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Why Brand Communities Don’t Exist

brandingsmThere is a lot of research on Brand Communities, defined by Muniz and O’Guinn as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand.” (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001).

But do brand communities really exist?

Brand communities imply that the brand is at the center of the community. So in the Harley community it would mean that the Harley bike is at the center, in the Jeep community the Jeep Wrangler or the Cherokee, in the Mini Cooper community the Mini, and in the Fiskateer community, the Fiskars tools.

Is this really what is happening? I don’t think so.

For communities to work, the members need to be at the center of the community, and so the motivations have to be different from the pure hedonistic pleasure of owning a brand/product. The Fiskateers may be the people who come up with most of the new Fiskars products ideas. And they may be their staunchest defenders when the brand comes under attack. But the reason they form a tight-knit community, one that some members say changed their lives, is because they share a passion for scrap-booking. The reason that Harley owners get together is because they share a riding lifestyle passion. Jeep owners, probably because they have a shared aspiration for being adventurous by “off-roading” their cars. Mini owners? Not sure, but according to ethnographic research even people who no longer own a Mini Cooper stay with the community, so it cannot be that the car is at the center of the community.

So why Jeep and not Ford, why Fiskars, why Mini, why Harley ? Because in all those cases the companies have provided environments in which those member communities can operate and thrive. Jeep marketers are providing training camps, and are organizing the barbecues around which members can share their passion. Fiskars provided an online environment for their members to thrive and connected those with offline events as well. But in all cases they are enablers of a shared passion that exists within a tribe or community.

The result of that is what I described in a recent blog post – people use the Jeep, the mini, the Fiskars scissors, or the Harley as symbols to associate with others who share that passion. In some cases they take that a step further and create rituals around those brands, which make the brands more sticky. But at the end of the day, these are not brand communities, they are passionate rider communities, scrapbooker community, adventure seeker communities.

What do you think? Do you buy that, or do you think I am missing something?

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