Communal Brands: More Ideas and Questions

A month ago I wrote a blog entry that asked what makes a brand “Community-able”? I think that’s an important and practical question, and apparently a number of other people do as well.

I suggested and very briefly defined and delineated 6 characteristics:

  1. Product Category
  2. Look and Feel
  3. Brand History
  4. Subculturalization
  5. Image/Identity Relations
  6. Made-to-order Community

Unfortunately, I didn’t have good alliteration for them. Alas.

There are couple of points I’d like to return to. My main point in that blog entry was the surprising idea that you can have brands that have low loyalty, but which have communities, and brands that have high loyalty but have no communities. Community and loyalty are independent of one another–they are separate aspects of how people interact with brands. And, let’s face it, for most brand managers gaining brand loyalty is much more important than gaining a following by a brand community. That’s the way it should be if you are managing based on a bottom-line orientation. There is quite a bit of managerial advice floating around out there right now telling people that they need to build brand communities in order to build brand loyalty, but that advice contains a lot of untested assumptions.

One additional point I’d like to make is that, of these six elements, there are really only two, maybe three if we stretch it, that are under the control of brand managers. A brand manager is given the product category (but can to some extent control brand extensions) and the brand history (but can do a bit of investigation, elaboration, and exaggeration). The brand manager can’t really control whether a subculture picks up the brand and runs with it. And the idea of being in a category where community comes with the territory is linked with the idea of category overall (maybe they are even the same thing, although they have different inflections).

The only two things that the brand manager and management in general has control over is the look and feel of the product–its design elements–and the relation between the brand’s image and consumer/communal identities, which is often influenced by cues in packaging, name, color, and of course advertising elements. Will those two elements be enough to create the cult brands, the strong communities that pop managerial advice writes about?

Mark Di Somma is an interesting guy. A New Zealand-based managerial speaker, writer, and consultant who writes a blog called Upheavals: Heresy Never Sleeps, he picked up on some of these ideas an built on them in his own blog. entry on the community-able features of brands. Mark suggests that “cultrepreneurs” (those seeking to build business or brand cults) consider the following characteristics of brands: flockability, the ability to unite people; accessibility, which is actually their exclusiveness; return on membership, what’s in it for me if I am a community member (think LinkedIn.com); attitude, a “belief system”; altruism, so a link to not-for-profits; access, again having insider status and keeping out outsiders; and reinforcement, again, having various benefits accrue to being a community member.

I like the way that Mark’s categories link individual motivations and orientation to the communal venture. I also think he gives some nice practical examples that can be very valuable when we are seeking exemplars of campaigns. The categories illustrate, I believe, some fundamental differences from my own. I wonder how we can measure or assess, a priori, a characteristic like flockability. It seems to me that this is a tautology. We are explaining what makes a brand community-able by stating that it is a characteristic that makes people flock to it, opr build communities around it. I don’t think Mark’s blog entry is, by any means, unique in this. I see a lot of managerial writing (and plenty of academic writing) that does the same thing. Similarly, what do we mean by an “attitude” that encourages community? How would this be actionable? My categories are pretty broad and general and contextual but they are that way because community needs to have some openness, and is built to some considerable extent upon historical contingencies as much as managerial action (or, actually, in the dance of the two, as Alex Wipperfurth has written in his excellent book Brand Hijack).

This “openness” and the dance of accessibility and inaccessibility seem to me to be the heart of the contribution of Mark’s thought-provoking entry and my student Daiane Scaraboto’s addition of the idea of a “complex, contradictory, and provocative brand.” We are left with some very useful questions. What kind of openness should a brand have to allow community in? What is the process by which this openness forms community? What kind of limited accessibility should a brand have to allow member to want to be insider? What is the process by which this limitation forms desire? How much is too much? How do they weigh off and counterbalance one another? How can inaccessibility be communicated?

This all seems to relate back to Georg Simmel’s notions about fashion and the middle class, where he said that fashion was perfect for the middle class because it allowed just enough accessibility, and then, once it went mainstream, the fashionability was dissipated and the crowd was onto something new (we’d now call this fashionability it something like the cool factor, but Simmel had it right way back in an article published 104 years ago!). We want it, but only because we can’t have it, but business wants you to have it, all of you, so we don’t want it. The same goes for community, and brand community. And that seems to be an interesting tension inherent in the very notion of brand community, and something that makes it, at its core, a bit different from the other, traditional kinds of community that sociologists and anthropologists have been talking about for over a hundred years.

Communities of Fashion. That’s worthy of further thought.

One Response

  1. RobB January 8, 2008

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