Marketing thought has strongly advocated differentiation of products and services as a means of achieving competitive advantage. What companies sell is the claimed distinction of their execution, the efficiency of their transactions in their clients’ behalf, their responsiveness to inquiries, the clarity and speed of their confirmations, and the like. In short, the offered product is differentiated. Differentiation has been one of the corner stones of marketing and helped brands to create strong market positions.
However, several factors are putting pressure on differentiation and its effectiveness to drive performance for companies. The lifting of trade barriers between countries, integration of many emerging economies into the mainstream global economy, globalization, fragmentation of media, explosion of digital platforms, the Internet and the advancement of database collection technologies are some of the dominant factors that have rendered differentiation, as it has traditionally been known, ineffective for companies in the long run.
These developments have ushered in an era of empowered customer. Customers have been increasingly engaging themselves in an active and explicit dialogue with manufacturers of products and services which have implications for brands and how they should go to market in the future.
Individual consumers can address and learn about businesses either on their own or through the collective knowledge of other customers. Customers are fundamentally changing the dynamics of the marketplace. The market has become a forum in which consumers play an active role in creating and competing for value. Co-creation of value as a marketing concept is gaining ground rapidly.
The emphasis on recognizing the centrality of customers in any business transaction or relationship is further fuelling marketing research and practice to search for marketing approaches that gives customers their due credit. In light of these developments, one of the alternatives that have been suggested to traditional differentiation and value creation has been differentiation on the basis of ownership and consumption. By enhancing the experiences that customers have with the multiple players that they interact with before, during and after their consumption, ownership and consumption can be effectively differentiated. Enhancing consumer experience, it has been argued, is effectively possible by creating communities around brands whereby consumers have an opportunity to experience consumption not only with the brand but with also other users of the brand in a community setting.
Building communities around brands to create and sustain excitement in the brand is catching up in corporate circles like wild fire. The growing popularity and penetration of the Internet across the global markets has only added fuel to this fire. All of a sudden, creating communities around brands and involving customers actively is increasingly being seen as a magic mantra that can ensure corporate success.
Brand community simply is a group of loyal brand customers who are bound together by their loyalty for the brand and what it offers to them. Such a group is different from other groups in that a brand community shares not only the loyalty towards the brand but also some shared rituals and a sense of moral responsibility. As such, a brand community is fundamentally based on three defining characteristics:
Consciousness of kind: Consciousness of kind refers to the intrinsic connections that members feel toward one another, and the collective sense of difference from others not in the community. It also refers to the sense of belongingness to an imagined community of people who share similar interests. Community members tend to identify themselves with others of similar “type”. Through the consumption of the brand, community members feel that they sort of know each other. In a brand community, consciousness of kind is due to the common thread that ties the community – the brand.
Existence of shared rituals and beliefs: One of the core components of any community is the existence of rituals and beliefs that are shared by all the community members and that are unique to the community. These rituals and beliefs are passed on through the members and they define the culture, character and conduct within the community. In a brand community, such rituals and traditions are predominantly related to the brand – the usage of the brand, the occasion of use of the brand, the associations with the brand, knowledge about the brand, willingness to participate in brand related activities and such.
For example, luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, Rolex and Amanresorts are heavily reliant on shared rituals and beliefs.
As such, in a brand community, the rituals and traditions are decided upon not just by the users of the brand (community members) but also the makers of the brand (the company). In creating rituals and traditions that would enhance the involvement and participation of the members with the brand, the company gains immense leverage to build loyalty early on during the usage life cycle of the brand.
Sense of moral responsibility: This refers to an inherent sense of duty those members of a community feel towards the community as a whole and towards other members individually. The members of a brand community are observed to share a sense of moral responsibility towards other members, which often manifest through activities that recruit new members and retain existing ones, and assists fellow members in the consumption of the brand, technical assistance and such. In a brand community, this sense of moral responsibility is created by the usage of the brand.
The members of brand community would help others in realizing the full potential of the brand, share product knowledge, and also screen prospective members through their knowledge of the brand, passion towards the brand and the extent to which they identify with the community.
The three defining characteristics above allow companies to actively involve with customers in creating resonating communities around their brands across multiple platforms including digital channels like social media. Even though it is simple as a marketing concept, building brand communities that resonates with loyal customers is indeed a monumental task.
The following section proposes four essential steps in building brand communities:
Create a strong brand story/myth: Brands in today’s world are not inanimate “things” but thriving entities with identities and personalities that allow customers to express themselves through its consumption. As such, to attract customers to it and to make them actively participate in varied branding activities, brands should have a strong story or myth that customers can easily identify and relate to. Such a story/myth would not only provide authenticity to the brands but also allow customers to express their sense of self through the consumption of the said brand.
Singapore Airlines has a strong myth centred around the iconic Singapore Girl as a face of the Asian airline known for its excellent service levels and attention to details. Estee Lauder, Coco Chanel, and Christian Dior are other examples of strong personalities and myths, which are still core elements of the brands they founded and grew successfully.
Create a need for collaboration among consumers: For a community to be actively adopted by the customers, they should feel a need to connect with other members (customers) in the context of the brand’s consumption. Such a need to connect with other fellow brand users can arise for a number of reasons such as:
Create identifiable brand elements: As with any community, brand communities should be able to offer its members unique identifiable community elements in terms of terminologies, icons, symbols and spokespersons. Such community elements would not only help the community to distinguish itself from others but also offers the community members tangible tools to identify themselves with the community. These community elements should be in line with the brand’s underlying identity.
Virgin Group is a good example of a brand which has created followers around the founder and owner Sir Richard Branson who personifies Virgin as a unique brand element. The LEGO brand has a simple but very unique, visual brand element in form of the colourful toy building bricks. The Coca-Cola bottle and its shape is probably one of the world’s most recognisable and longest-serving brand elements.
Create a unique culture: One of the fundamental reasons for the growing popularity of brand communities is that it offers companies real time feedback about the brands. Further, brand communities allow companies to co-create value with customers on a continuous basis. As such, companies must create a culture that allows customers to interact with the brand, other users and the company simultaneously. Such an environment would allow customers to experience the brand in a memorable manner as they will be part of the value creation process.
The LEGO toy company involves many of its global loyal fans in its innovation and design processes, and seeks valuable feedback from the fans and users who value and identify strongly with the LEGO brand. These fans and loyal users meet not only on virtual platforms but also through multiple physical events – often with the official presence of the LEGO company.
The four steps would assist a company in framing a robust structure to build and sustain a brand community. As with any business venture, the success of such a brand community depends on how proactively does the company engage customers on a continuous basis. A brand community is dynamic, a living organism, and it needs nurturing and grooming.
When managed properly, brand communities could prove to be that elusive new tool to tackle ever-growing competition. Brand communities not only allow companies to collaborate with customers in all phases of value creation – product design, pricing, places of availability and promotion – but also provide an effective platform to engage customers and create loyalty towards the brand. As the novelty of the concept begins to fade away, more and more companies would jump into the bandwagon.
But the successful ones would be those brand communities that are built on strong fundamentals centred around the brand identity and how it is delivered across all touch points. A brand which balances its unique promise with strong delivery has a great opportunity to benefit from building and sustaining a brand community as a powerful tool to enhance its brand equity.