Teams tend to work the same way, no matter what kind team it is: a foorball team or a choir or a debate team or any other sort. Each person on the team has a specific role; duties are assigned and are expected to be performed. You might serve the team as a defensive tackle or the lead alto. When you join a team you wear the team uniform: a football jersey or choir robes. You and your group set yourself apart from other teams that do the same thing you do. Your team may also have a name; you may identify yourself as a member of the Dallas Cowboys or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. You work together to achieve a common goal: winning as many games as possible during the season or putting out a Christmas album. These three elements — role, identification and purpose — form the basic process of building any community, including a community that supports a particular brand.
People may come together to support a political candidate, raise funds for a nonprofit committee, or dress up for a comic book convention, but the dynamics of the process remain the same. If you choose to create a brand community, you will need to understand and facilitate these same processes.
Building a brand community is one of the most effective and influential ways to spread the message of your organization. By creating an identity for your customers you can create a sense of belonging. Groups give us identity and a goal — two powerful motivators. When you harness these psychological dynamics, you can energize your customer base and inspire deep loyalty. If you are considering creating a brand community for your organization you must be able to answer some basic questions:
- What role is assigned a member of the community? Early adopter? Advocate? Are some roles reserved for participants who are more committed or who have demonstrated greater loyalty? How can I facilitate these roles?
- How do members of the community identify themselves? How can they set themselves apart? What can they do to show others that they are part of the community? Do they have a name (Swifties, sneakerheads)?
- What purpose does the community serve? What goals make them want to get involved? How can they show others that they’ve reached those goals? Does the community serve a larger purpose, such as supporting a philanthropic cause?
Nonprofits realized this many years ago and began developing devoted followings engaged in all sorts of activities that attract both attention and funds to support a cause. One of the most recent successful case studies is the ALS ice bucket challenge.
- The role: Create a video of a bucket of cold water being dumped on your head, and challenge others to either make a donation or do the same. (Many did both.)
- The identity: People who participated added something to their online identities, posting more than a million videos to Facebook and other social media. They identified themselves as members of the group by performing the role and sharing the proof.
- The goal: The community raised money and awareness to help those dealing with ALS. This viral sensation created an online community of participants who raised more than 100 million dollars — many times the normal amount raised — and contributed to dramatically increased awareness of Lou Gehrig's disease.
Communities and identities are fluid. For some people, brand communities are temporary while others may make lifetime commitments. But as we see from this example, even a short-term community can have a tremendous impact on the long-term success of a brand.
One notable for-profit example is the community developed by Harley-Davidson, the Harley Owners Group. This community of more than a million motorcycle enthusiasts can be found all over the world. A range of roles have developed, with subgroups for women and veterans. Members get together to take trips, attend events and share their love of bike riding. The company provides hundreds of ways for them to identify themselves with branded merchandise. Although the primary purpose is recreational, the brand has established a secondary purpose by supporting the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Thousands of book clubs exist around the country. There are clubs that read romance novels and science-fiction; clubs that review new works of poetry or read the latest political books. But Brenda wanted to create something completely new to support her fledgling book store.
Taking cues from the enormous success of the Harry Potter books and the large parties that were held on publication dates, Brenda decided to create a book club that engaged people in more diverse ways. She assigned new works at the beginning of the month and established roles for members who wanted to volunteer. Then, at each meeting, the bookworms would produce an over-the-top event that attracted not only members of the group but also a much wider audience.
For example, Brenda decided to review the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. They chose a day at the end of the month then began producing marketing materials and spreading the word on social media. The Bookworms (as the members called themselves) chose roles and began preparing for "Little House on the Prairie Day" — a full day's worth of lectures, demonstrations and stories for historians young and old.
- Members of the book club who like to cook agreed to produce dishes authentic to the period and set up a buffet. They described how each dish had to be made from ingredients that were grown and gathered by the same people who ate the meal.
- Brenda recruited history enthusiasts from a nearby historical society who brought in all kinds of household objects that would have been used by the family and described how a wagon would be loaded with everything that could be needed on a long journey.
- A cartographer was asked to do a presentation showing the routes used by people crossing the country In covered wagons in the 1800s.
- Several women agreed to dress up like the main characters to present period clothing, demonstrating how impractical it could be when dealing with the realities of life in a covered wagon. Brenda also brought in an expert from a local sporting goods store to show how much footwear and rugged clothing has changed since then.
- A local preacher came in to describe the central place of religion in 1800s society.
The next month, Brenda's bookworms got together to provide an evening of "the society of dead poets." Each member chose a poet. For a few weeks, they studied the works and life of the chosen author. A public event was held at the end of the month where each member dressed as the poet and, sitting on a stage around a table, read some favorite poems and answered questions from the audience. Audience members had the opportunity to pose questions to a demure young woman by the name of Emily Dickinson. A grizzled, old Walt Whitman read "Song of Myself" and talked about how affected he was by the Civil War.
Members of Brenda's bookworms developed an online community where they identified themselves to their friends and family. Membership was limited to those who were interested in investing the time and energy necessary to put on these monthly events. But there was plenty of enthusiastic support within the community, and lots of interest from local schools. All of this helped Brenda reach out to the local community and create a unique brand that the mass-market and online bookstores could not compete with.