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  • Writer's pictureGladwyn Lewis

Building a formidable brand community

Updated: May 19, 2023

Render of a representation of communities
Render of a representation of communities

From 1973-1983, Harley Davidson's market share went from 78% of the US market to 23% as Japanese manufacturers flooded the market with high quality, low priced bikes. In response President Reagan introduced a new protectionist trade bill, granting Harley Davidson protection against foreign brands that sought new markets in North America, by introducing entry duties up to 49.5% of their wholesale value.

While the Gephardt trade bill granted certain protections to Harley Davidson, the company realised that it needed another edge, and started to use the emotional appeal that hooked customers into something bigger than just technology/features.

The real power of Harley Davidson is the power to market to consumers who love the product. The adventurous pioneer spirit, the wild west, having your own horse, and going where you want to go - the motorcycle takes on some attributes of the iron horse. It suggests personal freedom and independence.
Harley Davidson Motorcycle Club in Bandung
Harley Davidson Motorcycle Club in Bandung

This come back from a near extinction refocused Harley Davidson into its loyal community and galvanized the brand so that twenty five years later, it held a top-50 global brand valuation at $7.8 billion. A group of ardent enthusiasts that was focused around the lifestyle, activities and ethos of the brand, enabled a reorganization of the brand's purpose to focus on its community, building it to be one of the earliest and largest brand communities the world admires today. Think about it, automotive brands have tried (some successfully) to take a page out of the Harley Davidson playbook and capture that community within their own brands. Enfield (an Indian brand), boasts a smaller enthusiast base, and so does numerous automotive brands like Mercedes, Audi, Lamborghini, etc.

In today's turbulent world, people are hungry for a sense of connection: and in leaner economic times, every company needs to find new ways to invigorate enthusiasm into their brand and outreach activities. But while companies try and try to aspire to customer loyalty, experience and brand authenticity that robust communities deliver, few really understand what it takes to achieve such benefits. Much worse than that, companies hold serious misconceptions like a brand community exists to serve the business, or that the brand community must be tightly controlled, moderated and limited.

However the reality is far from that. An effective brand community exists in service to its members, who participate for a variety of reasons and motivations, from building relationships, cultivating new interests and contributing to each other and society at large. Secondly a brand community always defies management control. Effective brand stewards create environments which people and communities can thrive and excel, somehow designing multiple experiences that appeal and cater to various audiences. So let's get started in dispelling these popular myths around brand communities, so that you have an exact measure of what it takes to build and invigorate your own brand community.

Brand community is a marketing activity

This couldn't be farther from the truth. The reality is that brand communities is a key business function and isolating community building efforts within the marketing purview is a mistake that is going to cost you down the line.

Following the 1985 buyback that saw Harley Davidson leverage control back of its company, the management reformulated the competitive strategy and business model around a thriving brand community that was rooted in the organizations' business ethos and philosophy. Instead of focusing on just the marketing function of the organization, Harley Davidson re-engineered every aspect of its organization - from its culture, operating principles to its governance structure to drive is community strategy.

The 'brotherhood' of riders, united by a shared ethos, offered Harley a means to strategically reposition itself as the only motorcycle manufacturer that understood bikers on their own terms. To reinforce this community forward positioning, and further strengthen the connection between the company and its customers, Harley ensured that all community outreach functions were staffed with employees rather than contractors. This had a unforeseen effect, many employees became riders, and many riders become employees. Executives were expected to spend face-time with customers, thus allowing them to close the feedback loop, and bring valuable insights into the boardroom. This philosophy was further reinforced with new employee orientations, and all brand/company decisions were rooted in the community's perspective. Thus making the community the true owner of the brand and the company executives and staff, their stewards.

Brand Community exists to serve the business

Executives often tend to forget that their consumers are actually people with a multitude of needs, wants, interests and responsibilities. Building a community doesn't mean that you focus on driving up your sales numbers first, but by helping people to truly meet their needs. The status quo doesn't matter with brand communities, and is not about trying a new identity through brand affiliation, instead people participate in communities for a variety of reasons - to find emotional support, connect with like-minded people, explore ways to contribute to the greater good, and to cultivate their interests and skills, just to name a few.

Decathlon in its early days offers an example of how a community can give rise to a brand. For instance, the retailer consciously decreases profit margins of its products year on year to pass on the benefits to its buyers. As Olivier Robinet, CEO of Decathlon Australia said,

What I have in mind is to sell at the lowest price we can. A lot of companies think exactly the contrary, they want to sell at the highest price they can at the highest margin. We want to … sell at the lowest margin we can. Our margin decreases every year and that’s a big topic for us.

It is a brand that wants to sell at the lowest possible profit margins, a brand that measures the effectiveness of their business objectives by looking at how happy its customers and employees are and yet, it has outpaced competitors (established brands) in the most complex and demanding markets.

While the company localizes its expansion strategy to suit the needs of the country they are setting their foot into, there are a few parameters that they don’t compromise on. The store space is one such factor.

When retail spaces are shrinking and the world is moving online, the sports retailer chooses to open outlets that are the size of a warehouse. The size of the retailer’s flagship store in Emeryville, California is 47,000 square-feet!

"Third place" brands like Gold's Gym and Starbucks tap into this sentiment by providing brick and mortar venues that foster interaction. In these cases, brand loyalty is the reward for meeting people's needs for the community, and is not the core motivation for the creation of the brand community.

Robust communities take a life of its own. They are not built on the brand's reputation, but on an understanding of their members core values and motivations. Putting the brand second is virtually an impossible task for a marketer to do, but it is absolutely essential if a strong community is the ultimate goal.

Build the brand and the community will follow

There are three basic forms of community affiliation: pools, webs and hubs. Really effective and meaningful community strategies continue to combine all three in a mutually reinforcing way.

Members of pools are united by shared values or goals (think vegan or Apple devotees). Brand management practices have been rooted such that managers in a pool based approach focus on communicating a clear set of values that connect your potential customers to the brand. Unfortunately, pools only deliver very limited community benefits. People tend to share an abstract and sometimes vague set of beliefs but build few interpersonal relationships. Meaning that over time engagement drops, and community members eventually drop out of the pool. The solution then is to focus on building webs and hubs to further strengthen and build the community.

Complex Web
Complex Web

Web affiliations are based on strong one-to-one connections. These are by far the strongest and most stable form of communities because the people involved in them are bound by many and very varied relationships. Looking at a key example, the Harley Davidson museum for example, fosters webs of interpersonal relationships on their campus.

Harley Davidson Museum Rivet Wall
Harley Davidson Museum Rivet Wall

As museum visitors peruse through the exhibitions, they come across these custom inscribed, stainless steel rivets that are commissioned by groups or individuals. As they reflect on the stories told by these rivets, they engage with each other and soon find themselves comparing interesting inscriptions, engaging in interesting conversations and building connections. Often leading to lifetime friendships, the museum through rivet walls strengthens the Harley brand pool by building webs around and in it.

A hub in action in a Tony Robbin's conference
A hub in action in a Tony Robbin's conference

Members of hubs are united by their admiration of an individual (think Tony Robbins or Deepak Chopra). The hub is a very strong, though unstable form of community that is completely dependant on the central figure. Once the central figure is no longer present, the hub often breaks apart. However hubs can help communities acquire new members who hold similar values.

Hubs can also be used to create or strengthen a brand pool, a strategy Nike has used since its inception, by associating with stars like Michael Jordan, Luka Dončić, Lebron James and many more. To build stable communities, hub connections must be bonded to the community through webs.

Brand communities should be a form of hero worship for true brand advocates

This couldn't be further from the truth. Smart companies embrace the conflicts that make communities thrive. Communities are always inherently political, and even with like minded people, there is bound to be conflict. Playstation gamers dismiss Xbox players, and PC players dismiss both. Apple enthusiasts hate Microsoft and Dell with a passion, and Tim Horton's lovers shun Starbucks and vice-versa. Dividing lines are a definer within any community, where degrees of passion and loyalty separate the hard core fans from the posers. Community is often than not about rivalries and lines drawn in the sand.

Firms can reinforce these rivalries to engage fans to draw others to fan the flames. Pepsi and Coca Cola have always had a long rivalry that has taken on various forms in advertising campaigns. A group's unity is formidable when such conflicts are brought into the limelight.

Some companies make the mistake of downplaying this rivalry instead of effectively using it. Take Porsche for example, its 2002 launch of the Cayenne SUV drew lines in the sand by past owners of the 911 refusing to accept it as a 'real' Porsche. Porsche tried to stem this divide, with a campaign that was complete with roaring engines, aimed at demonstrating that the Cayenne was a genuine member of the acclaimed Porsche family. But the entrenched community was not convinced. Smart managers know that singing praises will not force warring tribes to unite. Communities become stronger by highlighting, not trying to erase the borders that strongly define them.

Outspoken leaders build strong communities

Leaders and Evangelists play a role in any form of networking. They spread information, influence decisions and help new ideas get traction because they are outspoken by nature. But they are a misguided approach to community building. Robust communities establish their own culture by enabling everyone to play a role.

From Burning Man to car clubs in your locality, successful communities give members opportunities to take on new roles, alternate between roles and further the community strength by introducing it to new audiences. People need to be offered a variety of roles, from active to passive, in small groups or large. Members of strong brand communities need to stay involved and add value by wearing multiple hats, and becoming more intimate with the community they are involved with.

Successful brand communities are tightly managed and controlled.

Control has been the norm when it comes to community management. Hasbro's suing of fans for publishing content based on its brands, is a clear cut example of community managers putting corporate interests over those of their customers or their community.

Such efforts have led to much debate about how to control or assert over brand communities. But that's the wrong question. Brand communities are not corporate assets so control is always an illusion. But that doesn't mean brands need to forget their responsibility to their community. Effective brand stewards are your community's co-creators and by nurturing and facilitating this community, they are creating conditions for it to thrive. Companies build effective communities through a design philosophy that replaces control with a balance of structure and flexibility.

Nike+ Communities
Nike+ Communities

Like the Nike+ online community, that cultivates peer to peer support and interaction by encouraging members to challenge and even trash talk each other. This has led to multiple offshots, the Nike Run Club, Basketball Club, Workout Club and so on, creating sub communities that thrive around common interests and goals.

So do you think you are prepared?

Almost every brand can seriously benefit from a community strategy, but not every company has the capability to pull it off. It takes a certain boldness to examine everything from company values to your organizational design. And it takes a certain degree of fortitude to meet people and engage with them on their own terms, give up control, and accept conflict as a part of the package.

But the results are clear, a strong brand community increases customer loyalty, lowers marketing costs, makes your brand more authentic and opens up dialogue with your consumers on how to grow the business. The truth is very simple, when you get your community right, the benefits are irrefutable. So are you ready to start your own brand community, if so, get in touch with us.

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