“I want to build a brand community like Peloton.” We’re hearing this more and more from clients.
Tapping into a community makes sense. The conventional belief that consumers make purchase decisions in isolation, assessing the value of products or services in a vacuum, is inaccurate. Consumer culture theory recognizes the importance of consumer connectivity — the influence connections have on our purchases and brand decisions, and the impact consumption communities have upstream as co-creators, not just consumers, of value.
Before engaging in community building, we encourage all marketers to ask themselves the following:
1. Are you truly trying to build a brand community?
Aspiring community-builders must take stock of their brand, assessing whether it has the consumer commitment and passion to be a brand community’s focal point. Given the increasing indifference consumers feel toward brands, most marketers will conclude that a brand community is unrealistic.
Many marketers who aspire to build brand communities are actually looking to tap into another kindof consumption community, a consumer tribe— or passion community. In passion communities, members connect over a shared experience or ambition. Whether they’re built around the shared experience of being a teenage girl (BeingGirl) or the desire to be outdoors (REI and Canadian outdoor retailer MEC), passion communities are not the exclusive domain of a single brand, product or service.
Unlike brand communities, which are built by marketers, passion communities already exist, albeit often in informal ways. There was a maker community long before Make provided a forum for sharing ideas and staged its first Maker Faire. While Make didn’t create the maker movement, it certainly turbo-charged it.
For those with brands that are not worship-worthy, we recommend tapping into and facilitating a passion community.
2. Does the community’s passion align with that of your organization?
If your brand were a person, would it be a member of this passion community? If the answer is “yes,” then it’s a community worth joining. As a community member, your brand doesn’t own, run or serve as the focal point of the community, but offers its time, energy and name.
If you’re not inclined to personify your brand, start by identifying its values and purpose. Your brand’s purpose is the articulation of your passion, and should align with the passion of any community you’d want to join.
Communities we belong to and activities we undertake in their name say a lot about who we are. So, before standing up for potentially controversial issues your organization believes in, make sure they’re consistent with your values and purpose and reflect those of the broader community.
When community members tell you what they care about most — and when that aligns with your brand’s values and purpose — be prepared to act. REI and MEC are no strangers to stepping into the fray and taking action on controversial issues. Recently, both pulled Vista Outdoor products off their shelves when members took issue with guns and ammo being a part of the Vista brand and the company’s support of the NRA. While members were the catalyst for the action, the values of REI and MEC are incongruous with those of Vista Outdoor.
Lesson learned. Know what you and your members hold most dear and take action accordingly.
3. Are you willing to subordinate your organization’s wants and needs to those of community members?
Tapping into a passion community represents a very different value exchange from that of a loyalty program. The latter is a transactional relationship in which the company grants status for frequentusage or purchasing. Status comes with measurable rewards such as discounts or coupons. While loyalty programs can result in mutually beneficial relationships, ironically, they often don’t result in loyalty.
A community is focused on producing member benefits — not the measurable, bring-down-my-price characteristic of loyalty programs, but the kind that comes from a true relationship. No strings attached.
Members receivefrom communities what they put into them. The more one participates, the more beneficial it becomes. Motivations to participate include:
- A feeling of belonging;
- A catalyst for inspiration;
- A source of recognition; and
- A sense of purpose.
How communities create that sense of belonging, inspiration, recognition and purpose is a bit more nuanced. Passion communities can uplift the individual and strengthen the community, resulting in inward and outward benefits, including personal growth, personal expression, community impact and community access.
Often, community activities work on several levels. For instance, a road race sponsored by MEC may allow runners to improve themselves as individuals (personal growth) while simultaneously allowing race volunteers to experience the fulfillment of impacting their community. MEC provides the platform for members to reap personal and communal benefits and is rewarded with the goodwill that comes from helping members.
If you aren’t willing to put the needs of community members before those of your organization, efforts to participate in the community will be seen as disingenuous, resulting in community backlash.
4. Does your company have the stomach to create ambassadors rather than pursue transactions?
Short-term, community-building efforts should aim to create devoted brand ambassadors, not drive transactions. In the longterm, that devotion and positive word-of-mouth will lead to loyal customers whose long-term value will greatly outweigh short-term sales.
Lululemon has built a thriving community focusing on a network of ambassadors who act as community sirens, attracting legions of followers. Ambassadors host regular classes at lululemon stores and members flock to attend. While members come for the workout, they can’t help buying. Not because it’s the price of participation, but because they want to fly the colors of the community. Through its community-building efforts, lululemon creates customers rather than transactions.
5. Are your employees ready and willing to step up?
Employees can bevaluable community members. If your employees were hired in part due to their belief in and desire to contribute to your corporate purpose, they already are community members. MEC employees have a strong affinity for outdoor recreation and are active members of that community. They would be even if they weren’t employees.
However, when it comes to community building, employees are not extensions of your brand. They should be treated like independent members. MEC employees use the MECStaffer hashtag when posting online. Members view this hashtag as a sign that the poster is knowledgeable and accomplished at the activity being discussed.
Importantly, MEC does not monitor or filter employee posts. Employees post their personal opinions as if they were any other community members. MEC employees are not required to attend or volunteer at MEC community events. They do it because they care about the community and inspiring others to get outside.
Participating in and facilitating a passion community is a powerful way to build devotion. However, organizations must do so with a focus on improving the community and its members. You must be willing to put the community first, overcome any compulsion to take charge and understand that your efforts may not have measurable short-term return. Done right, the long-term benefit will be nothing less than brand devotion.
Eric Heinemann is a senior partner at Roundpeg Consulting, a brand strategy consultancy based in Minneapolis that has helped revitalize national brands for clients like Lowe’s, Yoplait, Starbucks, Constellation Brands (Corona, Modelo, Pacifico), Travelers, 3M and Best Buy.