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Mark Schaefer: Belonging To The Brand — The Business Case For Building a Community Around Your Business

In economics, production and marketing are not separate concepts. Production responds to customers’ needs and marketing is the expression of those needs inside the firm. The entire customer-facing activity of the firm is marketing. Like any other business activity, there is constant flux brought to bear by changing customer preferences, competitive innovation and market evolution. Marketing must be adaptive to change, and a major shift is occurring right now. Mark Schaefer writes about it in Belonging To The Brand: Why Community Is The Last Great Marketing Strategy.

Knowledge Capsule

Established strategies and tactics of marketing are no longer effective.

Marketing thought-leader Mark Schaefer puts it this way: marketing doesn’t work like it used to. The established techniques were biased towards outbound communication, such as advertising, PR and events. Mark classifies these techniques as “interrupt and annoy” to try to get customers to give their attention to feature and benefit of the company’s offerings. The communications environment shifted from analog to digital and from outbound to interactive, but interrupt and annoy remained the primary technique.

Finally, there’s an alternative marketing strategy.

The new strategy goes by the term “community” or “community building”. As economics advises, it’s a product of customer sovereignty. People want to belong to communities that share values and interests. And in the digital age, where work-from-home and glued-to-a-screen are life conditions that can lead to profound loneliness, the need for belonging is amplified. The covid lockdown experience exacerbated the problem.

Community is an experience that is highly valued by customer, distinguished via three features:

  1. Connection with each other. There’s a group feeling of difference that’s not shared with others who don’t belong to the community.
  2. Purpose: community members gather because they have a shared reason to do so, whether it is software development or wine appreciation or the development of technical skills. There are shared rituals and traditions and common behaviors that generate a sense of group identity and bonding through common values.
  3. Relevance: A thriving community adapt and adjusts as times and members’ needs change. Adaptability strengthens group cohesion and assures continuity and resilience.

There’s a business case for community building.

Community-building may replace brand-building as a primary pathway to facilitating value for customers and thereby generating strong cash flows. The technique has a viable business model.

  • Differentiation: when customers bond in community, they’re differentiating themselves and the brand(s) they prefer and support. It’s a lasting advantage.
  • Market monitoring: a community is a continuing conversation, a source of insight and signals of change.
  • High speed information: the flow of information from customers and markets to firms is another source of advantage. The behaviors and preferences of community members can be continuously polled, with the opportunity for fast response.
  • Trust. Businesses are recognizing the importance of trust in relationships with ever-greater clarity. Brand communities are trusted by their members; trust is inherent.
  • Advocacy. Community members become the marketer. They communicate benefits and positive experiences. User-generated content both reduces marketing costs and adds authenticity and belief.
  • Loyalty: The most profitable customers are the most loyal customers. Community members are loyal, and, in fact, go beyond loyalty to “attachment”.
  • Co-creation. Value is created by customers in their own experience, or it can be viewed as co-created through interactions with the firm and its products and services. In brand communities, there is community co-creation, such as in LEGO Ideas groups and the IKEA user community.
  • Membership as a product: Some communities become the business modem as members pay both to join and maintain membership and purchase the products and services of the community.
  • Cultural alignment: community is a trend, especially for younger people experiencing social and digital isolation.
  • Customer data: when members freely express their values and preferences, they create a rich new first-hand data source.

Purpose is the critical driver.

There’s a case to be made that a brand is its purpose. A clear and compelling purpose provides inner direction for the entrepreneur and the management team throughout the entrepreneurial journey. Shared purpose can bind customers to the brand. The same is true for a brand community; Mark Schaefer talks of bold, piercing purpose that aligns every resource of the company towards the community goal. Harley-Davidson is one (well-used) example: fulfilling dreams through the experience of motorcycling. The purpose is a customer experience, aligned with their values and open to their expansive and creative interpretation.

Corporate purpose, when genuinely felt and well-expressed, Mark writes, can be existential (this is why we exist?), differentiating (how do we make a difference?), values-based (how are our founding values relevant to the world?), distinctive (what headlines will be written about us), adaptive (how is the world changing in a way that unites us with our community?) and fulfilling (how can we fulfill customers’ dreams?)

Additional Resources

Mark’s Books:

Belonging To The Brand: Why Community Is The Last Great Marketing Strategy: Mises.org/E4B_204_Book1

Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company WinsMises.org/E4B_204_Book2

The Marketing Companion podcast: Mises.org/E4B_204_Pod

Mark Schaefer website: BusinessesGrow.com

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