Give Your Brand Away, Part 1

What do Coca-Cola, Harley-Davidson, and LEGO have in common? All are highly dependent on brand communities. We dream of communities. Some of us have nightmares. Why? Brand communities hold more brand-building potential than any other communication form.

Long before the official LEGO Web site went live in 1995, the company was aware of hundreds of existing sites, created by LEGO fans all over the world. Most paid tribute to the brand and expressed values the company itself wouldn’t have been able to credibly claim. LEGO didn’t know how to handle this situation. Company culture was focused on preventing anyone from using the brand name. The attitude helped LEGO survive through the ’80s, when hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors imitated the well-known plastic bricks. On one hand, sites popping up all over the Web misused the brand name and identity. Yet they gave LEGO positive exposure the brand itself could never have initiated.

In the late ’90s, LEGO achieved cult status among teenagers. They proclaimed their admiration on T-shirts, homemade when they couldn’t get their hands on old, original LEGO shirts. In Japan the brand was such a hit the product was sold in hot clothing boutiques!

The LEGO example is not unique. Think of Harley-Davidson. Coke. I remember a friend who, during our teens, was so obsessed by the Coca-Cola brand he created a personal Coke museum. It contained thousands of bottles, gimmicks, and ads. At 12 years old!

These three brands developed such potent spirit their core audiences accept them almost as personal brands. They form brand communities as permanent testaments to the brand’s excellence. Harley-Davidson, Coke, and LEGO no longer belong to their companies but are in the hands of consumers. The audiences own the brands — at least, they feel they do. I call this “MSP,” for “Me Selling Proposition.” It’s the ultimate branding achievement.

Before attaining MSP status, a brand may pass through the classic unique selling proposition (USP) stage. These days, a USP can hardly be claimed by any product. Nothing’s really unique anymore.

Emotional selling proposition (ESP) is Coke and Pepsi territory. These brands differentiate themselves from each other according to feelings and values they promote in consumers, rather than to rationally analyzed product attributes.

Organizational selling proposition (OSP) can be observed in brands such as Nike, a cult even among its employees. Over the years, Nike has been known for the sports culture it promotes among its staff. The organization is more than a workplace. Nike is a lifestyle for its workers.

The final stage in brand development is brand selling proposition (BSD). Harry Potter, Pokémon, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are examples of brands that work from the BSP. The product is irrelevant. As long as the brand name is attached, a product will sell on the name’s strength. Four Harry Potter books have been published to date, yet over 3,000 related products have been released!

On the slippery slope toward branding’s summit lie a number of camps. MSP is the pinnacle of brand-building success. At this altitude, consumers assume ownership of the brand and do most of the communication work for you as part of a brand community.

How do you reach the apex? Tune in next week. I’ll discuss the art of creating brand communities. It’s far from easy, some would claim the enterprise is dangerous. But the MSP is a mighty effective communication strategy if handled properly.

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