Brand communities are networks of consumers united by a desire to share their interest in, knowledge of, or enthusiasm for a particular brand. Brand communities can be based in particular geographic locations, or they can exist purely online through social media sites. In some cases, members of brand communities come together for special events like festivals or trade shows. Because brand communities are made up of people communicating about a brand, they have the potential to affect the brand’s reputation both inside and outside the brand community. Corporations often try to encourage or influence brand communities in the hope of generating positive word of mouth for their brand. This entry gives examples of brand communities and discusses why consumers participate in them. It also explains how brand communities affect corporate reputation and what corporations can do to support these communities.
Examples of Brand Community
One famous brand community is the Harley Owners Group (HOG). HOG is a community of people who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Sponsored by the company and local dealers, HOG has chapters around the world, as well as state and national rallies, and even its own magazine. HOG was created in 1983 at a time when Harley-Davidson sales were weak and the brand’s reputation was suffering. HOG was an important part of the company’s restructuring, and it has helped revive consumer enthusiasm for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Today, the Harley-Davidson brand is so popular that its logo appears on a wide range of licensed merchandise.
Star Trek fans represent another brand community, but one that originally developed without corporate support. In 1968, when NBC (National Broadcasting Company) threatened to cancel Star Trek, fans of the show launched a letter-writing campaign that convinced NBC to give the show one more season. Today, Star Trek conventions are held around the world so fans can meet their favorite actors and celebrate their love for the show and Star Trek movies. Many fans dress up in costumes, collect memorabilia, and discuss the world of Star Trek online. Some even create their own films or speak Klingon, a fictitious language from the show.
Not all brand communities are as passionate as Harley-Davidson owners or Star Trek fans. However, most national brands at least have a website or Facebook page where brand enthusiasts can share opinions and get the latest information about the brand. Loyal customers of Apple, Starbucks, Canon, or Porsche, for example, all contribute to the way these companies are perceived.
Why Brand Communities Form
Brand communities form for various reasons. Humans are social by nature, and brand communities offer a way to connect with others who have similar interests. People may join brand communities because they want emotional support, advice about a product, or to share their own expertise. Some brand communities are competitive, with members trying to outdo one another in their devotion to the brand. Other brand communities develop as support groups when members perceive themselves to be outside the mainstream. Brand communities can be based solely on a shared interest in the brand, or they can include deeper interpersonal relationships.
Albert Muniz and Thomas O’Guinn argue that brand communities are marked by three characteristics: (1) a shared consciousness of kind, (2) rituals and traditions, and (3) moral responsibility. Consciousness of kind exists when people feel like they are the same. This feeling comes from shared loyalty to a brand and sometimes from shared opposition to competing brands. Rituals and traditions can include telling brand-related stories or making sure to wave at other brand users. Moral responsibility refers to the sense of duty people feel to the community and its members.
Effects on Corporate Reputation
Brand communities can have a powerful influence on a brand or a company’s reputation. Word of mouth from actual customers tends to be more credible and persuasive than marketing messages from a company. Members of a brand community can act as ambassadors or evangelists for the brand, recommending it to others and defending it from criticism. Brand communities foster customer loyalty and repeat business among their own members, too. When members of a brand community are friendly and helpful to each other, their behavior reflects well on the brand. Brand communities can also provide valuable feedback to improve a company’s products or services.
The effects of a brand community are usually positive, but not always. Some communities can be elitist, making newcomers feel like they do not belong or are not real fans. Sometimes brand communities react negatively to a company’s actions and are quite vocal about their disapproval. For example, Porsche experienced strong pushback from many of its loyal customers when it introduced the Cayenne sport utility vehicle. Longtime Porsche owners complained that the Cayenne did not fit the brand’s sports car image.
Managing Brand Communities
Because brand communities have so much potential to affect a brand’s reputation, companies often try to create and manage these communities. Research indicates that companies can help foster these communities but cannot fully control them. Brand communities must reflect the authentic views of the members if they are to flourish. When a company tries to exercise too much control, members will probably resist or leave. At the same time, companies can facilitate certain practices that characterize brand communities. Companies can create online spaces or face-to-face events for customers to interact with one another and with brand representatives. Companies can provide tips or training to ensure that customers get the most out of a product. Companies can also help customers display their loyalty by wearing branded apparel or using customized products. The key to building effective brand communities is for companies to focus on meeting consumers’ needs so that consumers will want to support the brand.
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