A brand, like the district you choose to live in or the club that you join, is a community.  You feel comfortable there, it fits you like an old arm chair, it reflects your personality and values and when you give people your address or mention your club they make assumptions about you based on its location (“country bumpkin” or “city trendy”) or maybe the social level that it represents (“middle/upper/working class”) and more. 

I once advised a mobile phone company that had a reputation for being a bit cheap and basic.  Domestic subscribers loved them, their problem was that they couldn’t attract business users.  They could satisfy their practical demands, but their reputation for being cheap kept getting in the way.  In those days you couldn’t switch networks and take your number with you so the objection raised by business users was “if people can see from my number that I am on this network they will think I’m cheap and basic too”.  And, they were right!  Its about the community to which you belong.

Think of the way we sometimes describe people “… so and so is OK but he hangs out with a bad crowd …” – same for brands.  Another client of mine told me recently that because his business was “number one” in their sector they made a point of only appointing suppliers and partners who were “number one” in theirs.  He felt that it underlined his own positioning.  So if your brand is sold alongside products or brands, or in outlets that don’t reflect your standards and values, you might find that your reputation is being tarnished.  Then again, if you need a bit of brand social climbing it can help just to hang out with the blue-chip boys.

Buy a product, join the community and you instantly have a badge to wear.  This is the old Maslow Hierarchy of Human Needs coming into play – I am what I buy, own, eat etc …  A brand transforms customers’ lives by giving them both a sense of belonging and, ironically, at the same time a feeling of individual expression.  Remember, “American Express says more about you than cash ever can” or “I was just an accountant until I discovered Smirnoff”?

An interesting thing about a community is that its a two-way street.  While it influences its members they in turn also influence the community.  Its just like a new family moving into a residential neighbourhood.  They choose to be there because it reflects their vision of themselves, but their arrival changes the dynamic of the place – for better or worse depending on your viewpoint.  It works the same with brand communities.  

Marketers often complain that consumers are promiscuous and its true – sometimes they are (although there are two sides to every divorce case and often customers are enticed away from brand monogamy by the promise of a badge they are just happier to be seen with).  However, brand promiscuity is often misunderstood.  People are complex and individual, its rare that one brand will satisfy all the requirements for badges of recognition of any one customer.  That’s why, as consumers we adopt a portfolio of brands (sometimes more than one for a particular product sector), which between them cover all the things we want to represent.  I know a guy who wears Nike shoes to play his sport in because they are serious “tools” but chooses Puma when he’s hanging out because he feels they are cool.  With the choices we have available to us the permutations are almost limitless.  Certainly sufficient to represent a wide range of individual personalities.

This all means that as a brand guardian (Hey, I know you know, brands are not “owned” by the organisations that use them) you have to be sensitive to the needs and wants of your community and go with the flow.  It’s why interactive communications are important – things like blogs, chat rooms, “how are we doing?” cards, problem pages.  I just spent a frustrating few minutes trying to find contact information on the web site of a well known retailer.  I could find the address of my nearest store and I could “give feedback” that I know would end up being handled by some operator at a contact centre in India in a few days time.  This isn’t interactivity, this is an attempt to pass indifference off as genuine interest.  What I want is to “connect” with someone at the company who can do something … and I can’t even find a phone number for their switchboard! 

Like any other consumer, I want to know what people – other community members, just like me – are saying about my communities, the products, values, services it represents or even just stuff in general – like a couple of old wives gossiping over the garden fence.  I want a help line, live chat or at least an e-mail problem page, because that’s community and when I get to the point where I am tearing what’s left of my hair out, I want to know that there’s someone who cares enough to have left their number for me to call.  This retailer clearly just doesn’t get it.

The trouble with all of this is that its a mountain of work and we have to apply technology to get through it.  The pit that many organisations fall into with this is that the technology intrudes on the relationship, making it cold and impersonal, in effect neutralising the benefits that the interactivity is meant to create.  Smart people apply their technology sensitively – its not difficult, it just takes some thought.  In the next few years we’ll see massive development in this area.  Technologies that facilitate without intruding.  Recent developments in AVATARs support this prediction.  KMP in the UK are playing with some great programming that adds expression to AVATARS that really helps you look them in the eye, but my guess is that we’ll see integration of a far wider range of technologies and communications routes in the quest to make brand communities more supportive and involving.  My friend was relating to me recently that he was in the middle of buying theatre tickets when he was called away from his computer.  After a few minutes he received an SMS message on his phone saying something like “Don’t forget, you are in the middle of booking your theatre tickets”.  How’s that for community building?  However, if you think that’s cool, wait and see what turns up next.  Better still, don’t wait, build your brand community by applying technology creatively to situations like this.  All it takes is a little community spirit.

Michael Weaver
January 9, 2008

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