Behind every strong brand is a collective of loyal consumers who relate to that brand on a very personal level. Together, they’re called a brand community. And no brand can exist without one.
Research has shown that group members “are more interested in the social links that come from brand affiliations than they are in the brands themselves; brand loyalty is the reward for meeting their needs for community, not the impetus for the community to form” (Fournier, S., & Lee, L., 2009, April).
The brand reflects certain values and other traits that the consumer finds desirable or complementary with his or her self-image. Deep down, buying and using the product is validation. Powerful emotional connection leads to affiliation and ultimately, to brand loyalty.
Achieving a symbiotic relationship between brand and consumer should be what every brand manager thinks about morning, noon and night. Here are 10 rules to live by, not necessarily in any order, to help you reach that peak:
Tend the flock.
The brand community does not exist to serve the business; it exists to serve members’ needs (Fournier, S., & Lee, L., 2009, April). Consumers are looking for a sense of shared identity that differentiates them from others, common rituals and traditions. Their affiliation lead to a “sense of moral obligation” that inspires participation and binds the group together (Arvidsson, A. & Caliandro, A., 2016, p. 728). In other words, they’re engaging for themselves to fulfill a need, and the brand is a mechanism to accomplish that goal. Approach everything you do from the consumer’s perspective.
Dive deep into brand culture.
The culture of the community is hard-wired to the brand’s attributes. Harley Davidson owners are a particularly strong brand community because members share a dedication to motorcycle culture: “open road” lifestyle, riding activities, and personal values of individualism, freedom, and patriotism (Brand Communities and Consumer Tribes, 2016). Social scientists call this “organizational identification”, which is to say that just as an organization reflects the characteristics of its members, the opposite is just as true (Ashforth, B. E., & Mael, F., 1989, p. 22). Members are one with their tribe. And the more you learn about how members interact with others, the more on-target your brand management will become.
A vibrant brand community can deliver valuable insights about customers, enhance marketing and advertising strategies, and aid in developing new products and services (Kleiman et al, 2010). Proper care and feeding of a community requires time, energy, resources — and respect. The size of the group must be calibrated, since too many participants may inhibit formation of relationships among members and with the brand. Trust is vital; if the organization tries to exploit the channel for increasing sales or gathering intelligence, or does not practice active listening, then credibility with members will be lost (Kleiman et al, 2010) . So will your chances to build brand equity.
Tell a good story.
Since the dawn of time, humans have told stories. Compelling stories can be extremely valuable because they make it easier for the consumer to engage the brand, while giving the organization clarity and understanding of the role that the brand plays in customers’ lives (Yohn, 2014, LOC 3338). James Bond is great example of how effective narratives can be. In every Bond flick, certain brands are prominently and repeatedly portrayed: Aston Martin automobiles, Heineken beer, Coca Cola beverages, and Sony electronics. Bond fans can hardly expect to have the same experiences as their favorite character, such as death-defying car chases, frequent sexual escapades, and using of high-tech spy gadgets. But they can live the life of a sexy British super spy vicariously by using readily accessible brands that he uses on screen (Cooper & Schembri, 2010, p. 564). Narrative elements are powerful way to connect to the consumer.
Sweat the details.
It takes a lot of work to manage the characteristics of a strong brand. No detail is too small. Take language. Words, phrases, and tone of voice differentiate the product from its competition and encourages engagement by consumers — two vital elements of brand strength (Delin, J., 2005, p. 39). Brand name, descriptions, and terminology can reinforce physical or symbolic characteristics to form positive associations (Usunier, J., & Shaner, J., 2002, p. 215-16). Paying attention to language can also help international brands avoid cultural missteps in translations to other languages and cultures (Delin, 2005, p. 39).
Know the ground rules.
Each brand community has rules to keep everyone in line (Schau, H. J., et al., 2009, p. 34). These could be as formal as codes of conduct and governance, or as informal as when and how to welcome new members and other expectations for participation. Community protocols are as diverse and distinctive as the products they represent. Learn them to gain insight about what makes the group and its members tick.
Open your eyes.
Brand communication is becoming increasingly visual, and many experts believe that graphic elements have surpassed verbal ones in importance for creating brand identity (Phillips, B. J., et al., 2014, p. 318). Your brand is visually depicted by its logo, typeface, color scheme, as well as the photos used in your promotional materials. Presenting a consistent visual brand identity reinforces desired senses of emotional congruence and familiarity, which strengthens consumer preference for the brand (pp 226-227).
Technology is NOT the answer.
The Internet, wireless technology and social media have largely replaced traditional forms of paid advertising as primary methods for product promotion. These resources have expanded reach to prospective consumers, provided more diverse methods of engaging them, and helped enable the building of brand communities. Technology is often a more efficient platform for sharing information, responding to questions or crisis scenarios, and delivering innovative methods for customer interaction, such as digital gaming or other virtual experiences online. But no matter how versatile or advanced technology may seem, it does not replace the need for good old fashioned understanding of what’s on your consumer’s mind. Technology is the means to an end, not the end itself.
It’s bigger than that.
Consumers like brands with a conscience. When a brand takes on a social challenge like poverty, hunger or racial inequality, its supporters feel empowered and validated (Hoeffler, S., & Keller, K. L., 2002, p. 78). What’s more, consumers like to wear their support on their sleeves — literally – by publicly sharing their support for worthwhile causes with others, on bumper stickers, buttons, apparel or events (p. 80).
Stay alert online.
Don’t kid yourself; the Internet is a tremendous resource, but it can be a scary place. False or misleading information abounds, cyber-security issues loom, and fraudulent activities and abusive personal behaviors such as “trolling” and “stalking” are rampant. All of these can inhibit engagement and degrade credibility and messaging, which can undermine consumer trust. To mitigate their effects, make sure to maintain timely and accurate information, efficient and reliable digital interfaces, secure portals, and otherwise credible information online (Martín-Barbero, S., & Sandulli, F. D., 2006, p. 146.).
Think of a brand community as a long brick wall, with each brick representing a supportive group member. And you, the brand manager, are the brick mason. Constructing the brand wall requires engagement using a variety of methods — language, images, stories, etc. — all designed to tap into each member’s sense of ideal self and validate traits that she considers valuable or desirable.
The best strategy for building a strong brand is to protect and serve the supporting community and its members. Take care of them first, and they will take care of your brand.
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Ashforth, B. E. & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 20–40.
Cooper, H., Schembri, S., & Miller, D. (2010). Brand-self identity narratives in the James Bond movies. Psychology & Marketing, 27(6), 557-567.
Delin, J. (2005). Brand Tone of Voice: a linguistic analysis of brand positions. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 2(1), 1-44. doi:10.1558/japl.2005.2.1.1
Fournier, S., & Lee, L. (2009, April). Getting Brand Communities Right. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from https://hbr.org/2009/04/getting-brand-communities-right#
Hoeffler, S., & Keller, K. L. (2002). Building Brand Equity Through Corporate Societal Marketing. Journal Of Public Policy & Marketing, 21(1), 78-89.
Kleiman, D., & Keinan, A. (2010, May 17). Don’t Make These Mistakes with Your Online Brand Community. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from
Martín-Barbero, S., & Sandulli, F. D. (2006). Harley Davidson’s Brand Identity on the Web: A BIWAM Filtering. Journal of Website Promotion, 2(1/2), 141-161. doi:10.1080/15533610802104190.
Phillips, B. J., McQuarrie, E. F., & Griffin, W. G. (2014). The Face of the Brand: How Art Directors Understand Visual Brand Identity. Journal of Advertising, 43(4), 318-332. doi:10.1080/00913367.2013.867824.
Schau, H. J., Muñiz, A. M., & Arnould, E. J. (2009). How Brand Community Practices Create Value. Journal Of Marketing, 73(5), 30-51. doi:10.1509/jmkg.73.5.30.
Usunier, J., & Shaner, J. (2002). Using linguistics for creating better international brand names. Journal Of Marketing Communications, 8(4), 211.
Yohn, D. L. (2014). What great brands do: The seven brand-building principles that separate the best from the rest. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand.
@. (n.d.). Brand Communities & Consumer Tribes | Vivid Brand. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from http://vividbrand.com/views/brand-communities-and-consumer-tribes/.