Give Your Brand Away, Part 3: Community Building, Step by Step

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at the phenomenon of brand communities — audiences of brand devotees who spontaneously and voluntarily publicize their dedication to their favorite brands. This week, let’s consider — step by step — how you might create a brand community.

First, spend some time with members of your audience, both when they’re using your brand on their own and when they’re discussing it in a group. A good place to do this is on an online discussion board. What topics tend to arise? Which of these generate interest and energy?

Then, observe individuals. Which of your consumers would you say exhibited the strongest views and the best ability to discuss your brand? This person will be the keystone in your brand community. You see, the ingredients for a brand community include more than just a good strong brand and a product category that can inspire group interest. You need to have a group leader as well. The success of any community lies in its leader, the individual who drives opinion and debate and who, in so doing, generates passion.

It’s possible to create brand communities without having detected that leader, but in 80 percent of cases it’s the leading voice that makes a brand community vibrant. Without this focus, a brand community will be less effectual. Like real-world communities — sports teams, gangs, church groups — one or two leaders are essential for motivation. The leaders set the agenda.

I’m sure you realize you won’t create a brand community overnight. It could take years before you find the right person to lead your brand into the brand-community arena. Marketing directors might love their products, but that love is only expressed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The love of a brand community operates 24/7.

From this point, everything you’ve learned about marketing is sidelined. Normally any marketer would work to secure control of a brand the whole way through, from the first strategy planning session to a campaign’s execution. Forget it. Running brand communities means letting go. Your involvement would be interference.

Brand communities evolve from the energies of willing individuals who so strongly favor a brand they want to share the good news with others. The evangelical impulse does not welcome direction! So, sometimes there’s trouble in the brand community. At times, there’ll be discussions that don’t cohere with your brand platform. In short, your consumers will take over, and you will have given them full license to represent your brand.

Many brand builders still think good brand building is a matter of total brand control. But that’s not correct. We already know this from what we see in the press. A movie’s box-office success often depends on its reviews. Sure, the first couple of columns might be positive because they were planted. But the free press gets the last word. If the press embraces the film, it’s a winner. If not, it can be a financial fiasco.

If we measure the risk factors in running a PR campaign, expressing them as a score from 1 to 10, with 10 signifying greatest risk, launching a brand community would have to come in at about 8. Along with this substantial risk goes substantial reward, if it succeeds. And it costs substantially less than any other marketing activity.

Obviously, research is the alpha and omega of your brand community. With the help of research you can go about picking the right leader, supporting that leader without interfering, being a good partner, supplying ideas, materials, data, and even technology (but not money) to kick the brand community off. Good research could result in a brand community that runs year after year without any support from your company at all.

Pokémon still has more than 4,000 communities around the world. Most computer games can claim from 100 up to 15,000 brand communities. And in most cases, this huge interest was kicked off by just a couple of communities, motivated by the brands themselves but eventually attracting an audience of their own.

So, are brand communities going to last? I’d answer that with another question: Is PR going to last? Of course! Over time, marketing departments are going to learn to put more at risk. Brand building is no longer a closed experiment in which everything is predictable. Increasingly, brand building will become a matter of partnering with consumers and letting them do the work. This is truly interactive brand building. These are brands depending 100 percent on their consumers spreading the news, good as well as bad, and, in the end, creating brand perception.

Are you ready to create your brand community? Please don’t answer now. Think about it, but don’t reject the idea. It’s most likely 40 percent of the world’s leading brands will be represented by brand communities in the future. The question is whether your brand will be among these. Watch out for it: Some day some brands will win consumer attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, when marketing departments are closed for the day.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.