Marketing academics and experts have constantly stressed on the importance of differentiation of products and services for the achievement of competitive advantage in the marketplace. Most business firms recognize the worth of differentiation and try to drive home the distinctiveness of their offerings, in terms of product or service features, quality, delivery, customer service and the like, thus differentiating their products from others in the marketplace. Hofmeyer***
Whilst differentiation continues to be a marketing imperative, contemporary times are experiencing tremendous increase in customer awareness, not just in the developed countries but also in the emerging nations. Such increase in customer awareness is coming about on account of the interplay of various forces like greater discretionary income with customers, intensification of competition, the deconstruction of barriers to movement of products, services, people and capital between nations, the entry of many emerging nations in the global economy, the steady progress of the Internet and the increasing role of social media in the lives of people. These developments are not only increasing customer awareness but also enhancing customer empowerment. Modern day customers are not only aware of their needs, they are also able to find out relevant information about competing products and services and can engage directly with firms before and after making purchasing decisions. Magoon, Nobre***
These developments are negating traditional business efforts to create product and service differentiation. Consumers are now able to learn about products, both on their own and through interaction with other customers. They are altering marketplace dynamics and are actually participating with manufacturers in creation of value. With co-creation of value becoming increasingly important, marketers are now altering their perspectives on achievement of differentiation by including consumers in the differentiation process. Roll***
Modern day organisations are now seeking to accentuate differentiation by the building of consumption communities around specific brands, wherein brand users can not only interact with suppliers of products and services but also with other customers in order to enhance their brand experience. Psychologists suggest that consumer usage of certain brands is leading to an unexpected social function by the engendering of community feelings within people who use specific brands. Such communities result in significant social interaction between the owners of specific brands and thence to exchange of information as well as mutual help. Norton***Owners of the Volkswagen Beetle famously formed Beetle lovers clubs in the 1960s and 1970s, the members of which took pride in their cars, met regularly, exchanged information on maintenance and upkeep and even helped each other out with spares. Muinz*** Recent years have seen the development of strong brand communities by owners of Harley Davidson motorcycles and Apple’s various products like personal computers and IPhones. Rettner. Smack***
The construction of communities around brands in order to develop and sustain interest and excitement is increasing rapidly, fuelled in recent years by social media on the Internet. With Internet societies like Facebook and Orkut enabling the development of global brand communities, corporations are increasingly seeing the building of brand communities as an important tool for corporate success.
This analytical report aims to investigate, analyse and discuss the development of consumption communities, with specific regard to the ways in which brand communities are influencing the marketing and strengthening of brands. The report focuses on the brand communities that have been formed by Apple users in order to determine the various ways in which such communities are helping their members, as well as the company in strengthening its brand.
2.1. Consumption and Brand Communities
Traditional marketing approaches focus on direct communication with customers through various media channels in order to build customer interest and generate excitement. Whilst communication messages were in the past traditionally delivered through mass media, as also through personal approaches like telemarketing and direct mail, the development and spread of the Internet is making it easier for companies to target individual customers and engage with them on a one-to-one basis. Szmigin***Pert***
Most companies built their brands through catering to the individuality and self esteem of consumers and by associating brands with specific and desired attributes like health, style, status, and exclusivity. Product and service suppliers have traditionally tried to strengthen their offerings through differentiation by way of creation of brands with distinct attributes. Norton***Recent years have however seen an astonishing coming together of consumers on account of the huge communication and interaction opportunities that have come about in the online space, more so with the phenomenal growth of social networking sites. Recent estimates put Facebook utilisation at 22 % of web viewings in the United States compared to 7 % for Google. Pert***Whilst consumers in the past could get together only in their immediate localities, they can now engage in information exchange and enquiry with millions of people on a real time basis.
Such enormously enhanced scope for interaction has been instrumental in the growth of numerous consumer communities, the members of which come together on account of various commonalities and objectives. Consumer communities are dramatically changing market dynamics and influencing businesses to adopt ethical business practices, engage in greater transparency in labelling, promote ethical products, enhance sustainability and reduce environmental damage. Cova***Consumption communities, for example, have developed for promotion of use of organic products and are driving the sale of such products across advanced nations through the use of the Internet, as well as various other forums. Devasagyam***The constant growth in the consumption of organically grown products, despite their much higher prices, is due in substantial measure to the efforts of these consumption communities. Deva***
Modern day marketers are using the concept of consumption communities to develop brand communities comprising of members who are loyal to specific brands and are bound to other members through such loyalties. Roll***Whilst such brand communities did exist in the past, they came about inadvertently and were not really seen as marketing tools. Coke consumers were known to be so loyal to their favoured drink that they would choose prospective grooms and brides for their children after finding out whether they were fans of Coca-Cola (Muniz & Hamer, 2001, p 356). The Volkswagen Beetle community grew steadily through three decades after the Second World War. With the popularity of the car increasing steadily, many major western cities came to have Beetle clubs whose members met regularly, exchanged information on maintenance and performance, helped each other with spares, and participated in Beetle rallies. Whilst the Beetle Club grew organically and with little encouragement from the manufacturing company, it played an instrumental role in the creation of globally loved icon. Hofmeyer***
Modern day management and marketing discourse is placing increasing emphasis on the importance of brand communities, as also on the need for marketing organisations to build brand communities to reinforce and multiply their brand strengthening efforts. Brand Communities, Roll (2011, p 1), states share three specific characteristics, namely (a) consciousness of kind, (b) existence of shared beliefs and rituals, and (c) feelings of moral responsibility. Consciousness of kind represents the inherent relationships felt by members of specific brand communities for each other, reinforced again by their sense of difference from people who are not its members. The existence of shared beliefs and rituals is an important element of such communities. These beliefs and rituals are conveyed between members and help in defining culture and conduct within such communities. Such rituals are also very importantly related to the brand and are formed not just by community members or brand users but also by the corporations that make brands. Corporations can obviously derive immense marketing leverage if strong loyalties can be built in the early phases of the brand life cycle. Feelings of moral responsibility broadly refer to the obligations and duties that community members feel towards each other, the community as a whole, and the brand. It is observed that community members often share feelings of moral responsibility that are manifested through actions concerning entry of new members as well as continuance of existing ones. Some brand communities are known to revel in their uniqueness and their distinctiveness by actively restricting the entry of new members. Roll***
Modern day organisations follow broadly similar strategies for building of brand communities. Whilst it is easy to understand the benefits of brand building, the deliberate construction of a brand community is an immensely complex and difficult task. Communities by and large grow organically through the interaction of individuals with similar thoughts and ideas that came together in formal or informal settings in order to pursue mutually preferable objectives and activities. The brand communities that developed in the past, whether they were Coca-Cola drinkers, McDonald’s burger enthusiasts or Beetle owners grew organically over time because of the tremendous psychological appeal of these products. The harnessing of various tools for communication and influencing of consumer behaviour for the building of brand communities, which are made up of people who are focused on specific brands to the exclusion of others, is a complex and challenging task; especially in the dynamic modern day environment where new products and services are constantly entering and displacing the old. Fournier***
Roll, (2011, p 1) recommends four important steps in the construction of brand communities, namely (a) the creation of a strong brand storey, (b) the creation of a desire for collaboration among consumers, (c) the creation of identifiable brand elements and (d) the creation of a distinctive and unique culture. The importance of a strong brand story lies in the fact that modern day brands are not neutral, passive or inanimate items but active entities with specific personalities that enable customers to express their feelings and identities through their consumption. Brands, to attract customers, should have strong stories that appeal to customers for purposes of identification. Such stories not only authenticate brands but also facilitate the self expression of customers. The need for collaboration arises on account of reasons like information sharing, validation, expression of personality and identification with specific segments. The creation of identifiable brand elements concerns the development of symbols, icons and spokes persons that help community members to distinguish their community from others and to identify themselves with their community. The creation of a unique culture helps customers to interact with other users and the company.
Most companies follow these basic steps in the development of brand communities. Harley Davidson was going downhill and facing extinction in 1983. 28 years later it is now a top 50 global brand. Fournier and Lee 2009 state that Harley’s commitment to developing a brand community is central to its success. Inspired by Harley’s efforts, marketers in various industries are now busy in developing brand communities. Such brand communities help in strengthening brands in various ways. Community members increase brand awareness through word of mouth influence. They allow companies to work with customers in different areas of value creation and provide organisations with effective platforms to engage with their customers.
Fournier and Lee (2009) however state that whilst many business firms are striving to improve marketing efficiencies, customer loyalties, and brand strength through the development of strong communities, many of such firms suffer from serious misconceptions. Companies often localise and isolate their efforts to build communities within their marketing functions. This is essentially a wrong approach because strategies for building brand communities should be developed as high level strategies for supporting goals across the business. Millington (2011), states that two of the most common mistakes that kill brand communities come about from (a) launching a brand community for a wrong benefit, and (b) incorrect identification of the strong common interest. He states that brands that try to launch a community for a wrong benefit, for example the reaching of new customers, are likely to fail because the focus in such cases will be on growth and will fail to engage community members who might come together on the platform. Millington (2011) states that organisations must ensure that their brand communities are built to benefit members and not just the producers. Such communities should also be built around the strong common interest of members even if such interest does not relate to the products and services of the organisation. Harley Davidson and Apple Computers represent companies that have successfully built brands, which in turn have helped these companies immensely in increasing brand strength, enhancing company image, and driving sales, profitability and customer satisfaction. The subsequent section deals with the ways in which the brand communities of Apple came together, their unique characteristics and how they are helping their members as well as Apple in different ways.
3. Apple’s Brand Communities
Apple is associated with thriving brand communities whose members actively interact with each other and are fiercely loyal to their brands. Franzen and Moriarty, p 304) state that Apple’s brand communities have three distinct characteristics, namely consciousness, legitimacy and opposition. Consciousness represents the feeling of connection by users with the brand, as well as other users. Legitimacy concerns the traditions and rituals that are used by members to differentiate between true and marginal members. Opposition represents a sense of community that is based on opposition to other competing brands. Apple owners are united by their opposition to Microsoft, which helps in the development of brand loyalty. Magoon states that the participants of the Apple brand community are able express their personalities not just through adoption of Apple but also through the rejection of Microsoft. Rettner (2010), states that Apple fans continue to be interested in their products because of the constant occurrence of new product developments. Researchers refer to the strong sense of consciousness that exists in members of brand communities.
“A key component of any brand community is what researchers call “consciousness of kind,” which really means a sense of “we-ness.” Today, this element is driven home in the Mac community by the “I’m a PC, I’m a Mac” ad campaign that the company started running in 2006. But the bond between Mac users stretches back decades”. Rettner, 2010, p 1)
Brand communities, as discussed earlier, involve specific rituals and traditions. Whilst riders of Harley bikes engage in group rides, Apple consumers gather at store openings for releases of new products. These loyalists gather in large numbers, as was evident during the IPad release, at Apple stores, despite their options of staying at home and ordering their products online. Rettner states that such groups, like the ones at Apple, often form out of necessity. With Macs being much fewer in number than mainstream PCs, Mac users often turn to other members of the community for help, thus making bonds between community members stronger.
Apple’s brand communities have become so strong that some researchers compare them with brand cults. The company’s CEO Steve Jobs is often referred to as a hero, even whilst the company’s rivals are portrayed like the anti-Christ. Such loyalty is displayed by members who go out and buy IPads despite complaining that the device doesn’t offer anything very new. Rettner states that whilst Apple fans may not be cult-like, they are strongly devoted to their brand. “At the core of the devotion could be ‘a sense of self.’ The brand taps into what’s truly important to people – it’s about more than just the technological bells and whistles, it’s a lifestyle, experts say.” (Rettner) Apple users, observers feel are liberal and open minded to technology. The company has also been successful in connecting its brand image with the core values and lifestyle aspects of people. Rettner
This report takes up the investigation and analysis of consumption communities, with specific reference to their development into brand communities. Brand communities essentially consist of brand users who come together, mainly through the online space but also otherwise, to exchange information and engage in other forms of community activity. Behavioural experts state that the members of such communities, whilst bound together by their loyalty to specific brands, display many of the features of other social communities like loyalty, kinship and the desire to help each other.
Whilst brand communities in the past developed through organic means, modern day companies feel such communities to be imperative for strengthening of brands and enhancement of competitive advantage and thus make specific efforts to encourage their growth and nurture their sustenance. The concept of brand communities is new but is being adopted enthusiastically by modern firms, encouraged by the tremendous success of companies like Harley Davidson and Apple, who have actively nurtured the development of such communities and are using them for the benefit of community members, the brand and the company.
Such brand communities serve many purposes, primarily for the members and by extension for the owners of the brands. Whilst members use the platform to engage with other community members and the brand owners for satisfaction of their various needs, brand owners use them to strengthen customer loyalty and generate customer goodwill. The development of such communities is however an extremely challenging task and many such efforts fail because of the essentially flawed perspectives of brand owners about the purposes and uses of these forums. Modern day corporations thus need to analyse their objectives in the development of such communities and moreover make efforts to ensure that the interests of community members are not subverted during the community building process.
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