand missionaries: members of these communities will communicate the brand message and their experiences to other social circles they are involved in and spread the message organically through word of mouth.
- Forgiveness: when a product, service, or experience fails or does not live up to expectations, members of these communities are much quicker to forgive the brand and continue purchasing.
- Loyalty: these consumers are less likely to switch to competing brands even on differences of quality, and become emotionally invested in the success of the brand.
In addition to all of these benefits, Brand Communities can also be a source of competitive advantage, and can protect organizations from the constant challenge of pushing the boundaries of innovation. It can be exhausting for organizations to constantly run towards a finish line that is continuously being moved farther and farther away. With that in mind, McAlexander, Schouten, and Koenig (2002) identify an interesting opportunity for brands to create advantages by differentiating themselves from competitors. They further explain, “differentiating on the basis of ownership experience can be achieved through programs strategically designed to enhance customer-centered relationships”.
Building and cultivating customer-centered relationships through tactics like Brand Communities can be an extremely effective way to construct deeper emotional relationships between your customers and your brand. If your customers are fans of your brand, it can be extremely beneficial for you to develop a platform where consumers can share their experiences and connect with your brand on a deeper level. This can be a key point of value for your customers, and set you apart from competing brands.