“For the latter, we develop a sense of ourselves through our interactions with others in the social collective. The community gives importance to the individual life, while the newly adapted individual identity is recognized by the group through a sense of communal solidarity”. – Why We Join, Jenny Lee
Nothing has made more of an impact on my life than growing up in the Columbia, SC music scene. My participation granted me access to a membership of musicians, gave me a strong sense of self and defined who I was for most of my adolescence. A band t-shirt and a hoodie were practically stitched into my very being. And as I read popular books and articles on branded communities, I am transported back to those experiences of my youth. The commonalities between my experience and strategies surrounding brand communities run parallel. What follows is a look at the theoretical development of community and how these local music scene offer the perfect microcosm of brand community.
Origins of Community
The study of community has origins in both anthropological and sociological research (Tonnes, 1912; Hillery, 1955). In his seminal study on Gemeinschafts (community), Tonnes (1912) saw community as being intimate, private, and inclusive- and in opposition to the surrounding society (Gesellschafts). His earlier work focused on the idea that communities were characterized by groups of actors who were “closely interrelated in space as well as time” (p. 9). It is important to note that the community typology Tonnes observed, was a concept that focused on “distinguishing relationships based on sentiments-emotional and intrinsic attachments” (Gusfield, p. 10, 1978). Community and society was seen as two distinct concepts. As such, Tonnes observed three variants in communal formations: (1) community by kinship, (2) community of locality, and (3) community of the mind (Rothaemel and Sugiyama, 2001).
Gusfield (1978) expanded Tonnes’ earlier work by providing three markers of community. The first, and central marker is the consciousness of kind concept (Gusfield, 1978). Gusfield purposed (1978) that individuals would hold an intrinsic connection towards one another based on community affiliation. Individuals moved beyond feelings of shared beliefs and attitudes and begin identifying themselves by the differences of those outside the collective (Bagozzi and Dholakia, 2006).
The second element of community is the presence of shared rituals (Douglas and Ishwerwood, 1979). Shared rituals serve as the mechanism that, “perpetuate[s] the community’s shared history, culture, and consciousness” (Muniz, p. 413, 2001).
The third element of community is the development of moral responsibility. Members who identify with a given community will feel both a sense of duty to the community or specific members. According to Lee (2009), “…the community gives importance to the individual life, while the newly adapted individual identity is recognize by the group through a sense of communal solidarity” (p.1).
The construction of community also has roots in anthropology research. While no definitive theory of community has been agreed upon, Karp, Stone and Yoels (1977) identified three elements that helped to define community: (1) sustained social interactions, (2) shared attributes and values, and (3) a delineated geographical space (Rothaemel and Sugiyama, 2001). It was within Lawrence’s (1995) current critique of community that turned the focus of community as being solely defined by geography and more aligned with Rheingold’s (1993) view of community. According to Rheingold, community could form through computer-mediated environments and even in the absence of body: “Virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when people carry on public discussions long, enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace” (Rheingold, p. 4, 1993).
With the help of modern technology, and more specifically the rise of mass media, the concept of community was broadened. In keeping with Tonnes’ (1967) community of mind concept, Anderson (1983) proposed the idea of imagined community. Anderson purposed that any communal formation, outside of small villages, was bound through imaginary notions of shared identity (Muniz and O’ Guinn, 2001). As such, the concept of community became much less about geographical proximity and more about networks of “social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds” (Muniz and O’Guinn, p. 413, 2001).
Recent research has begun to examine virtual communities of consumption (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001; Von Hippel, 2001; Leher and Tirole, 2004; Anderson, 2005; Casalo, Flavian, Guinalis, 2010). Initially defined by Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) as “specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand (p.412)”, the idea of brand community has only received recent attention. Using Gusfield’s markers of community, Muniz and O’Guinn argued that brand communities are socially constructed entities that embed themselves into the day-to-day lives of consumers through the connection of consumer to brand and consumer to consumer. Based on their findings, Muniz and O’Guinn concluded with three positive aspects: (1) brand communities represent a form of consumer agency, (2) is a conduit of information, (3) and communal interaction provides additional social benefits.
McAlexander, Schouten and Koenig (2002) proposed an extension to Muniz and O’Guinn’s customer-customer-brand model and conceptualized a brand community model that made the focal customer the center. Where both sets of researchers differ is the role the brand plays. Muniz and O’Guinn believe the that the brand is socially negotiated among members.
Consciousness of Kind or Why Would Someone Wear Your T-shirt?
Consciousness of kind describes an intrinsic sense of belonging. While Muniz and O’Guinn described brand communities in the physical sense (i.e, face-to-face), Carlson, Suter and Brown (2008) argued that brand communities can form even in the absence of social interaction. They called this concept psychological branded community. Both are important to understand, because they are central to building value beyond what the brand specifically creates. Just as MINI has created physical community, it can be argued that Apple has created a psychological sense of brand community among its users. Jackie Huba (2013) wrote that “building community starts with finding a common thread that brings people together (p. 70). In her case study of Lady Gaga, Huba described Gaga’s commitment to the gay community and rallying for those who felt marginalized as an initial thread. Gaga capitalized on the feelings expressed by these young adults and instead of focusing on how others viewed them, they celebrated this notion.
Growing up, band t-shirts were walking advertisements for those in the scene. These shirts were a way to express identity, expertise (we only listened to good music) and a way to find commonality even thousands of miles from home. We were so desperate to find others “like us”. If I ran into someone on my college campus with a Piebald shirt on, I immediately knew we kindred spirits. Similarly, Apple’s icon apple is so simple, yet signifies so much to users.
Lessons for brands:
Brands should provide their followers with the ability to signal their expertise or love. Find out why a fan would wear your t-shirt or tattoo your logo.
Create a medium and craft messaging that allows fans to find each other.
Shared Rituals or Let’s Come Together and Cry
Shared rituals are conducted to maintain the culture of the community. For brands this might mean diving into the brand’s history or sharing brand stories. For us, it meant standing shoulder-to-shoulder for six hours with friends and strangers alike. McAlexander, Shouten and Koenig (2002) reported that participation in branded activities led to a significant increase in feeling toward the brand and a stronger sense of community. Shows were the culmination of a week of anticipation. We were able to come together with a bunch of people who had a passion for a similar band. There is really no way to describe this phenomenom other than through some well chosen examples:
There were even rumors of crying among those singing a long. It became magical when we (the crowd) embedded ourselves into these deeply emotional songs. As Butte (1998) found that when members had the ability to strengthen communal ties, the greater the desire to engage in word-of-mouth. In their first book, Brains on Fire describe the Fiskateer led crafting events. This is a perfect example of finding those that love who you are and providing them with an outlet for celebration.
Lessons for Brands:
What activities will allow your biggest fans to unite and experience something shared? What are some commonalities among members that might be the perfect vehicle to celebrate?
Moral Responsibility or Oh, You Play in this Band?!
I will never forget how important the moments were before and after a show. You either stumbled into a conversation with someone who turned out to play in the opening band or you shared a drink with the guitar player of the band you came to see. Moral responsibility implies a sense of duty and obligation. I also think of authenticity. Lee wrote (2009): “Postmodern culture is in fact quite self-aware and self-selective about issues of authenticity and identity” (p. 415). We expected all of our bands to be authentic. It was almost a prerequisite. This expectation shaped how we as the crowd interacted. I will never forget that night a drummer in a touring band yelled at the sound guy we all knew and loved. Like a mean-spirited tweet we collectively turned our backs on this band. We had a collective responsibility to back our friend. It is this third marker of brand community that creates the advocate. As Carlson, Suter and Brown (2008) found, brand commitment creates word-of-mouth. Consumers with a higher sense of brand community “demonstrated a propensity to promote the brand to others via word-of-mouth communication” (p.291). When creating communities, it is the select few that are willing to motivate others that become the most important to the brand.
Lessons for Brands:
Moral responsibility or authenticity produce a rallying cry. When your customers begin to become advocates for your brand and other consumers, how do you award their efforts?
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