Advertising used to be the main way brands made themselves known. Usually, the brands that produced the most ads received the most attention. Times have changed considerably. Today's thriving companies are building community around their brands.
"Today, brand-building is not primarily through one-way communication via advertising," says Ray Li, CEO of Sene, an online and in-store company that creates custom-made clothing. "The new way is co-creation, enabling customers to build your brand with you."
Customers are increasingly making decisions based on alignment with their values, adds Cassandra Lam, CEO and co-founder of The Cosmos, a community that creates content for Asian women to thrive in the workplace and at home.
"Purchases now represent a customer's 'vote,' and the brand is a symbol, an extension of the consumer," says Lam. "The internet has created a more level playing field that allows people to easily and quickly research what's out there. Having community allows your brand to break through the noise."
The Shift to Building Community Around Brands
The advent of social media and new generations of consumers with much different values have fueled this shift to community-conscious brand building.
"Building community around a brand has always been important, but seems to have become more so over the past 10 to 15 years," says Joy Panos Stauber, president of Stauber Brand Studio, a brand communication company.
"Brands have become more human, real and adaptable and in some cases are being co-created with consumers acting more like constituents," says Stauber. "The fact is that building community builds human connections."
Human connections are vital to being a successful business, believes Jacob Andra, co-founder of SOMA, an online marketplace that integrates social feeds and community-building. (It also tracks and authenticates product provenance and lifecycle.)
"We're social animals," says Andra. "E-commerce has connected us to the entire world transactionally, but not socially, which has left an unfulfilled need. Brands that stand out tap into the communal dynamic."
Benefits of Building Community Around Your Brand
"An increasingly digital, modern lifestyle is creating a hunger for authentic and relatable interactions that connect us to others like us," says Lam. "Building community gives your customers a space to feel seen and heard by your brand in a unique way."
"Branding is about story and community, and humans are wired for story and community," adds Stauber. "When brands build community, they invite potential customers to become part of something bigger and to have an impact together. That shared brand experience and collective impact makes people feel good."
Sponsor a Facebook group and make it the most vibrant within its subject matter.
—Jacob Andra, co-founder, SOMA
At Copper Pearl, a baby bib brand, community building has led to the company's growth, says Tyler Hillstead, Copper Pearl's president.
"Building a community around our brand has been a key tool in converting our marketing efforts into sales," says Hillstead. "Customers may be buying our products, but it's much more than sales. We've found that once you have a community people love, they return to experience that community."
Steps to Building Community Around your Brand
Here are six steps to building community around your brand and what you can learn to adapt your company to today's changing marketplace.
1. Give it time.
"It's a long game to build community around your brand, but it creates an authentic, long-lasting connection between your brand and customers," says Corri Smith, owner of Black Wednesday, a marketing and public relations company. "The best brands fill voids in their customers' lives and as a result become friends and trusted resources."
Building a community of people takes time and a lot of effort, Hillstead concurs. "If you're in a rush, people can sense that. Growing slowly will help you in the long run."
2. Start with your team.
"Build brand community internally first," advises Stauber. "Rally your team with a clear vision and a well-crafted brand purpose, and give employees the systems they need to deliver on the brand promise. Then they can create great brand experiences for customers every day."
3. Embrace a social cause that extends customer impact.
"Brands that have a social impact that helps the larger community are especially effective," says Stauber. "If your customers buy a product, and your company donates to people in need with each sale, this is a good way of supporting a larger community while also building community around your brand."
4. Involve your customers via video.
"Since we create custom clothing for men and women, we often recruit existing customers to be our models," says Li. "When we shoot video features, it's almost exclusively on real-life customers."
Fitness company Kettlebell Kings also features customers via video.
"We re-share customer submitted videos, and we always quote the customers on the videos," says the company's owner and co-founder Jay Perkins.
Kettlebell Kings' method encourages sharing, which does a good job of building community, according to Perkins.
"People want to tag us so they can be featured with their comments shared on our page," he says. "When we reply to customer reviews, we thank them for the purchases and reviews and ask that they tag us, letting them know we repost."
When you use video, make it authentic, advises Li.
"Tools like Instagram Stories allow a truly authentic look at what's going on inside a company," he says. "Under-produced, run-and-gun content performs better than highly produced content, because it feels real."
5. Develop a value-driven presence on social media.
The key when posting to social media is to share content that enhances the lives of customers while also building community around your company.
"Sponsor a Facebook group and make it the most vibrant within its subject matter," suggests Andra. "If you're a food company, start a recipe-sharing group. If you're a shoe company, start a running group. Periodically have giveaways, including sponsored trips. Be transparent about the sponsorship of the group, but otherwise let it be about the topic, not your brand."
6. Create educational blog and email content.
"Giving customers additional information through email and blog posts can be a great way of building community," says Smith. "Throw in some perks and promos along the way to keep your open/click rates high.
"This free value is important," she continues, "because buyers won't feel like your products are that expensive when they hear from you on a regular basis with useful information."
Read more articles on customer engagement.
Photo: Getty Images