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Brand Community and its Relationship with Brand Culture

Community is a core of social thought and has a long intellectual history. The nineteenth and early twentieth century social theorists, scientists, and philosophers were concerned with its impact and consequences and this has continued to be so among contemporary theorists. In fact, for a century and a half it has been a staple of political, religious, scholarly, and popular discourse (Hummon 1990). This discourse is basically about community's condition and fate in the presence of modernity, market capitalism, and consumer culture. Although its importance has been acknowledged but when it comes to consumer behaviour, it is very rere that community is looked into.

There exist numerous definitions of community; a review of the sociology literature brings out three essential components of a community, as well as the critical notion of imagined community (Anderson 1983). The first and most important element of community is what Gusfield (1978) refers to as consciousness of kind. Consciousness of kind is the feeling of belongingness which the people have to the community and its members which is absent for others who are not a part of the community. This consciousness is a shared consciousness, as to how the members of the community perceive a particular situation in a similar manner. It is a shared knowing of belonging (Weber [1922] 1978). Presence of shared rituals and traditions is the second indicator. These Rituals and traditions which the community shares portray the historical and cultural link which in turn signifies the link of the conscious. Rituals "serve to contain the drift of meanings; . . . [they] are conventions that set up visible public definitions" (Douglas and Ishwerwood 1979, p. 65) and social solidarity (Durkbeim 1965). Traditions are sets of "social practices which seek to celebrate and inculcate certain behavioural norms and values" (Marshall 1994, p. 537). Thirdly, moral responsibility is a key component. It is a is a felt sense of duty or obligation which you feel for both the community as a whole, and its individual members. It is this sense of moral responsibility , that in times of threat or external action that people join hands together and a feeling of collective belonging is generated.

Building Brand Culture and Community

For decades, marketers have sought the Holy Grail of brand loyalty. Just as the legendary grail of Arthurian quest held the promise of extended life and renewal, marketers attribute to brand loyalty and its sister icon, customer retention, the promise of long-term profitability and market share (Bhattacharya, Rao, and Glynn 1995; Reicheld and Sasser 1990). Unfortunately, marketing's knights-errant face a daunting problem: They have not fully understood what the grail looks like or where it can be found. As a result, marketers have devised strategies and designed programs to build loyalty with limited information about their real impact or ultimate consequences (Dowling and Uncles 1997; Fournier, Dobscha, and Mick 1998). For decades, marketers have sought the Holy Grail of brand loyalty. Just as the legendary grail of Arthurian quest held the promise of extended life and renewal, marketers attribute to brand loyalty and its sister icon, customer retention, the promise of long-term profitability and market share (Bhattacharya, Rao, and Glynn 1995; Reicheld and Sasser 1990). Unfortunately, marketing's knights-errant face a daunting problem: They have not fully understood what the grail looks like or where it can be found. As a result, marketers have devised strategies and designed programs to build loyalty with limited information about their real impact or ultimate consequences (Dowling and Uncles 1997; Fournier, Dobscha, and Mick 1998).

Culture is a means and mode that provides significance to human activities. During our lifetime we come across and become a part of various cultures which often intersect, such as the national culture, food and music culture and so many others. These cultures which we follow and which are a part of our life, have a profound influence on our attitudes, beliefs and values that determine our behaviours.

Brands too can have a powerful influence on us, a new ‘culture’ evolves around them.. According to Jonathan Schroeder, one of the leading experts on the topic, brand culture concerns all the aspects and connotations of brands that have made them an important part of our everyday lives and experiences (Schroeder, 2007). Brands are creators of new unique culture but they also draw heavily form other cultural phenomena’s such as history, myths, rituals, artworks, the film industry, theatre and television, to convey meanings that resonate in powerful ways with consumer’s lifestyles (Schroeder and Salzer-Morling, 2006). Brand culture is continuously (re)created as the various parties that have an interest in the brand – companies, employees, culture industries, intermediaries, customers – relate stories around their experiences of the brand ( Holt, 2004 ).

Well-known entrepreneurs such as Phil Knight (Nike), Richard Branson (Virgin), Anita Roddick (Bodyshop) and Steve Jobs (Apple) have built strong corporate brand cultures through personal dedication and passion for their enterprise. They with their strong and influential personality , entuse their employees with the goals of the organisation and its mission which brings a feeling of belongingness, so much so that the employees are as passionate about achieving these goals as the entrepreneurs. They in a way form a community build on similar goals. (Maclaran 2009). Balmer (2006, p. 34) refers to the growth of the ‘corporate brandscape ’, arguing that brand cultures, and the communities that they engender, are much stronger for corporate brands than those created by product brands. The other key building block of brand culture is in ensuring that there exists no gap between what the values of the organisation propose and what the customer seeks. Sharing of passion only between employees and management is not sufficient, it has to be in conformity with what the customers expectations are, or else the brand would be a failure. It is now well recognized that consumers no longer seek just functional benefits from products and services, they seek meanings that help them construct and maintain their identities (Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998).

The fabric of brand culture has to be knit keeping in mind the customers expectations and in line with what would be acceptable to the consumer. Relationships have to be manged at each step, include those between the customer and the brand, between the customer and the firm, between the customer and the product in use, and among fellow customers (James H. McAlexander, John W. Schouten, & Harold F. Koenig Journal ot marketing vol 66 (January 2002), 38-54) In today’s turbulent world, as it is impossible to stand alone, people are hungry for a sense of connection, something they can recognize with; in simple economic times, for growth every company needs new ways to do more with what it already has. Unfortunately, although many firms aspire to the customer loyalty, marketing efficiency, and brand authenticity that strong communities deliver, few understand what it takes to achieve such benefits. Worse, most subscribe to serious misconceptions about what brand communities are and how they work. (Author: Lee, L and Fournier, S; HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW Vol: 87 Issue: 4 2009) A brand community is a specialized community not affected by geographic barriers, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand, Grounded in both classic and contemporary sociology and consumer behaviour ( Journal Article : Brand Community Author: O'Guinn, Thomas C and Muniz, Albert M Journal of Consumer Research Vol: 27 Issue: 4 ISSN: 0093-5301 Date: 03/2001 Pages: 412 - 432 )

Muniz and O'Guinn (2001) envision a brand community as a customer-customer-brand triad. Construing brand community as a social aggregation of brand users and their relationships to the brand itself as a repository of meaning (see Aaker 1996; Aaker 1997) overlooks other relationships that supply brand community members with their commonality and cultural capital (Holt 1998). Customers also value their relationships with their branded possessions and with marketing agents and institutions that own and manage the brand. Granting community-member status to the branded product and to the marketer situates both the customer-brand dyad (the traditional focus of brand loyalty scholars) and the customer-customer-brand triad within a more complex web of relationships (Muniz and O'Guinn's 2001)

Brand communities which have a strong affiliation to a particular brand are highly critically of other brands and also broadcast their criticism publically can be detrimental to the brand equity and the brand marketer. Whilst marketers in their organizational roles seek to control brands, it is generally thought that brand communities spring up from within a consumer grouping. Increasingly, however, companies seek to monitor and control the brand community as well as the brand (Hughes 2009). Slater (2000) noted the strong influence of the Coca-Cola Brand Collecting Club members on the marketing strategy of the Coca-Cola Company, the latter being anxious to keep club members happy, and making product changes in order to do so. Alternatively, brand criticism may bring about an anti-brand movement, as experienced by McDonalds: McDonaldsSucks.com. Such is the strength of brand relationships that the consumer can experience love, passion, separation anxiety and emotional commitment with regard to their cherished brands (Fournier, 1998), and companies that make certain brands in their portfolios redundant may experience difficulty in persuading customers of those products to move on.

Brand Community and its Roots in Cultural Consumption: The Case of MINI

Brands undoubtedly play an important role in consumer consumption behaviour. The word is derived from the Old Norse brand, which means to burn, referring to the “marks” used to provide or ensure the correct product has been chosen (Stobart, 1994). Brand names and trademarks usually guarantee that the product will be of a certain standard. More specifically, Murphy (1990) argues that the notion of “brand” is a complex phenomenon rather than just an actual product, comprising tangible and intangible values as well as other associate attributes.

The Mini is an iconic car that dates back to the rebel culture of the 1960s. Just like the mini-skirt and the Beatles, the little car is an enduring symbol of the ‘swinging sixties ’. The Mini was designed by the British Motor Corporation (BMC) in response to the increasing popularity of the smaller and fuel efficient German ‘bubble cars ’. Sir Alec Issigonis, the Mini’s designer, has become a legend in his own right, famed for his innovative design that allowed both performance and space despite the limitations of size. Sir Alec’s history intertwines with that of the Mini and many stories circulate around him that contribute to the Mini’s brand culture and reinforce it as a triumph for British design. Fans relate how Pininfarina, a famous Italian carmaker, once asked Issigonis why he did not style the Mini a little. The reply that Issigonis made to this competitor’s taunt has now become part of the Mini myth: ‘It will still be fashionable when I’m dead and gone’ ( Beh, 2008 ). The Mini was marketed as a fun car with a cheeky image. ‘You don’t need a big one to be happy ’, ‘Happiness is Mini shaped ’ and ‘Small is Beautiful ’ are some of its famous straplines. Its brand culture has evolved around this image, an image that made it ‘cool’ to drive a small, unpretentious car. The Mini was continually associated with major celebrities throughout this decade. This enhanced its brand culture significantly, giving it celebrity status by association with stars.

Consumer research has traditionally viewed the question of brand preference in terms of brand attributes, product benefits, and the actual decision process (Keller 1993). It is only in recent times that the consumer has been integrated and individual experiences of the consumer are looked into and the relationship is moulded accordingly. Brand communities or sub cultures may also form (Muniz and O'Guinn, 2001). Drawing on these studies, consumers attach brand meanings which suit them and make the brand valuable for their own use. But it is only some brands which reach the stage of forming brand communities. Some branded products remain necessities, but do not generate strong personal conceptions.

Any members faithful to the original “classic” vehicle and those who saw nothing wrong with the BMW rebranding of 2001 – or who even preferred the newer car. Such oppositional loyalty is a powerful means of clarifying a community’s identity in its own corporate mind.

Particular mention must be made in the context of the present study of Cova and Cova’s (2002) contributions, it highlights the essential differences between “real” communities, based on geographical proximity and kinship, and “virtual” ones, which are independent of barriers and limitations. Brand communities are regional, national or even global; they do not depend on proximity like other traditional communities. But there appears to be a similarity nevertheless: “the link is more important than the thing” for both kinds of community. The implication of Cova and Cova‟s (2002) argument is that socially alienated modern Western consumers attempt to recreate social bonds, whether virtually or in reality, using brand objects as a vehicle for doing so.

The standpoints of the two parties involved, as revealed in the findings, certainly bear some resemblance to those which would be involved in two antagonistic communities. Their sense of self, insofar as it exists, is characterised primarily by their opposition to the other party. This is especially true of the classic Mini, fierce proponents of which feel that the values embodied in the car (especially “fun” and “Britishness”) have been somehow betrayed or suborned by the newer vehicle. The feeling is not as strong among adherents of the BMW MINI, who seem more tolerant of the older vehicle (Beh, 2009).

However, the car is still so popular, and there are so many still being driven, that the sense of danger is not imminent. Oppositional brand loyalty is an additional social process perpetuating consciousness of kind, from which brand community members derived an important characteristic of their communal experience. As well as this, it is an important component of the meaning of the brand, from an oppositional to a competing brand (Muniz and OGuinn, 2001). Schouten and McAlexander (1995) is able to reflect a two-way process between any of the parties, as well as showing their relationship to each other.

Levy‟s (1959, p.68) observation that “people buy things not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean” can be regarded as the core assumption which has led to the exploration of the role of symbolic ‘interactionism’ in consumer society. Perhaps the primary means by which this role is played out is through the “extended self” proposed by Belk (1988). These ‘Consumption communities’ come into being only when a group of people having similar feelings about the same thing are able to express their feelings about that thing through various means. The feelings raised by the Mini in the years and decades following 1959 had both individual and social components, and these were inextricably mixed. People reacted, for example, to the marketer’s emphasis on “fun” on an individual and a communal level (beh, 2009).

Bensman and Vidich (1995) and Kephart and Zellner (1994) note that in a group or a community the feeling of belongingness is the highest and the bonds are closest during the period of distress or threat. Bensman and Vidich (1995) in their study of neighbourhoods assert that the dominance of a neighbourhood by one institution can create a counter-community whose sole reason for existence is its opposition to that institution. Over the years, although it was a mass produced car, the Mini brand culture evolved to include a highly individualistic element. This was aided by its many endorsements from celebrities who had specially designed models. It became the custom for individual owners to decorate their Minis in unique ways. Some painted union jacks on the roof or on the bonnet, while others painted colourful stripes or motifs on the bodywork. Still others kitted out the interior in fanciful décor, sometimes running a theme throughout the car’s interior and exterior. This element of creativity and individual self-expression was added to the brand culture by consumers themselves and has now become an important part of the brand’s evolving history. Holt (2002, p. 83) points out that this identification with the underdog began in the sixties, in which consumerism was not rejected in totality. Rather, only brands that were perceived as overly coercive lost favour.” The very name, and the brand name’s connotations of small size, provide a subconscious reinforcement of this feeling, while also conforming to Holts (2002, p. 82) observation that “to be socially valued, cultural content must pass through branded goods.” One brand is pitted against another, each being assigned stereotypical and opposed characters: the tyrannical, large corporation ruthlessly suppressing the innocent little victim without justification or pity.it was like the fight between the ‘percieved good’ and the ‘percieved bad’ in which the spectator identifies with what according to him is good. It was more often then not a morality play.

The Mini/BMW MINI community is of particular interest in this context because of its partly dichotomous nature. There is some animosity between adherents of the classic car and those of the BMW relaunch. The strongest evidence of an actual split is that some Mini clubs do not allow BMW MINIs. However, this has not gone as far as the formation of two separate communities, identifiable by Muniz and O‟Guinn‟s (2001) three markers. Despite this opposition, there can be no doubt that the launch of the new MINI has been highly successful. The new design has taken one of the Mini’s core values, fun, and used this value very successfully in conjunction with the theme of individualization. As far as the new MINI manufacturer, BMW, is concerned, there is no disjuncture between the old Mini and new MINI and the brand has simply evolved. The new MINI website ( http://www.mini.co.uk ) invites customers to design their own MINI from hundreds of different combinations, alongside the claim that:

Over the years MINI has changed. However the foundations of this small car, its character traits, have remained unchanged from its inception in the 1950s until today. Be it old Mini or the present-day MINI, people just can’t stop talking about it. Because it’s in the genes!

Conclusion

Brand communities reveal that the position of a brand is social and is not only dependent on the attitudes, values and beliefs.. While the meaning of a brand is acknowledged as an important quality (Dobni and Zinkhan 1990, Fournier 1998, Gardner and Levy 1955; Levy 1959), it is not given much attention, its sociological perspective is even less explored and talked about. Brands are not just the creation of a marketer , the consumer has an equal hand in its creation which is so extrinsically linked to the social construction (Firat and Venkatesh 1995). The intersection of brand—a defining entity of consumer culture—and community—a core sociological notion—is an important one. The line of distinction between the two is blurred, and their effects on each other cannot be separated into water tight compartments. Perhaps most significantly, this may be a place where consumer behaviour can contribute something beyond our narrowly defined field and more fully engage the larger scholarly project.

At this moment in the early twenty-first century, the notion of community occupies a particularly important space. The existing concept of community is being questioned in the post modern world. At this moment community’s existence, persistence, endurance, and constant reinvention in the postmodern consumption space where enormous changes in human communication reside. Brand communities to be real, significant, and generally a good thing, a democratic thing, and evidence of the persistence of community in consumers culture.

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