For several decades, companies have created brands for use as the centrepiece of their communication efforts with customers. Using various brand management techniques such as identity and image management, positioning and differentiation, firms have deployed traditional brand management practices to push the benefits of their offer to specific market segments and individual consumers.
More recently, the tensions and vulnerabilities at the heart of modern branding can be seen as a function of the failure of brand management to understand the social nature of brands as well as the emerging experiential form of customer value ( I shan't describe these tensions again, enough has been written already). Brands, it can be argued, are increasingly social entities that are created as much by consumers as by marketers, a social construction that arises from two key sources:
• First, the fabric of relationships in which the customer is situated, whether between the customer and the brand, the customer and the corporation, the customer and the product in use or among fellow customers in communities. For example, brands such as eBay, Yahoo, AOL and Amazon have all evolved through the social interactions of a growing number of individuals within a dynamic social fabric. As Prahalad and Ramaswamy in The Future of Competition (2004: 133-4) write, “Individuals legitimized these brands and gave them meaning. Afterward, the firm used advertising to strengthen and support an already evolving identity which spread primarily through word-of-mouth within communities of interest”.
• Second, the personalised experiences that customers create when they select and interact with a company’s offer or product and with each other in physical or virtual (or even invisible) communities. Increasingly, customers are no longer interested in simply buying a product. Rather, products are becoming “artefacts around which customers have experiences” and “instead of accepting experiences fabricated by companies, consumers are wanting to shape those experiences themselves, both individually and with experts or other customers” (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2000: 83). Because a customer experience is an outcome of an individual’s interaction with a brand, by definition it is subjective and cannot be pre-set or pushed through advertising or a standard set of communications. Part of the success of brands like Harley Davidson and Starbucks lies in their focus not merely on the product or positioning but also on the experience of ownership and consumption. For example, the famous Harley Davidson HOG club events provide opportunities for customers to experience anticipated but unrealised product benefits, to share experiences with others, to meet with the executives behind the brand and to learn more about the brand’s heritage and values.
Brand Community Concept
The social or experiential perspective of branding asserts that customers are actively involved in the creation of brands, their meaning and identity - a form of collective customer engagement that is receiving increased attention from practitioners and academics alike. Recently, aspects of customer collaboration or co-creation in brand development have been articulated through the notion of the “brand community”, defined as, “a specialised, non-geographically bounded community, based on a structured set of social relationships among users of a brand… Brand communities are participants in the brand’s larger social construction and play a vital role in the brand’s ultimate legacy” (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001: 412)
The brand community concept is significant for several reasons:
• Brand community directly affects all aspects of brand equity. Aaker (1991) conceptualises brand equity as having four components: brand awareness, perceived quality, brand associations and brand loyalty and the brand community can positively or negatively influence these.
• Brand communities are consistent with richer conceptualisations of consumer brand loyalty which include additional dimensions of consumer behaviour and not just repurchase (Fournier, 1998; Fournier and Yao, 1997; Lutz, 1987; McAlexander and Schouten, 1998; Olsen, 1993; Sherry 1998). Therefore, developing brand community could be one way to actualise relationship marketing.
• A strong brand community can lead to higher levels of brand commitment (Jacoby and Chestnut, 1998; Keller, 1998). This is because brand communities are often collections of actively loyal and sometimes even passionate customers. As such they may be good places to find lead users (von Hippel, 1986), to co-opt customer competence (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2000) or to gather new forms of customer-held knowledge (Gibbert, Leibold and Probst, 2002). Also, brand community-integrated customers are more likely to spread word-of-mouth, are more forgiving than others of product failures or lapses of service quality (Berry, 1995), are less prone to brand switching, are motivated to provide feedback and generally have higher emotional investment in the brand. In this way, brand communities carry out important functions for the brand such as sharing information, perpetuating the history and culture of the brand and providing self-service assistance (for example the Cisco self-serving network technology discussion forums).
• Brand community provides social structure to the relationship between marketer and consumer and is therefore consistent with some traditional perspectives of marketing such as the social interaction view of marketing in which marketing is an exchange between social actors (Bagozzi, 1974) and the network approach, in which the relationship among the entire network of users and the brand is important (Iacobucci, 1994). Without these social connections, the value of these brands to consumers would certainly be diminished. (Who’d want to be the only person eating in a restaurant?!)
Implications for brand management
The ability of company-created and managed brands and advertising to communicate a consistent corporate or product image is steadily declining in effectiveness and relevance. Instead, companies are now recognising that by developing brand communities that harness the new customer competencies through extended forms of engagement, involvement, dialogue, collaboration and co-creation with customers and other stakeholders, brand management is better able to develop successful brands, create more brand value, increase marketing relevance and performance, reduce costs and achieve greater profit and growth.
To co-create a successful brand community through customer collaboration requires a different set of brand management competencies. Brand management must find new methods to develop and harness the competencies of their customers as well as their own. The former is a function of the knowledge and skills that customer possess, their willingness to learn and experiment and their ability and motivation to engage in an active dialogue with the firm and with other consumers about the brand and its products and services (or “buzz”). The latter is conditional upon brand manager’s ability and desire to experiment with brand creation in new non-traditional brand contexts across multiple points of interaction (such as weblogs, discussion forums, contact centres, brand events or with third-party intermediaries or innomediaries). It also requires brand management to “let-go” of traditional notions of brand ownership, protection and control.
Some important unanswered questions that I am particularly interested in exploring further are:
1. What are the new brand development competencies and how are they developed?
2. What are the new customer competencies (based on customer knowledge) and how can the firm “help” customers develop them?
3. How do firms let go of their control mindset to partner with customers? What are the motivational and cognitive barriers?
4. What are the implications for traditional marketing approaches?
5. What lessons can be drawn from the product development literature (e.g. open source co-creation)
6. In what contexts are brand co-creation approaches most / least relevant?
7. Are there different styles of brand co-creation for different market contexts and sectors?
I am keen to explore these and similar questions more with readers.