I’ve been having a little rant elsewhere lately about the trend in the UK and a few other “developed” countries towards social anaesthetisation.  What I mean by this is intrusion of rules and laws that, while they may be intended to keep those who haven’t quite grasped the principles of responsible citizenship on the straight and narrow, actually create a straight-jacket that prevents us from living real, genuine and valuable lives. 

Living part of the time in Prague with my Czech wife I get to see what life would be like without these rules.  Its a hark back to my own childhood, without the kind of stupid restriction that would have you on the paedophile register if you suggested starting a kids football team, but where modern affluence offers far greater opportunity to experience a wider range of things.

My six-year-old came back from a school trip (Czech school with Czech lessons, in Czech language, not a poncy ex-pat’s boutique) a couple of Friday’s ago with a smile as broad as the English Channel and a suitcase full of disgusting dirty washing.  This hadn’t been a trip to the local Shopping Centre, which is as far as my nephew in England travelled on his school’s idea of a trip, it was eight days that pretty much any parent could afford with twenty-odd of her five and six year old school mates and five teachers in a cabin in the mountains.

They played in 50cm of snow (yes folks its here already!) visited a goat farm, a bead factory and walked miles through the forest, and along the way they learnt something more than the cost of Little Pets at the local toy-store.  This is their second such trip, the first was in the spring and they are invaluable in introducing kids to real life things like, what the changes in seasons mean to the flora and fauna.  They get a bit of commercial reality from the factory and farm trips and get to see what animals are like in their natural habitat, plus they learn how to live together. 

Now call me sceptical old sod if you like, but somehow, what with insurance issues (In the Czech Republic if you fall down a hole on a trip like this and break your leg, you look where you are going in future not look for someone to litigate against!), laws on kids and adults mixing, touching and photographing each other, the insistence on ratios of kids to each teacher and the special training teachers and helpers need, all driving cost up and likelihood down, plus the influence of brain-washed, precocious, neurotic parents and lazy teachers I can’t see any of this happening in Blighty.  I can’t begin to tell you the host of things that went on there that individually would have ruled out anything approaching this kind of trip in the UK, but it was great, and they loved it, they are better off for it and, by any measure that I can think of, their English counterparts are worse of for not experiencing such things.

However, the reason that I have brought this up here is that it kinda reflects the evolution of community.  Communities are places of trust, where folks feel safe, surrounded by friends.  However, the streets we live in, the places we visit, the schools we go to are each far less of a community than they used to be.  One example of the decline of these traditional communities is vandalism.  People don’t feel “involved” in these communities any longer, they have no relevance for them and therefore they hold no value either.  So, it’s seen as being of no consequence if they paint on them, pull them apart or blow them up. In fact, just as Christians in England built their early churches on the sites of older religious buildings, today’s generation degrade old institutions and underline the superiority of their own by overwriting the old with the new in just this way.

Brands are communities too.  We join them because we feel they are representative of our ideas, values and standards.  Buying the product is a ticket to ride, the badge of belonging – we are what we buy/wear/eat/drive …

In fact, brands hold the position in many people’s lives that religions used to – a community of people with shared values and beliefs, that they can influence (because a brand these days has to be interactive) as well as participate in?  So, is the decline of the old communities and the emergence of new ones just a sign of evolution, new values? 

The power of modern media has enables new brand communities, to grow at a rate that early religions could never have dreamt of.  Its isn’t all change though, there are new religions in the traditional sense too – Christian science, Scientology, Latter Day Saints.  We also have new residential communities with Florida being “The second most popular place in the world to live” – well according to an American survey anyway!

I believe that what we are seeing is a widening range of communities, sometimes they are exclusive like my current favourite place to stay Pension Rut (which doesn’t even have a web site), others like Nike, the word on everybody’s feet.  They are not mutually exclusive, we can and do join any number, which satisfies different aspects of our personalities in greater depth than a one-for-all solution and they aren’t for life – only for as long as they are relevant.

As a marketer this means that you can create brand conurbations with others.  It also means that you have to be ever attentive to the needs of your community, otherwise folks just move on.  If as a consumer, your priority is for a good wholesome life with values such as the Czechs have, you do what I do and go and live there.  Likewise if you think all of that is crap and want a plastic, disposable desensitised lifestyle you can opt for high-rise living in a city where legislation removes the need for you to think.

It may be oversimplifying things to describe brands as the new religions, but they probably operate at the same level.  They are just components of a wider range of lifestyle options.  If you are the guardian of a brand though (and we can only be guardians, because nobody owns brands any longer) you need to understand how it all works and the role that you play in today’s society. 

Michael Weaver
December 11, 2007

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