Dusty Sorg and Michael Jedrzejewski liked their Coca Cola drink. Infact they liked it so much that they created a fan page of Coca Cola on Facebook, which quickly amassed a million fans. And when Facebook started enforcing a policy of only authorized company personnel to have a ‘branded’ page, Coca Cola asked Dusty and Michael to continue the page themselves. So the official fan page of Coca Cola on FB is run by fans. And on last count the page has 23,857,830 .
Coca Cola is not the only brand to give away this ownership – Harley Davidson, LEGO and a few other brands have understood the power of these communities and are leveraging the potential by ensuring their own engagement in these communities is non-intrusive. Brand communities are so powerful now that they can’t be overlooked anymore. The ‘Bring Back Cadbury’s Wispa Gold’ campaign on FB made the confectionary company do so (and it was the power of 22,000 fans signing up to like the page).
So what is behind this shift in power? What are brand communities? And why are brand communities an idea whose time has come?
Brand community as a notion originated in the ethnographic studies by Schoaten and McAlexander (1995) of new bikers involving Harley Davidson owners. However it was Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) who coined the term ‘Brand community ‘. According to Muniz and O’Guinn, Brand community is simply a group of customers of the brand bound together by the loyalty to the brand. And the authors also describe the markers of a brand community as
Consciousness of kind is the implicit feeling of belongingness to the community as members share a similar interest. It also is a feeling that they are different from others who are not part of this community or who do not display a similar affinity to the brand.
Existence of shared rituals, traditions and beliefs – Rituals and traditions related to the brand that form the core of the community. These can be celebrating the history of the brand, sharing brand stories or having annual meetups like a Harley Davidson rally. These rituals serve to enhance the ties between the brand and its members and also between the members.
Sense of moral responsibility – Refers to the inherent sense of duty that each member feels towards other members of the community. This can manifest in how newbies are guided through their initial use of the product, or when veteran users share product knowledge.
Brand communities have caught the fancy of marketers because of increased challenges with traditional marketing approaches. These include the fragmentation of media and increased consumer resistance to receiving marketing messages.
A combination of a) technology mediated transition of communities from neighbourhood to networks b) increased reliance of customers on brands as a means of self-expression, and c) the inherent need of individuals to be part of or belong to a group, ensure that brand communities are poised to become powerful vehicles for marketers to develop a committed customer base.
So are all Brand communities similar? Or are there different types?
Brand communities can be firm managed or customer managed. And they can be a small network of customers having strong ties amongst themselves, or a large group spanning geographies where members have only the affinity to the brand as the shared interest.
Another interesting typology of brand community membership is given below. It is based on involvement and exclusivity as given below.
Though brand communities have substantial potential to drive brand equity, positive WOM and eventually sales, they need to be handled with caution.
In a world that is increasingly more ‘social’, it is important to not be seen self-centred. This means that brands have to take the first big step of giving away the ownership, empower the communities and engage genuinely with an intention to get the community members to form a strong web of ties. They should also understand that there will be a fair share of ‘unpleasant’ WOM going around and therefore not defend aggressively but listen patiently. And last but not the least, companies should understand that online social networks are but one of the many venues for the community to interact. And there is still a lot of life happening in the physical space. So, providing venues in the offline world and in other forms, for the community members, enables increased cohesion.
Brand communities are here to stay and the marketers of tomorrow need to understand its powers and execute their strategies carefully. A rich and vibrant brand community serves many purposes for the franchise owners including diffusion of information, an inexpensive market research option and obtaining candid customer feedback.
– Giridhar ‘Giri’ Ramachandran
DoMS IIT Madras