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Brands As Communities

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Today's world seems to be driven by consumerism. However, as consumer brands shift from the present intent of offering an experience to offering an identity, consumers find themselves connected with others as fellow members of a branded community. Do some drivers choose to pay a premium for a BMW automobile purely for its unique performance capabilities, or perhaps for the message it conveys to themselves and the others around them? Likely the later, although possibly supported by the former through cognitive dissonance.

The implications of evaluating brands as communities, rather than static corporate impressions, are significant and represent a paradigm shift for both consumers and companies. All too often, brands are seen as a monolithic construct from the company to the consumer, rather than an open conversation between both the company and the consumer, and more importantly вЂ" from consumer to consumer. In fact, in some cases it could potentially transform traditional consumers into content, experience, or value creators, themselves.

This subject is of particular interest as advertising expenditures totaled more than $148 billion during 2007 in the U.S. Alone, according to TNS (2008). If branding and marketing efforts could be seen as community building rather than simply message promotion, marketers could potentially have greater effectiveness, consumer retention, and return per advertising dollar. The purpose of community building for brands should be to establish a deep personal relationship between the brand and the consumer, as well as between multiple consumers themselves.

There are several highly relevant social psychology theories that directly relate to community formation and identity for brands. Social identity, cognitive dissonance, self-verification theory, and observational learning all play a core role in the success of branded communities. It is this report's hypothesis that a better understanding of these core social psychology concepts will lead to greatly strengthened brands and a deeper, closer connection between the company and the consumer, and more breakthrough вЂ" between consumers within a branded community themselves.


Can social psychology provide a framework, or at least clues, for a deeper sense of shared identity and experience for branded communities?

Effective marketing campaigns hope to achieve customer loyalty or even higher levels of customer trust and brand integrity. With effective branded community tactics, a company could hope to achieve an even higher level of dedication вЂ" customer identity.

Communities rely on iconography, shared sense of purpose, past, and future. Marketers will want to be able to mobilize ambassadors promoting the brand's message and value proposition to those around them to which they have social influence. The message and purpose soon resonates more as the individual's or that of the community's, rather than that of of the corporation. It is possible that once a sustainable consumer community is established, the company may be able to follow the lead of the community's needs and desires, rather than top-down offering originated from the company to the community. This will be a radical shift from current consumerism вЂ" as it would optimize product development as well as product promotion, once a company (a community of producers) can more accurately understand the needs and desires of its customers (a community of consumers and promoters).

It is possible for brands to be the message (shared purpose) themselves, or to embrace a social cause or threat greater than themselves. One clear example of this already is businesses' embracing of the green banner of environmental stewardship. What if a brand would do the same for other, more niche and focused causes? The psychological fuel will still be universal at some level, regardless of the specific cause.

Deep down, people have a desire to be liked, to be a part of a larger group and to share universal experiences together. Today, people subscribe to brands, much like they follow fashion, in that people want to project an image of themselves to others, and often more importantly, to themselves. Society has many groups and subgroups. Members of a branded community often are form a different subgroup of the population, typically bound by common elective interest rather than solely arbitrary circumstances like socioeconomics.

Coca-Cola drinkers, for example, vary in loyalty, or depth of self-identity in relation to the brand. Many prefer Coca-Cola, usually exclusively over other competitors, because of a long standing relationship with the brand вЂ" commonly referred to “growing up with,” are those that have grown accustomed to tradition of Coca-Cola over others. Often, many will claim that the product's taste or even the ads are the reasons for long-standing loyalty, but could these just be justifications for a habit? In contrast, casual drinkers that exhibit little commitment to the Coca-Cola brand, are more likely to have been exposed to other brands more often prior to that point.


Immediately delving into the coca-cola example, one very important concept is of novelty versus self-verification, justified by cognitive dissonance. As Coca-Cola drinkers embark on many points of experience each time they come into contact with the image of or the product itself they become more and more familiar with it. Later it is reaffirmed by so many other members of the branded community as Coca-Cola is mainstream and very prevalent. According to a 1971 study on novelty versus self-verification by Berlyne, people appear to prefer slight doses of novelty - they hope to encounter experiences that are uniquely unfamiliar enough to be interesting, but not so alien that it becomes fearful or too familiar that it becomes mundane, (Berlyne, 1971). Looking further, the belief that taste factors in as “different” possibly even unfamiliar вЂ" rarely as novel in a positive.

Self-verification, builds upon the most basic tenet of communities, identity. Researchers Henri Tajfel and John Turner (1979) formed the social identity theory in effort to understand intergroup discrimination and choice. They found that it is composed of four important elements: categorization, identification, comparison, and psychological distinctiveness. In categorization, people put others into categories or apply with labels and mental images of perception. In identification, people associate with specific groups (or subsets, ingroups), as this serves



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