A short review of brand community literature and a discussion of its relevance in today's business
Birds of a feather Understanding brand communitiesDusty 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 fans. 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 cant be overlooked anymore. The Bring Back Cadburys 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 OGuinn (2001) who coined the term Brand community . According to Muniz and OGuinn, Brand community is simply a group of customers of the brand bound together by the loyalty to the brand. Muniz and OGuinndescribe 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?
Birds of a feather Understanding brand communitiesBrand 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 here. It is based on involvement and exclusivity. (Courtesy http://andrewjameslockhart.com/2008/04/07/the9-types-of-brand-community-expanded/) 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. Though brand communities have primarily been explained using iconic brands like the Harley Davidson, Apple and LEGO, it is important to note that these brands involve substantial customer investments in terms of time and/ or money. A question therefore arises that can brand communities be built and sustained for FMCG products like Coca Cola, Snapple or Cadburys Perk. Cova and Pace (2006) showcase using the case study of My Nutella community, the possibility of building a thriving brand community of convenience products. Cova and Pace believe that for convenience products the community should facilitate more display of personal consumer experiences than interpersonal interactions and the firm should be as non-intrusive as possible in its role as community manager. These they say can help shape the meaning of the brand the fans love and thereby increasing relevance. 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 means for obtaining candid customer feedback. About the author Giridhar (Giri) is a doctoral student at the Department of Management Studies, IIT Madras. Giris research interests are networks and communities. He is excited by the possibilities he sees in business and urban living by borrowing elements from community life and hopes to explore them amidst the struggles of getting his Phd.