For centuries, the relationship between companies and people was purely transactional. Companies would produce and promote a product that customers would purchase and consume. Under this arrangement, brands had complete control of every aspect of the consumer experience. And consumers had no way to share their feelings towards the brand.
However, the explosion of social media and digital devices in the 21st century has reversed the balance of power. Today, it’s ordinary people, not company CMO’s who are dictating how and where they engage with brands. In this new era of people powered marketing, a brand is no longer what companies tell people, but instead, what people tell their friends. That’s why some of the world’s innovative companies are investing in building communities, not customers. But how do you build a community around your brand?
Before you think about building a community, it’s important to establish what your brand stands for. A clear mission should communicate your brand’s reason for existence, beyond making money. It should capture your core values and act as a guiding light for internal teams, agency partners and future customers. Ultimately, your mission should give people a reason to believe. But it also needs to be rooted in your company’s culture, history and actions. In other words, it can’t be a bunch of empty words strung together by an external consultant. It needs to be true.
A quick look at the most salient and commercially successful 21st century brands indicates an unwavering commitment to their mission. Nike’s mission is “To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” Patagonia “is in business to save our home planet.” And Airbnb, “to help create a world where you can belong anywhere.” In each example, the brand mission transcends the product or service they are selling. We turn to these brands not only to fulfill a functional need but because of how they make us feel. After all, 95% of purchasing decisions are subconscious, driven by human emotion, not reason. Forming an authentic brand mission will help attract your community.
Once you have a reason for being, it’s time to focus on who your brand is serving. In the past, traditional marketing activity — print, broadcast and retail distribution — afforded little or no opportunity to build a direct relationship with consumers. Most brands were unable to understand consumer behavior beyond basic demographic data. Today that’s no longer the case. The wealth of consumer data now available means brands can layer attitudinal and behavioral insights on top of demographic data to paint a far richer, more nuanced picture of real people.
More importantly, the internet has opened up new possibilities to connect and listen to customers. Savvy marketers are using this opportunity not only to gain customer insights but to co-create products, services and campaigns. For example, Twitch uses its ambassador program to establish new content genres and increase social media engagement. Netflix has launched dedicated social media channels for Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+ and other audience subsets. And Lego has embraced open innovation through Lego Ideas: where fans can submit ideas for new products. From now on, companies can’t afford to close their brands to the public. Instead, they should actively encourage new ideas and constructive feedback from the external world — especially superfans and rejectors —to keep the brand fresh and relevant.
Turning your customer base into a brand community requires a completely different mindset and approach to marketing. It involves seeing people as humans, not consumers, targets or users. For this to happen, marketing departments need to care about customers beyond the transitory moment they engage with the brand. A community-based marketing approach is predicated on serving society. This idea takes on extra significance, given that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, coupled with an impending economic downturn.
More than ever, companies need to be empathetic to the challenges facing ordinary people. Their default position should be to serve, not just sell. Since every action today will be remembered for an entire lifetime. Especially now, when consumers are facing shrinking disposable incomes or when dealing with a new generation of consumers who are spending their money on companies that share their values. Contributing back to society should be seen as a strategic priority for every global brand. Refusing to give back, could carry a steep cost given the customer lifetime value of (CLV) of Millennials and Gen-Z. Plus, the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60-70% compared to 5-20% for a new prospect. In short, investing in your community builds long-term brand loyalty.
Building a community around your brand is not easy. It starts with establishing an authentic mission. Then, connecting with your audience by involving them in the creative process. But above all, it requires an unconditional commitment to serve society, beyond the point of sale. The shift from customer to community will earn your brand a place in culture long after the pandemic has subsided. What’s more, building brand communities elevates the role of marketing from communication to action.
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