Human beings need community. It’s a need that extends beyond our social behaviors into our purchasing decisions — nearly one-quarter of consumers identify a strong sense of community as the main driver of loyalty to their favorite brands.
Although investments in loyalty programs demonstrate that many brands recognize the value of community, it’s impossible to build community through a single channel. Instead, brands need to nurture a sense of community across multiple channels and provide relevant experiences in both digital and in-person mediums.
Community doesn’t happen by accident. Although every brand is unique, the process of building a brand community is one that can be studied and replicated. By taking a closer look at thriving brand communities, retailers can learn how to develop ones of their own that drive loyalty and a better customer experience.
What thriving brand communities look like
Consumers don’t make purchasing decisions solely based on practical considerations. They want to understand your brand’s values, feel understood themselves and create an emotional bond that transcends dollars and cents. If you’re able to forge that kind of relationship, you can turn a regular customer into a brand evangelist who will sing your praises to their friends and family.
The top two activities consumers value for building community with a brand are joining online groups (34%) and attending in-person events (32%). This stat drives home the point that community isn’t one-size-fits-all. You need to provide offerings for both digital and experience-based consumers. Here’s how several well-known brands have diversified their offerings and built communities unique to their missions:
- Gymshark: Value-based offerings
Gymshark is one of the fastest growing fitness apparel brands in the world, partially due to the way it varies its community-building efforts. Online, Gymshark’s blog content provides its audience with value in the form of fitness advice and athlete profiles, placing the focus on self-improvement and not just making a sale. The brand also partners with Whitney Simmons and other fitness influencers who align with Gymshark’s values to promote new product launches.
Gymshark wants its audience to live an active lifestyle. It proves this by holding in-person pop-up events across the UK, where its audience can exercise alongside Gymshark influencers and trainers.
To follow in Gymshark’s footsteps, consider how each of your offerings naturally leads into the next. Each Gymshark offering is a different manifestation of the brand’s values, which are described in its slogan: We’re Gymshark. We exist to unite the conditioning community.
- Starbucks: Living your values
If you ask five people to name a company with a loyal following, odds are one of the brands they name will be Starbucks. The global coffeehouse chain has built a thriving community through top-notch customer service, investments in social justice initiatives and a successful loyalty program.
Starbucks is also a master at leveraging user-generated content with promotions like its #redcupcontest, which encourages customers to use Starbucks cups as their own personal canvases. These engaging social kickbacks stimulate Starbucks’ online audience and empower the brand advocates who connect with their products. Starbucks is aware that for a community to thrive, its members must be excited to grow it themselves.
Starbucks also places as much emphasis on its social justice efforts and employee wellness as it does on connecting with its audience. One example of this is found in Starbucks’ investment in empowering women in coffee, tea and cocoa-growing communities around the world. The brand distributed more than 40 grants to champion women’s leadership, economic opportunities and improved sanitation in 17 countries. After reaching its target goal of helping 250,000 women and girls, Starbucks set a new goal of 1 million by 2030.
The lesson here is that community isn’t a one-sided affair. Your brand must embody its values behind the scenes before you can effectively communicate your values to your audience.
- lululemon: Building a community hub
No matter what your brand’s niche is, fostering a welcoming environment is key to developing your community. Athleisure brand lululemon has perfected this philosophy by offering new customers free yoga classes to test its selection of leggings and tank tops.
Like Gymshark, lululemon also emphasizes the in-person experience. In 2019, the brand announced plans to convert 10% of its locations into experiential stores, including its 20,000-square-foot Chicago location. This location features a store, two workout studios, a meditation studio and a second-floor restaurant. Physical community is cultivated at lululemon’s experiential stores through concerts, workout series and other special events.
The brand also connects its audience through its premium loyalty program pilot, where members not only get free shipping and products but also access to exclusive classes to connect with other members.
Community hubs attract Lululemon’s most dedicated supporters. But it’s important to recognize that customers who visit experiential hubs have different levels of engagement. For example, lululemon communicates differently to a customer who shows up every week to Wellbeing Wednesdays than to a shopper who bought a single pair of leggings. Understanding your audience allows you to develop relevant experiences that get to the root of what they truly want.
Build a Loyal and Lasting Community
Consumers want loyalty programs, online content and face-to-face experiences that excite and build connections. More broadly, your community-building must be grounded in a desire for true connection with your audience. By learning from successful brand communities and applying their practices to your own organization, you can attract consumers who are engaged in your brand’s mission, and not just your product, to build lasting loyalty.
Tom Caporaso is the CEO of Clarus Commerce, a leading provider of customizable end-to-end loyalty solutions. He has been in the loyalty and subscription space for over 25 years, empowering brands to build better relationships with their top customers for the long term. A recognized thought leader across the retail and loyalty sphere, Caporaso has been quoted in national publications like CNBC, Reuters and U.S. News & World Report. In addition to his loyalty expertise, Caporaso also received a 2020 leadership award from The Hartford Courant and has helped Clarus Commerce earn the Connecticut Top Workplaces award every year since 2013.