So, you want to build a brand community?

Five questions to ask before you commit

Recently, we had an opportunity to engage with a DIY retailer on a community-building project. As part of that process, we spoke with executives from Starbucks, leading Canadian outdoor retailer MEC, REI and the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). We also investigated additional thriving consumption communities such as Make, Lululemon Ambassadors, Sephora’s Beauty Talk and Peloton, among others, to identify guidelines for community creation. We wanted to share our findings with our own broader community. We hope you enjoy.

“I want to build a brand community like Harley Owners Group.” It’s a refrain we’re hearing more and more from clients. Frankly, what marketer doesn’t? To have a legion of followers indelibly ink their brand devotion by tattooing your logo on their arms? Sounds good.

Tapping into a community makes sense. The conventional belief that consumers make purchase decisions in isolation, assessing the value of products or services in a vacuum, simply isn’t accurate. Consumer culture theory recognizes the importance of consumer connectivity — the influence connections have on our purchases and brand decisions, and the impact consumption communities have upstream as co-creators, not just consumers, of value.

However, before you get the tattooing ink ready, we encourage all marketers to ask themselves the following:

1. Are you truly trying to build a brand community?

There are different kinds of consumption communities, and brand communities are just one. A true brand community is based on the use of a given product or service. This shared usage experience connects members. Harley Owners Group and Peloton are prime examples of true brand communities. Member relationships are based on the shared usage experience of Harley motorcycles and Peloton exercise bikes.

Aspiring community-builders need to take stock of their brand and determine if it truly has the requisite consumer commitment and passion to be the focal point of a brand community. Given the increasing indifference consumers feel toward brands, most marketers will realize that a brand community is unrealistic.

Many marketers who aspire to build a brand community are actually looking to tap into and facilitate the other type of consumption community, a consumer tribe. Consumer tribes are passion-focused communities in which members connect with one another over a shared experience, ambition or hobby. Whether they’re built around the shared experience of being a teenage girl (in the case of BeingGirl) or the desire to be outdoors (REI and MEC), consumer tribes are not the exclusive domain of a single brand, product or service.

Unlike brand communities, which are built by marketers, consumer tribes already exist, albeit often in informal and loose ways. There was a maker community long before Make provided a forum for sharing ideas and staged its first Maker Faire. While Make didn’t create the maker movement, it certainly turbo-charged it.

For those with brands that are not worship-worthy, we recommend tapping into and facilitating a consumer tribe. However, to avoid the overused, over-intellectual term “tribe,” we will refer to it as a passion community.

2. Does the community’s passion align with that of your organization?

In other words, if your brand were a person, would it be a member of this passion community? If the answer is “yes,” then it’s a community worth being a member of. And that’s exactly what your brand would be: a member. You don’t own the community, run the community, or serve as its focal point, but you are offering your time, energy and – oftentimes – your name.

If you’re not inclined to personify your brand, you can start with identifying its values and purpose. As one community-builder told us, “Everything we do is a reflection of our purpose.” Your brand’s purpose is the articulation of your passion; it should align with the passion of any community of which you should be a member. If your organization isn’t passionate about its community, community-building efforts are merely an expense that will be abandoned quickly.

The communities we belong to and the activities we undertake in their name say a lot about who we are. That’s not to say you shouldn’t stand up for potentially controversial issues in which your organization believes. Rather, before you do, make sure they’re consistent with your values and purpose and reflect the values and wishes of the broader community.

Community members won’t be shy about telling you what they care about most. When they do and those actions reflect the brand’s values and purpose, be prepared to act. REI and MEC are no strangers to stepping into the fray and taking action on potentially controversial issues. Just recently both pulled Vista Outdoor products off their shelves at the behest of members who took issue with guns and ammo being a part of the Vista brand and the company’s support of the NRA. While members were the catalyst for the action, the values of both REI and MEC are clearly incongruous with those of Vista Outdoor.

Lesson learned. Know what you and your members hold most dear and take action accordingly.

3. Are you willing to subordinate your organization’s wants and needs to the wants and needs of members and the community as a whole?

Tapping into a passion community represents a very different value exchange from that of a loyalty program. The latter is a transactional relationship in which the company grants status for frequency of using, shopping or purchasing. Status comes with specific, measurable rewards such as discounts or coupons. While the loyalty program can result in a mutually beneficial relationship, ironically, it often doesn’t result in loyalty.

A community, on the other hand, is focused on producing member benefits – not the measurable, bring-down-my-price characteristic of loyalty programs, but the kind that comes from a true relationship. No strings attached, no quid pro quo.

Members get out of communities what they put into them. The more one participates, the more beneficial it becomes.

    Motivations to participate include:

    • A feeling of belonging — the self-assurance that comes from connecting with people who share one’s passion. Example: members of BeingGirl, in its original incarnation, created a sense of togetherness by sharing their teenage journey with other teenage girls around the world.
    • A catalyst for inspiration — the encouragement that comes from being exposed to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Example: members of IkeaHackers draw inspirations from others who have customized Ikea products.
    • A source of recognition — the affirmation that comes from having one’s ideas and actions validated. Example: members of the Peloton community compete virtually with one another and receive shout-outs from class instructors based on performance.
    • A sense of purpose — the fulfillment that comes from being a part of something bigger than oneself. Example: members of the Make community pass on their maker skills to others to keep the maker spirit alive.

How communities create that sense of belonging, inspiration, recognition and purpose is a bit more nuanced. A passion community is a platform that can both uplift the individual and strengthen the community; it can result in inward and outward benefits. Specifically, passion communities allow for personal growth, personal expression, community impact and community access.

Oftentimes, community activities work on several levels. For instance, a road race sponsored by MEC, Canada’s leading outdoor retailer, may allow runners to improve themselves as individuals (personal growth) while simultaneously allowing race volunteers to experience the fulfillment of impacting their community. MEC, for its part, provides the platform for members to reap the personal and communal benefits and is rewarded with the goodwill that comes from helping members.

If your organization isn’t willing to put the needs of community members before those of your organization, efforts to participate in the community will be seen as disingenuous, resulting in community backlash.

4. Does your company have the stomach to create ambassadors rather than pursue transactions?

Many companies don’t have the tools to measure community-building efforts. In fact, one community builder we spoke with called his community-building efforts an act of faith. That’s not to say that he didn’t expect a return on his investment, but he knows that community building is a long game.

Short-term, community-building efforts should be designed to create devoted brand ambassadors, not to drive transactions. In the long-term, that devotion and positive word of mouth will inevitably lead to loyal (not in the loyalty program sense of the word) customers whose long-term value will greatly outweigh any short-term sales.

Take Lululemon. The company has built a thriving community focusing largely on a network of ambassadors who act as community sirens, attracting legions of followers. The ambassadors host regular classes at Lululemon retail locations, and the members flock to attend. While they come for the workout, they can’t help buying. Not because it’s the price of participation, but because they want to fly the colors of the community, showing they’re members. Through its community-building efforts, Lululemon creates customers rather than transactions.

5. Are your employees ready and willing to step up?

While the most vital communities are inclusive, not all members are created equal. Member level isn’t measured in purchases, visits or loyalty. It’s measured in contribution to the community. Lululemon Ambassadors contribute more of their time and effort to the Lululemon community than everyday members.

There’s another kind of member that can be incredibly valuable to the community: your employees. Presumably, your employees were hired in part due to their belief in and desire to contribute to your corporate purpose. If so, they already are members of the community. MEC employees have a strong affinity for outdoor recreation and are active members of that community, and undoubtedly would be even if they weren’t employees.

However, when it comes to community building, employees are not extensions of your brand. They are and should be treated like independent members. MEC employees use the MECStaffer hashtag when posting online. Members view this hashtag as a sign that the poster (employee) is knowledgeable and quite good at the activity being discussed, garnering the MECStaffer a degree of respect.

Importantly, MEC does not monitor or filter employee posts. Employees are free to post their personal opinions as if they were any other community members. In addition, MEC employees are not required to attend or volunteer at MEC community events or races. They do it because they genuinely care about the community and inspiring others to get outside and recreate.

Ultimately, participating in and facilitating a passion community can be a powerful way to build devotion. However, organizations must do so with a focus on the betterment of the community and community members. You must be willing to put the community first, overcome your compulsion to take charge and understand that your efforts may not have measurable short-term return. Rather, done right, the long-term benefit will be nothing less than brand devotion.