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When is building a brand community a good strategy

July 2, 2020
Szymon Zurek
11 minutes
XBOX brand shown against the PlayStation Brand

Introduction

In this article, I will explore whether building a brand community should be a default strategy for branding. After reading this, you will be more familiar with real life examples, statistics and facts that will guide your decision.

I will investigate why a company can benefit from building a brand community, but I will also investigate why it might not be worth the effort and budget. I will touch upon brand equity and brand loyalty which is considered linked and argued that the two can be a result of building a brand community. To make my arguments, I will explore a known example from the Jeep Jamborees which is used in brand community papers. To provide an alternative view, I will use the phone space as an example. I will also use a personal example coming from experience to do with the WordPress versus Webflow community/users to see how the two views might meet. My arguments will review the brand equity theory and question whether the strategies within it, predominantly creating a brand community, is a viable strategy.

Thesis

Building a ‘brand community’ should not be a default strategy for branding but can be a useful micro tactic in some cases and some products.


Brand Community in Marketing

There is a lot of grey area in branding and marketing, with different sides to the argument. Many marketers argue that building a brand community is a good way to create brand loyalty which accounts to be a part of brand equity. According to Wang, B.  “brand loyalty reflects how likely a customer will be to switch to another brand, especially when that brand makes a change, either in price or product features.” (page 502), and this brand loyalty is one part of ‘brand equity’ which is a collection of awareness, perceived quality, associations and other assets... As to a community around a brand, Wang, B. defines one as “a group of consumers who share their passion for a specific brand and develop the community based on their own norms, rituals, and traditions.” (page 503). It is argued that a brand community creates brand loyalty which has a long-term effect and acts as a viable strategy for increasing income since customers that are loyal don’t require as much spend on marketing to them.

The other side of the argument is that brand equity is much more than just perceptions and associations, and that it must be looked at from a more holistic perspective where packaging, distribution and price have a big impact.(Blackston, M. page 79). Furthermore, as said by Barwise, P. “the value of a brand is not in practice separable from the value of the product and the rest of the firm.”(page 93). Therefore, it is believed that vague measurements such as ‘brand loyalty’, which can be created by ‘brand community’ should not be invested in, but rather the entire marketing mix.

Loyalty and brand evangelists

High involvement products

High involvement products are subjective to each person, but generally refer to products that require more thought when making the purchase in a certain category, such as a smartphone or a car.

McAlexander, J. H et al. in their paper “Building Brand Community” investigate the Jeep Jamborees event as an example of a community event for the Jeep brand. They carried out research within the community to measure the participants attitudes towards the brand. They have found that generally people’s relationship to the brand has been positively influenced due to the participation in the Jeep’s brand community (page44) (Appendix A).

McAlexander, J. H et al. sum up their research: “Community-integrated customers serve as brand missionaries, carrying the marketing message into other communities. They are more forgiving than others of product failures or lapses of service quality” (page 51). Given the consumer decision process model from consumer behaviour where the consumer goes the known initial stages through to consumption, post-consumption evaluation and divestment(Blackwell, R. et al. 2006), it would be safe to say that consumers with higher satisfaction in the consumption and post consumption phases will likely spread their positive attitude of the product to others.

While it is evident that in Jeep’s case the ‘brand community’ or the event hosted by Jeep has improved people’s perception of the brand as found by the research, which will likely bring referrals and new customers, there is no evidence to show that this is profitable or a good long-term strategy. Their research only shows peoples improved attitude towards the brand which is intangible for the consumer, which is questionable as we will argue in the next paragraph.

Since a brand is just a collection of marketing materials to make associations and represent a certain company/product, I do not believe that it is accurate to say that bettering customer’s attitudes alone towards a brand will increase returns on investment. I believe, that on top of the attitude towards the brand which can matter in the short term, it is the product itself and the experience associated with it that carries that satisfaction and the word of mouth magic.If there is a competitor product introduced that is superior to the one in question, with time, people shift to the better solution, rather than blindly support a ‘brand’ just because of their experience and the positive attitude they had. To illustrate how quickly this reputation can be changed with an increase in product quality/innovation/proposition, let’s look at the phone space. To disclaim, I have made a few assumptions towards the quality of the products in the upcoming examples, as it is something that I did not personally measure, but rather observe and I believe the assumptions to be accurate as per statistics and common knowledge. To start off with an example - the Nokia death. Despite Nokia being the leader in phone sales throughout many years, they have fallen due to an inferior product line, and no brand loyalty helped. To look at actual statistics and a more recent example (Appendix B), let’s compare Huawei to Samsung and put Apple into the mix. Huawei was a cheaper phone that was inferior to Samsung and Apple, both inspects and build quality as well as many other factors. However, through the years and market penetration, as the product got better with their increase in budget, over the years, we can observe that Huawei has taken a good portion of the market share and is now amongst the leaders when it comes to smart phone sales.

To conclude this section, I want to make the argument that when it comes to high involvement products, there is no evidence that would show that brand loyalty (which argued by McAlexander, J. H et al. can be caused by creating a brand community) keeps customers from buying alternatives. Of course, as with anything, we will always find extremes and outliers, but generally, we will see that over time, brand loyalty doesn’t seem to have as much of an impact as it might in the short term(if at all). Therefore, it might not always make sense to create a brand community just for the sakes of creating loyalty.

Low involvement products

There are certain products consumers buyout of habit. These are low involvement products. There is no known example formed of a community surrounding a low involvement product to show as evidence to support that brand loyalty is what drives people’s purchase. The reoccurring purchases are mostly due to availability(distribution), price and satisfaction of previous experience.

 

When brand communities go too far

While I don’t see fit to say that brand community increases brand loyalty which increases brand equity which would result in increased revenue, it is evident that brand communities do form. Sometimes, they can even be damaging to an industry.

As an example, I will use the gaming console community, which is often divided into the two dominating brands (XBOX and PlayStation). Each of these brands produces‘exclusives’ which are only playable on one of the consoles. The products use different specs and different equipment (such as a different controller), however, otherwise provide a similar experience ‘comfortable gaming from your living room’. While drama between the two communities is caused by a small fraction of ‘fans’, a prescribed ‘identity’ for gamers is still out there in the world. Appendix C shows a sliver of arguments and people against each other within the two communities.

For someone who is looking into getting a console for a hobby, looking throughout articles, blog posts, news and forums, the newcomer may be repelled to buy either. Further, someone who already owns one of the consoles and plays with their friends, if their friends are‘hardcore fans’, the consumer who is neutral on the matter and just wants to enjoy the other product, might also be repelled from making that purchase. This potentially limits the reach of both brands.

 

‘Loyalty’ to a product in the short term

As previously argued, I don’t believe in long term loyalty to a product, let alone a brand, therefore, from experience and the example below, I propose that it is a matter of the fear of change rather than loyalty. As Weeks, W. A., et al. say that“From a psychoanalytic perspective, a key reason that some employees do not readily support change is their fear of the dangers that they believe change entails.” (page 9). While my example and the research by Weeks, W. A., et al. apply to the workplace and a B2B context, I believe that fear of change to a new product would be consistent in different environments (supermarket vs a manufacturer vs a SAAS company etc…).

As a website designer, I’ve always hated WordPress (the most popular CMS), however, it was the only decent CMS as the alternatives were otherwise limited in their code customization and were always template/ready out of the box. I was looking for a new solution to custom build websites for clients with a CMS, and with time, I found Webflow. They have gradually improved their product over the years and finally I was able to ditch WordPress and never look back. With a fantastic community for Webflow and a direct line of communication with the CMS developers, a certain culture has been formed as the tool is paid, the community is more enclosed. Having to experience both communities, I just have that gut feeling that the Webflow community is much more inspired by ideas and is more positive to each other. It is safe to say that I am now a Webflow enthusiast and an ‘evangelist’.

However, despite the fantastic community, and the superior product, my peers both freelancers and agency owners, are hesitant to switch over from WordPress to Webflow, despite their enthusiasm when I told them what Webflow is capable of.

While I haven't asked them directly, I assume that relearning poses some fear within them. As with the example of phones, I believe that over time as Webflow develops further, at some point it will be so superior that it will simply take a bigger market share, similar to how Huawei penetrated the market.

My argument with this example is that, despite me being a supporter of the product and an encourager of it, people are still hesitant to make the switch, even though the product is already superior. By using this example, I also hope to convey that it isn’t necessarily brand loyalty that keeps people from switching.


 

Conclusion

As I investigated in this essay, on the one hand, it seems that the superior product wins over the longer period when it comes to market share, however, with my personal experience and example of WordPress vs Webflow, it would seem that despite superior product, it can look like there is some small loyalty, but is rather the fact that people are fearful of change, and thus they use the old and inferior alternative.

While the Webflow community has influenced me positively as it has with the Jeep consumers, even though I am an evangelist, so far, I have not seen a direct result from being one when it comes to conversions. Furthermore, I am an evangelist of the product rather than the brand itself, as the brand is just a representation. If there was another more superior product to what Webflow provides, with time I would probably shift again.

As a conclusion, I argue that while brand communities create positive attitudes, I do not think this should be a default strategy.


 

References:

Barwise, P. (1993). Brand equity: snark or boojum?. InternationalJournal of Research in Marketing10(1), 93-104.

 

Blackston, M. (1992). Observations: Buildingbrand equity by managing the brand’s relationships. Journal of AdvertisingResearch, 32(3), 79-83.

 

Blackwell, R., DSouza, C., Taghian, M.,Miniard, P., & Engel, J. (2006). Consumer behaviour (10thEd).

 

McAlexander, J. H., Schouten, J. W., & Koenig, H. F.(2002). Building brand community. Journal of marketing66(1),38-54.

 

Wang, B. (2012,October). The impact of brand community on brand loyalty: A theoreticalframework. In 2012 International Conference on Information Management,Innovation Management and Industrial Engineering (Vol. 1, pp. 502-506). IEEE.

 

Weeks, W. A., Roberts, J., Chonko, L. B., & Jones, E.(2004). Organizational readiness for change, individual fear of change, andsales manager performance: An empirical investigation. Journal ofPersonal Selling & Sales Management24(1), 7-17.


 

 

Appendix A

H1: Integration inthe Jeep brand community (IBC) is a function of the customers' perceivedrelationships with their own vehicles, the brand, the company, and otherowners.

H2: Customers willreport more positive relationships with their own vehicles after participatingin the brandfest.

H3: Customers willreport more positive relationships with the Jeep brand after participating inthe brandfest.

H4: Customers willreport more positive relationships with Jeep as a company after participatingin the brandfest.

H5: Customers willreport more positive relationships with other Jeep owners after participatingin the brandfest.

H6: The overalllevel of integration in the Jeep brand community will increase as a result ofparticipation in the brandfest.

McAlexander, J. H., Schouten, J. W., &Koenig, H. F. (2002) (Page 44)

 

Appendix B

Team Counterpoint(2019) “Global Smartphone Shipments Share – Last Eight Years of Winners &Losers”

https://www.counterpointresearch.com/global-smartphone-shipments-share-last-eight-years-of-winners-losers/

 

Appendix C

The Xbox Community vs Playstation'sCommunity, Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MjNmCY-g5w

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