Social connection and cultural belonging are key to creating demand – whether demand for a product or service, or to work for or with a business – and a crucial stage in cultivating these specific drivers is creating a sense of community.”
Demand is the evolution from push marketing strategies to the desired position of ‘Brand Pull’ – when your relationships with customers, employees and stakeholders is successfully established and built on to continually grow the success of your brand (however that may be defined, but including impact to the bottom line).
Experience and research1 demonstrate that social connection and cultural belonging are key to creating demand – whether demand for a product or service, or to work for or with a business – and a key stage in cultivating these specific drivers is creating a sense of community. Whether a virtual space to celebrate common passions and foster connections, the creation of shared experiences, or a strong internal culture to inspire employees, humans are naturally predisposed to gravitate towards and desire these types of interaction.
In today’s consumer-driven world, brands are considered key factors around which communities can form. Known as brand communities, they were defined by Albert Muniz Jr. and Thomas C. O’Guinn as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand.” And they existed well before the dawn of social media and networking sites.
Despite being presented online for all to see, social networks made up of family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances exist naturally in life. Communities on the other hand can be created from groups of people who have no pre-existing relationships and are from very different walks of life, but who share something of value to them. Whilst businesses can create spaces for communities on social networking sites, the sense of community stems from the common interest or passion audiences share. So when we reference ‘social connection’ or ‘communities’, we’re not just referring to social media channels – although the importance of their role in providing platforms for growing such communities goes without saying and their ability to demonstrate people’s desire to stay connected is invaluable.
Shared Beliefs, Values & Ethos
As people we’re attracted to others – including brands – that share our beliefs, values and ethos (actual or aspirational). Communities give both internal and external audiences the chance to live the values of a brand and shape what it means for themselves and others to be part of that community. Through direct interaction and peer-to-peer reinforcement, communities establish trust from which to build a momentum that is bigger than the sum of the parts.
It is therefore imperative that a brand, when creating a community, is clearly defined and articulated – in terms of its strategy and brand purpose – in order for internal and external audiences to identify those they want to be a part of, engage with or work with. Communities are an opportunity for businesses to reinforce what their brand stands for in an open and authentic, day-to-day way.
Brand communities truly thrive when based on the notion of mutual benefit – between members of the community and between the business and its audiences. However, whilst communities can encourage purchase or consumption by solving problems, providing direct lines of communication, and inspiring ideas, the real mutual benefit and potential for business growth comes from satisfying the human need to belong. By associating a brand with a platform or experience that meets this individual and wider community need, audiences are more likely to demonstrate loyalty that feeds into long-term demand.
A perfect example of this sense of belonging is the world of eSports and live video gaming – a world based on the notion of community and games culture and now the world’s fastest growing sport. Built on the idea of ‘clans’, there are now 1.8B gamers in the world, most of whom are empowered by the interactions and relationships they form through online communities. As such the community streaming platforms, such as Twitch, who provide this sense of belonging are now multi-billion dollar brands in their own right. And brands, such as PlayStation or Nintendo who also provide platforms for these communities have only heightened the demand for their associated products.
An Experiential Promise
The prevalence of the digital economy and more recently the success of the sharing economy substantiates how audiences want to feel connected socially, as well as being part of bigger cultural progress leading to a stronger sense of belonging. The digital economy boomed from the notion of sharing, liking, connecting and belonging – with users often getting value out of transactions with people who aren’t known to them personally. And whilst 77% of people view the sharing economy as a way to access lower prices, the communities that have been created, such as airbnb, demonstrate the value audiences associate with these exchanges.
What both the digital and sharing economies validate is that what defines a community is not just the shared beliefs, values and ethos, but ultimately the participatory interactions and experiences that in themselves enrich people’s lives. Investing in a brand community and creating an experiential promise of belonging can convert interest and inactive following into participation and ultimately, engagement, advocacy and loyalty.
For today’s socially-driven, ethically-aware, market-savvy consumers (and employees), reciprocal relationships are key. And in a relationship economy, demand and growth now largely depend on a brand demonstrating the emotional intelligence to be empathetic – being able to listen, relate, collaborate and adapt, instead of being self-important or self-serving. This emphasis on relationships expands capacity and potential, with empathy being a specific business metric that delivers returns. In fact, the top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index2 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings3.
By going beyond big data and putting yourself in your audiences’ shoes – understanding their world when building and evolving your brand world – creates experiences and environments in which they feel they truly belong. This doesn’t mean simply mirroring what your audiences feel, want and need; but instead it provides a more credible and relevant platform from which to contribute positively to their connected communities.
Creating Demand through Social Connection & Cultural Belonging
Whether setting your corporate strategy, crystalising your brand’s purpose or expressing your business’s culture, you must go beyond asking what your product, service or experience fulfils within an individual (consumer, employee or partner) to what it fulfils within their wider social connections, their state of cultural belonging and society as a whole.
Below are some of the steps we recommend taking to ensure that your brand has the potential to produce connections that lead to engagement, advocacy and loyalty, as well as creating communities built on empathy, credibility, authenticity and reciprocal added value:
– Truly understand your brand’s community and those within it – this should go without saying, but it’s important to go beyond their demographics and analyse their lifestyles, needs, thoughts, desires, emotions and passions
– Define the values, beliefs and ethos that sit at the heart of your business and its culture – not those you wish were true but those you can authentically live by and deliver
– Entrench these in your corporate strategy, brand purpose, activities and behaviours, not just as a transient marketing campaign
– Clearly articulate these in a way that internal and external audiences can engage with
– Live the sense of social connection and cultural belonging internally and across every function of the business before expressing it externally
– Be seen to be creating, contributing to and fostering communities but not controlling them – let those engaged in the community build momentum and sustain the brand conversation, whilst still being responsive and championing the brand
‘Community’ is just one stage of a continuum from ‘me’ to ‘we’ audience needs along which businesses must communicate and demonstrate their value. This requirement for multi-faceted engagement reinforces the fact that strategy and brand definition are no longer about one vision, one set of values and one way of expressing them.
We build attributes into a business’s corporate strategy, brand purpose and expression according to how audiences relate and interact with the offer, and what value it has to them as individuals, social communities, stakeholders or partners. The resulting platforms are multi-dimensional, holistic and individual to a business, and uniquely reflect a business’s culture, commercial structures, internal and external communities and social relevance. They in turn provide a deep enough insight to enable audiences to make a decision whether to engage with them or not, and from there to advocate on behalf of and demonstrate a level of continued loyalty and demand.
For further insight into how to create demand through social connection and cultural belonging, please contact us.
1 CultureQ research conducted across six thousand people over four years by our partner by Onesixtyfourth.
2 Harvard Business Review, Global Empathy Index 2015 https://hbr.org/2016/12/the-most-and-least-empathetic-companies-2016
3 Defined by market capitalisation