Why Brands are communities

A couple of weeks ago I stumbled onto a discussion on a LinkedIn forum headed “What does a brand mean to you”.  A large number of marketing people have responded with definitions of what a brand is (which I’m not certain is quite what the author of the question actually meant) and, as usual with these things, the contributions are variously, almost there, misguided or just plain bollocks! 

Nobody, in my view, actually nailed the definition of a brand, which, given that the group is for marketing people, is at best sad and maybe even criminally negligent, but certainly explains why marketing, or marketers, get bad press.

For a few years now I have earned a living from debates like this one that take place in my seminars and workshops, but these are conducted with people who are there to learn.  I have to admit when I witness so many supposed experts failing to nail, what is essentially “marketing #101” I sometimes feel like just giving up and opening a sub-Post-Office in the Outer Hebrides!

There may be no absolute “right” answer to this question, but there are clear wrong answers and many of those that appeared on this discussion are just too ludicrous to repeat.  Among the “almost-got-its” though are suggestions that a brand is a promise, reassurance, differentiation or a set of values.  In fact a brand is all of these things, but they are elements rather that the definition itself.  A brand is a whole lot more.  These people need to join the delegates to my workshops in digging deeper to get to the real root.    Never since I first sat down and gave this subject serious thought, have I been in any doubt that a brand is a community.  The reasons that I stick to this concept are innumerable, but here is an outline of my rationale.

Since Abraham Maslow first explained it to us in simple terms its been generally accepted that humankind is on a journey toward self-actualisation.  I don’t see any reason to disagree with Maslow or the thousands of psychologists and researchers who have since advanced and refined his work.  At the risk of over-simplifying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs, he characterises self-actualisation as a state of absolute confidence in one’s own being, values, position – emotional self-sufficiency if you like.  Our journey from humble beginnings has progressed through a number of levels to a point where are secure in some respects, but still seek approval and need to feel belonging, so we join communities – tribes, clubs, religions, and brands are a part of this pattern of behaviour.

In modern society we have a vast array of membership options available to us and we also have complex personalities with many traits, which we would all ideally like to express, but merely joining a group or club isn’t enough.  To gain the approval that we crave we need to demonstrate our belonging and to this end we adopt badges.  We can support a soccer team and we wear their strip, we drive a make of car and apart from actually driving it around we carry the logo on our key-chain.  We wear clothes with labels exposed, we carry shopping bags from our preferred stores for days or weeks after we actually made our purchases and we wear crosses on chains and other trappings of religious groups.  In some countries people join gangs and wear their “colours”.  There’s no doubt, we not only have to belong, we need to be seen to belong.

As marketers we commonly use research that defines people by their subscription to newspapers, the cars they drive, the luxury goods they own or the stores they shop in, so its surprising that so many marketers don’t get this flip-side of the same coin.

We choose the communities we do because we feel they represent certain facets of our character or belief system, but complex as we are, it would be rare to find a group that covered all the bases so we join a number of groups with high-profile values and beliefs that together represent most of the values and beliefs we feel are important in ourselves.  This gives rise to each of using a portfolio of brands.

Brand communities work in the same way that neighbourhoods do.  We move in because they are the kinds of places where people “like us” live, but we’ll usually bring along values and traits that are new to that community.  For example you might be an executive on the up and move into a quiet up-market district and be the first resident with a motorcycle or motor home, or the first member of an ethnic minority to move into an English rural village.  Unavoidably, your arrival and introduction of new features, values or traits will change the dynamic of that community.  It’s the same with brand communities.

There’s no doubt that we judge people by the brand communities they belong to, just as we judge people by the company they keep.  You must have heard someone comment on an acquaintance as “mixing with the wrong kind of people”, it works both ways, but a brand’s character is not only defined (in part) by its members, but by the other brands it associates with, so distributors, retailers and other brands that these retailers also offer all influence our perceptions. You can see how the company a brand keeps influences perceptions in niche fashion brands that start as exclusive trappings of affluent middle or upper classes and become chav icons.

Smart brand guardians will influence this to their advantage and will leverage the opportunities these changes bring about, but most of all the role of a brand guardian is to ensure that their brand is always “vivid”.  There is no place in the grand plan for grey or me-too brands.  If you want to be worn as a badge of belonging (and believe me you do!) you have to be distinctive, make a statement, stand for something.  Today’s brands can’t hope to amount to anything unless they stand out.  This means being abreast of current topics, airing them and taking a stance that will give members and potential members something to hook on to.  As Anita Roddick did with Body Shop.

The values that brands represent, the causes they support and the style they adopt combine to infer a promise.  A brand may not be a promise or a proposition, but there is a promise inherent in every brand – it’s the consequence of joining it.  I ask my delegates to think of their Brand Promise in terms of the way in which a customer’s life will be transformed by buying into it, and I mean “transformed” because these days nothing else cuts it!  You can ignore it if you like, but whether you choose to acknowledge and manage your brand or not, you do have one, people recognise it and if you don’t adopt causes and manage it your promise will be taken to be “don’t care”, which is not attractive.

This also underlines the importance for those who are responsible for administering the brands to understand that neither they, nor the corporations that employ them “own” brands.  There is nothing more democratic than a brand community.  Every member has influence and the direction it takes is dictated purely by weight of opinion.  Members are not confined to customers either.  Distributors, retailers, suppliers, investors are all players.

If you are asking what the point is of all this, its simple.  I call the relationships we have with brands “Brandships” and they work just like the relationships we have with our friends.  You know and trust your friends, you take their advice, you will put yourself out to be with them and you might even place your life in their hands.  Likewise, followers of a strong brand will go out of their way to buy it, they’ll pay more for it than a competing brand and if that brand wants to introduce range extensions they’ll readily try them.  This in turn aids distribution, reduces reliance on advertising, enhances margins and cuts down that critical time span between product launch, the emergence of competitors and profitability.  Basically, a strong brand adds to efficiency, which is the point, the only point in fact, because the single thing that separates commercial success from a failure is efficiency.

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One response to “Why Brands are communities

  1. Finally another like minded soul.

    Well said, Phil.

    A brand IS a community.

    Let me suggest a couple of reasons why most marketers (and marketing service providers) don’t get it.

    Because, currently, they don’t get paid to create a brand community.

    Marketing effectiveness is seen as Sales, Market Share, Return on Investment, Awards.

    Very few do a census of their brand tribe.

    Delighted to finally meet someone else who is dedicated to the concept of creating brand communities.

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