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Friday, 10 April 2009 08:11
Harvard Business Review, April 2009 

Who would not want their brand associated with a community as loyal and dedicated as Harley-Davidson riders?  Close your eyes and you should be able to envision the Harley logo on the back of a black leather jacket.  The strength of the brand is a tribute to the strength of its community. 

The authors of an April 2009 article in the Harvard Business Review argue that Harley-Davidson, facing extinction twenty-five years ago, turned itself around by building a "brand community."  This was before the Internet and Web 2.0.  The lessons of building a community and letting it own the brand are timeless – not nascent or just applicable to web communities.  And of course, these lessons are applicable to any effort of building a web community.

The HBR article, Getting Brand Communities Right, focused on correcting seven misconceptions about brand communities.

  1. The emergence of a "brand community" requires a complete business strategy, not a marketing strategy.  Hype and graphics aren’t enough.  A community cannot be mandated with PR or lip service.  People won’t actively join a community unless they become stakeholders in it.  That means the company needs to give the community "ownership" of the brand.  It also means that business decisions must be aligned to the welfare of the community.  So if the effort to build a brand community resides only in marketing efforts, but not within the organizations business strategy, the community is apt to wither and may never really form.
  2. The community serves its members, not the organization or company.  Members are more concerned about the benefit of the community in terms of social connections, a wide range of insights, emotional support, enthusiasm, and the ability to develop skills or interests.  This is what people embrace when they embrace a brand.  They are not drawn to the political, structural, or financial interests of the organization.
  3. A community does not arise from a brand, rather a brand is grown from a community.  Anyone seeking to build a "brand community" should focus on engineering the community.  The brand will follow.  The stronger the community, the stronger the brand.  But the association between these always flows from community to brand, not vice-versa.
  4. Communities are typically united and strengthened by shared values in a perceived "conflict."  For example, Apple loyalists are united against Microsoft.  Communities are stronger when they identify rivals.  Counter-intuitively, if the company behind the brand tries to minimize this "conflict" or accommodate the "rivals," the community will become weakened as members are frustrated and unable to place their passion.  But such "conflict" does not need to be dramatic.  The article’s authors provided the example of a Dove Soap campaign that united "real beauty" of the common woman in contrast to the foe of "industry-imposed beauty ideals."  The lesson is to find or accentuate some perceived conflict and unite a particular faction.
  5. A community is strengthened not just by a few strong opinion leaders, but by a wide range of roles that span the whole membership.  First, the health of a community is fostered by a wide range of roles.  The authors highlight 18 roles such as mentor, storyteller, historian, provider, greeter, guide, supporter, and talent scout.  Second, by provided a rich variety of opportunities to be involved in a community, everyone can find a way to participate.  Even if he or she tires of one role, others are available.  The authors referred to Saddleback Church which provides its 20,000 membership numerous types of participation as well as varied criteria to connect with others in the community.
  6. The strategy for building a community should not depend merely upon deploying social media.  A community strategy should include online social networks, but a strong community runs deeper than the social media.  The media serves the needs of the people.
  7. Attempts to manage and control a community weaken it.  A community needs to be member-driven. This defies the wisdom used to manage business, and accepting this truism is challenging for many companies and associations.  The organization sponsoring the community should instill a philosophy, structure, and some expectations, but it fools itself if it thinks it can exert control over the community it is trying to build and nurture.

In addition to discussing these seven caveats, the authors propose three types of communities. 

"Pools" refer to a community comprised of people with similar interests.  While people identify with the community, the nature of the community does not require any interpersonal connection.  Consider those identifying with a political party or a shared interest in a sports team or hobby.  Prior to online social media, may associations have been “pool” communities.  Individuals become members to associate with the organization’s goals and values, but membership was more member-to-association than member-to-member.

"Webs" refers to the member-to-member connections that defines the community.  Not everyone knows everyone, but belonging is based upon being connected to some fellow members, and the whole web of connection comprised the community.  Obviously, this type of community is significantly fostered by social media on the Web.

"Hubs" refer to membership being strengthened by the members’ connection with a central figure.  Connection with fellow members may be present, but never as strong as it is with the shared center.  Examples include a politician and his campaign, or a well-known musician with a fan base, or a celebrity endorsing a brand.  Because members are drawn together by a well-defined central figure, the bond to the community is usually strong.  However, it is also fragile as the whole community may rest upon the success and ongoing presence of the central figure.

Every organization wants a community around its brand.  With today’s new expectations of communities, most organizations needs to make a serious commitment and embrace a new wisdom in building a strong community.  The insights of the HBR article provide much of that wisdom.

The article being reviewed here:  Getting Brand Communities Right, Susan Fournier and Lara Lee,  [Harvard Business Review, April 2009, pp 105-11].

Last Updated on Friday, 03 June 2011 16:39