..where consumers contribute something beyond consumption.
A brand cannot be seen in isolation from society at large. A brand community is a specialised, geographically non-specific, free community based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand.
A sociological interpretation is central to understanding the idea of a brand community.
All brand communities have three distinctive traits – a shared consciousness of ‘us’, rituals and traditions, and a sense of belonging and responsiveness.
Brand communities are of immense value to corporations, causes and society at large. The operations of brand communities have rich implications for branding, developmental efforts on part of brands, and consumer behaviour itself.
Community is a core construct in social sciences. Great social theorists, social scientists, and philosophers such as Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Nietzsche, Simmel and Weber commented on social architecture with communities as its building block. They may have been studying individual psychology, class friction or economics but the sense of relation with community was never overlooked.
An understanding of community is the staple of political, religious, and economic discourse.
Unfortunately, it is not so in the study of brand building and marketing. In fact, community building or formation has been neglected by social observers as well as brand builders.
Modernity, market based capitalism and consumer culture have impacted society deeply.
Yet, despite the centrality of brands and the change that is underway - particularly in the context of consumer behaviour and consumption - the stature of brand community as a field of marketing has not grown.
Perhaps this is so because very few brands have a natural community following and fewer still have made it the basis for their existence.
So what is the idea of brand community and what is its reality in practice?
A brand community is a specialised community, based on a structured set of social relationships at the centre of which is a branded good or service. Like other communities, it is marked by a shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of belonging and responsibility.
The traditional concept of community got squashed by modernity. Early sociologists saw advancing nineteenth century modernity not just challenging community, but destroying it.
A natural organic community was replaced by a more depersonalised, mass produced and less grounded modern society. It was formally distinguishable such as between the custom bound, familial, emotional small rural community and the mechanical, contractual, individualistic, rational urban society.
Anonymity, rootlessness, dislocation, and disconnectedness were the result of modern commercialism’s triumph over socially knitted communities.
The emerging consumer culture was one in which branded goods replaced unmarked commodities, where mass advertising replaced personal selling, and where the individual consumers replaced the commune as a whole.
The submersion of community into the larger society also meant the imposition of sameness and the difficulty of retaining distinction between in-groups and out-groups.
Cut to the present, when the pendulum is swinging the other way. After the universal thrall of sameness has become a reality, consumers are finding that it is only with a few brands with which they may be able to construct their social identities.
"Today, a brand community is one of the most accessible, pertinent and continuing forms of social identity and belonging that an individual can hope to be admitted into." Shubhranshu Singh.
Today, a brand community is one of the most accessible, pertinent and continuing forms of social identity and belonging that an individual can hope to be admitted into.
The brand community, therefore, should have a central and prominent place in the discourse of modernity, community, and society.
While there are many definitions of community, a review of sociology literature reveals at least three core components or markers of community, as well as the critical notion of imagined community.
The first and most important element of community is ‘Awareness of Us’. It is the intrinsic connection that members feel toward one another, and the collective sense of difference from others not in the community. It is a shared knowledge of union at the level of community.
The second indicator of community is the presence of shared rituals and traditions. Rituals and traditions perpetuate the community’s shared history, culture, and consciousness. Rituals set up visible public definitions and social solidarity.
Traditions are social practices which seek to celebrate and inculcate certain behavioral norms and values. The richer this weaving, the more powerful the brand and its community.
The third marker of community is a sense of responsiveness and responsibility, which is a felt sense of duty or obligation to the community as a whole and to its individual members. This is what produces collective action.
With the advent of technology and modern communications, communities are not restricted by geography. Initially, community was thought of as linked to a place. New communication technologies have provided an ability to unite geographically dispersed individuals with a commonality of purpose and identity.
Through modern history, modern marketing, consumer culture, and the mass media followed near identical paths of development.
Media made modern marketing possible.
Newspapers and magazines, then radio and television and now moving beyond broadcast media into the social and digital world enabled marketers to project brands into national consciousness.
Now, brand communities transcend geography because media transcends geography.
It was media and communications that allowed imagined communities to be connected and give each community member a sense of a larger world of the brand.
In reality, people form communities locally. Nevertheless, consciousness of a global network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds is a powerful brand strength.
This concept of brand as the maker of primary ties above notions of local solidarity is a big idea, due largely to the presence of inexpensive and accessible communication.
Brands are undeniably and fundamentally social entities. Brands are created as much by consumers as by marketers. It happens via an intricate and enthralling dance of social consumption and community formation. This intersection of brand and community is an important one.
Perhaps most significantly, this may be a place where consumers can contribute something beyond consumption itself.
The existence, perseverance, resolution, and constant reinvention of brand communities is the most significant and democratic occurrence in a branded world.
Those who understand this will thrive. Others should try to understand this to survive!!
(Shubhranshu Singh is global head for brand and marketing at Royal Enfield. He writes regularly on brand building, content, business, politics and sociology. Views expressed are personal.)