I’ve traveled across some 30 countries over the past half year to conduct my BRAND sense symposia. With it, I’ve had a good chance to observe the reach of one particular phenomenon, shared by every country, from New Zealand to the Netherlands to Norway: a yellow plastic wristband engraved with the message “LIVESTRONG.” The Lance Armstrong Foundation charity wristband has been embraced by the world. It’s a phenomenon born of a personal passion, expressing a universal vision, and supported by communities.
One essential ingredient in tomorrow’s brand-building strategies will be the community. The role of the community, of consumers, will be to build brands. We can see the power of consumer brand-building in action already. Brands we barely knew a decade ago thrive because of brand-building user communities. Where would Google be without a community to work with? eBay wouldn’t exist were it not for a growing community of adherents. Even online retailer Amazon.com seems to be gradually integrating a sense of community into its operations.
A community and its supportive energy are an essential ingredient you can’t buy or manufacture. Even when you manage to tap into it or grow a community that, as a byproduct of commercial transaction, builds mutual benefits for itself and your brand, you can’t control it. As the old saying goes, “All roads lead to Rome.” The brand-success roads to Rome are paved with community brand-building.
Any future brand will have to create itself around a community, its very soul. What have we learned so far from brands that have, often with little time and tiny budgets, built their reputations through community brand building?
Many 20th century brands struggle with this concept. Who would build a business on trust, with no contracts, no financial ties, nothing — just trust? eBay did. And its 200 million users seem to buy into the idea of trusting each other by sending money before receiving the goods they’re buying from people they don’t know from countries they’ve most likely never visited.
In 1997, there was a concept that invited consumers to post comments about any brand on the brand’s own Web site. It was a radical invitation to free speech, but it saw a rapid demise in the face of attendant legal implications and the old-fashioned brands’ fear of hearing their customers’ voices.
The concept is back. Communities and their members have their own energies. These energies are in part directed into the irrepressible urge to communicate. People want to voice ideas and be heard. Blogging is an expression of a need to share and be heard.
That philosophy underlies what’s possibly the most successful weight-loss network in the world: Weight Watchers. People want to share their thoughts with like-minded people, so a brand-building community emerges. We might peruse reader reviews on Amazon with skepticism, but we read them and are sometimes influenced by them. Sharing ideas among that community gives the online retailer a major advantage over traditional bookstores. EBay enjoys success thanks to the same idea — consumers using a rating system to share their impressions.
Developing a relationship with and within a community is all about making the right match. The better the match between product and emerging community, the better the value of the community’s growing loyalty. In the old days, we’d have mentioned “targeting” in this context. Now we understand the error inherent in this very term. Targeting is a one-way exercise. It negates response. Successful communication involves mutually beneficial engagement by the sender and the receiver of information.
Without sharing, listening, and compatible matching, eBay, Amazon, Weight Watchers, and any other community-based brand would struggle to survive. Consider whether your brand ticks yes to each of these questions: Is your brand based, or could it be based, on trust? Can your users share what’s on their minds, not only with you but with all your customers? How easy is it for your users to not only find a match with your brand but also make your brand match their needs?
Old-school brands will opt out at this point. But modern brands still have choices. Seize that choice now. Who knows? In a few years, your community options may be taken up by other brands who nurtured their communities by trusting ’em, hearing ’em, and matching ’em.
As my dad always used to say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Is your brand ready to join the community of your future customers? More important, can it afford not to?