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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Is Your Brand Ripe for Community Building?

If a bunch of surfers could do it, why can’t you?
Contributed by Kris Larson

Brand communities are about lifestyle and affiliation and they are nothing more or less than a place where people of like mind, with a shared passion or interest, can go to affiliate with each other and be a part of something bigger than themselves.

With that definition in mind, I point to one of the first brand communities built in the 60’s by surfers, of all people. Although this may be a surprise to some people, brand communities do not rely on social media to exist. Nor are social media communities necessarily the same thing as brand communities.

Surfers created one of the first lifestyle communities that evolved over time into a series of brand communities. Magazines and movies showcased a laid-back lifestyle that featured amazing images of big waves, and bold surfers with exotic names like Duke Kahanamoku, and Greg “Da Bull” Noll. Surfers even had their own music with bands like Dick Dale and the Deltones, The Ventures, and of course, the Beach boys.

 Movies like “Endless Summer” let us in on how surfers lived, traveled, and viewed the world. “Gidget” made surfing the most popular sport in America when it came out.

 Surfing (founded 1964) and Surfer (founded 1960) celebrated a counter-culture lifestyle and become the voice of a “tribe” of surfers and surf enthusiasts: people who just wanted to look like, sound like, and hang out with surfers.

Early marketers like Greg Knoll and Dewey Weber used their surf “cred” to build and sell surfboards with their custom marks that every surfer wannabe had to have.  Even Mickey Dora, AKA “Da Kat,” who supposedly rued the commercialism created out of the surfing lifestyle, was cashing in with his name-brand surfboards.

Smart marketers took notice and started leveraging the community to promote their lifestyle brands. Early adopters included Mr Zogg’s Sex Wax, Billabong and O’Neill.

So what can we learn about building a brand community from these people who did it so well?

First of all, marketers did not create the community. The community existed first, before anyone even thought about using it to sell stuff to people. The community was actually created by the enthusiasts. The marketers just found a way to cash in on it.

And this tells me that maybe brand communities can’t be created by every single company in the world who has something to sell. Maybe it only works well for those companies with a product or service that are already catering to an active and engaged community base. Take Harley Davidson, for example. There is a great case study of how they reinvented their entire business based on the brand their community of enthusiasts created for them. Source: Harvard Business Review: Best Practice Case Study: Harley-Davidson (April 2009).

Ideas of places where community and engagement make sense (and therefore social media makes sense) are those that contain an element of passion, hobbyism, or intellectual interest.

Companies that are providing products, services and events (engagement) in these areas may be prime candidates for creating or leveraging a brand community:

Industries that require ongoing learning and development to stay current such as:
  • IT
  • Internet Developers
  • Marketing
  • Social Media Consultants
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Etc.
Products or Services that appeal to enthusiasts who share a love or passion for a sport, hobby, or activity such as:
  • Surfing
  • Skiing
  • Boarding
  • Rock Climbing
  • Knitting
  • Sewing
  • Cooking
  • Art
Or products or services that can tie-into a community with a mission
  • Cancer patient support
  • Weight loss motivation
  • Political action groups
  • Youth ministry
However, if you or your client do not have a strong brand and is not affiliated with a big idea, lifestyle, or interest of your core customer-base, I’d recommend spending your limited marketing resources elsewhere. Because after all, who cares enough to spend their precious moments signing up for your Facebook page, Twitter account, and multiple blog feeds just to see the latest announcements about your product or company? What’s in it for them?

This is the question marketers need to be thinking about the next time they’re tempted to plaster a client’s home page with social media buttons. What exactly are you offering customers? Are you turning off prospects, or engaging them? Are you only doing it because the boss says its cool? What is your strategy?

If you’d like to test your company’s readiness to build a brand community, there’s a nifty little online quiz created by the Harvard Business Review called “The Community Readiness Audit”:

I’d love to hear your feedback on how you and your clients are using social media  -- either successfully, or not so successfully. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on other types of companies, industries or products or services that could tap into a lifestyle and create a brand community. Kris Larson’s blog is currently under construction, but I’ll be following the conversation here.

About Kris Larson
I’ve been building brands and creating integrated marketing solutions for companies for many years. Some of the companies I’ve worked with include: L.A. Gear, Computer Sciences Corporation, Technicolor and AnimationMentor.com.

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