Written by: Julia Schönström
Key words: Ben & Jerrys, Brand community, Online brand community, customer co-creation, social media
In an era where consumers are constantly being subjected to influences from a multitude of brands every minute, every hour of every day. One can assume that they are in search of what is real to them, what they can identify themselves with, the brands and companies’ they feel loyal to and sympathize with. So the question to be discussed in this article is - How can online brand communities strengthen a brand?
To picture this, I will give you a big (ice cream) scoop of the Ben & Jerry’s story, illustrating the importance and necessity of having a strong online brand community as well as bringing light to the complexity and difficulty of moving from a strong, dedicated offline brand community to continuously build up an equally strong online community and how to combine the two. I will therefore use the question below as a more guiding question.
How did Ben & Jerry’s successfully move from having such a rooted offline brand community to successfully become one of the top social brands out there?
The social network environment
The advent of social media has opened up new opportunities for brands to connect with consumers, and a majority of companies now include social media in their communication strategy (Beukeboom, Kerkhof, Vries, 2015). To succeed in social media environment and to stay influential, it is crucial to always make sure that the content shared is relevant and get the sufficient reach (Labrecque et. al., 2013).
Not only social media but the whole internet together with web 2.0 technologies has enabled brands to focus more and more on their online channels, in this day and age it is not uncommon to try to build a community around all kinds of products, from goods to services and industrial equipment. Consumers are hungry for a sense of connection, to other people but also to brands, at the same time companies feel the need to outperform themselves and to always be sure to be the best they can. A need that in many cases is necessary for the companies to stand out in the crowd. This is when firms start investing in social media practices, to try to create a solid brand identity and get people engaged in their brand by communicating online through different channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.
Some stand critical towards the necessity of building a brand community and mean that the consumers in the community is searching for connection with other people rather than with the particular brand (Fournier & Lee, 2009).
What is an online brand community?
There are many definitions of what a brand community is, one is described by Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) as “a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relations among admirers of a brand.”
Three key characteristics of a brand community are suggested by the authors; shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility. Shared consciousness is a fundamental connection amongst members and is what collectively is being thought to differentiate them from outsiders. The shared history of the community is being maintained by shared rituals and traditions. Lastly the members of the community feel a moral responsibility, a sense of to the entire community and its members, that might include new recruitments, assist with training or problem solving, or troubleshooting advice.
Another definition of a brand community is “an opportunity for customers to interact with each other to achieve their needs.” (Resnick, 2001). So, a brand community can therefore be explained as a platform where ‘fans’ of a brand can interact with each other but also with the brand, and the brand can communicate with the ‘fans’. It is a place much influenced by the self identity and social belonging, a place to connect. In other words, a place to see and be seen on. An online brand community is then as it sounds, a brand community on the internet.
The term customer ‘co-creation’ has now started to make a name of itself as customers are no longer considered passive individuals who will fall blind-eyed for everything a brand does, but more of a co-creator of the brand (Roper & Fill, 2012). The authors clarify the meaning of ‘co-creation’ as a recognition that consumers are contributing to create the brand by their actions and involvements, together with the company (p.128).
A company that is the perfect example of having a strong brand community is Ben & Jerry’s, they have basically had a strong brand community since the start, although at that time it was offline, with real people and real engagement.
Co-creation of a brand community - Source: www.epikdigital.com.au
Ben & Jerry’s – combining offline with online
Guessing all of you already know Ben & Jerry’s – the revolutionary ice cream makers. The company started off as a small local company in Vermont, 1979, with a huge social and environmental approach. It started as a company that really valued and appreciated their customers and created events and festivals, sincerely for them (Bueno, 2009). An example is how they celebrated their one-year anniversary with a “free-cone day”, free ice cream for everybody the whole day, a tradition that is still happening every year worldwide. To strengthen the brand identity as a compassionate brand, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation was founded in 1985 and the company starts to set off 7,5 % of the yearly profit to the foundation, aiming to finance social projects. Following this path, the resistance towards hormones (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) in their ice cream really shows that a big part of Ben & Jerry’s core lies in making the earth a place a little bit better to live in, and already did from the beginning (Ben & Jerry’s, 2016). Several years later, Ben & Jerry’s was sold to the big corporation Unilever and critique was directed to Ben & Jerry’s for having lost their soul and that their core values would be flattened out (Bueno, 2009).
The ice cream makers Ben & Jerry’s have during the last decade been praised for their innovative way of using social media to run their campaigns, and the way they combine online with offline. With their eight million likes on their Facebook brand page and 300 thousand twitter followers, it is easy to understand that people appreciate the brand nor the product. However, it is always hard to know whether these eight million fans are actually active and engaged fans or simply passive users liking for the sake of good deals.
So what does it take to actually be called a brand follower? According to Pereira, Salguiero and Mateus (2014) the users has previous positive experiences and trust with the brand and of course being a customer of the brand was the main reasons for becoming a brand follower. Users are also being influenced to follow a brand by the opportunity to participate in contests and promotions.
Ben & Jerry’s always had many dedicated fans – not that it’s very hard when your product is so hard to resist as ice cream. Even when online was not the normal interaction platform, Ben & Jerry’s managed to engage and connect with their customers. The idea is really to identify the company’s core values, the unique selling proposition - what differentiates your brand from the competitors, and then fully commit to these values. It doesn’t cut it to only sell a product, you have to build a movement around it (Lyman, 2015), just like Ben & Jerry’s did. Also Richardson (2013) use the logic of sticking to your core values and use Ben & Jerry’s as an example of a brand who began with a sense of care and goodwill and which brought them a long way, thanks to staying authentic, passionate and caring about the environment and their customers.
However, the rise of social media has definitely helped enable not only Ben & Jerry’s with a widespread network-based power. The fact that individual consumers’ now more easily can influence others decisions and co-create content more easily than before. This has led to a pinball-like spread of information (Hennig-Thujrau et al. 2010; Hennig Thurau, vor dem Esche, and Bloching 2012 as cited in Labrecque et al. 2013).
One of the corner stones of a successful online strategy is to know what motivates followers to share brand content, a majority of users will share content when they feel like-mindedness towards the content or if they feel involved with the brand. Also sharing fun posts, news and potential prize winnings with friends are incentives to share content (Pereira, Salguiero & Mateus, 2014).
So, how do Ben & Jerry’s do it? Well, Adam Schoenfeld, CEO for Simply Measured listed some of their key tactics; first of all, social is a core component of Ben & Jerry’s marketing activities, they simply have a seamless flow between their website and of their social channels. If you fully embrace what you do instead of just doing it out of habit many benefits can derive.
More over, their new flavour announcements increase a rather fanatical engagement on social media – only by taking great product shots and promotions (Schoenfeld, 2012). This will probably only work if your product is really good – meaning, if the ice cream would taste bad – none of their online efforts would work. Thus, it is so important for them to consistently stay relevant and responsive to the consumers and fans - being innovative but still within the frames of what resonates with the brand (Lyman, 2015).
Third, they manage to drive offline engagement. Using the social channels to facilitate the consumer participation both offline and online. An example of this is the Ben & Jerry Cow mobile campaign with ice cream trucks driving around the US during summer asking their Twitter followers where they should go next, instead of telling the followers where they should go. They hand out free ice cream which of course leads to increased sales, and a ritualization of their ‘free cone day’, remember? This was how they celebrated their first anniversary. What they do is basically to turn social fans into actual consumers using Twitter and free ice cream. At the same time as they drive offline engagement they lastly also manage to build an interactive community, for example their weekly photo contest “Fan photo of the week” has an average on over 300 engagements per post.
Ben & Jerry’s online/offline campaign - Source: www.weblogtheworld.com
To sum it all up
In the era of social media networking companies strive to strengthen their brand identity as well as their relationships with the consumers. When brands start this process of socializing they try to create a strong fan base that are loyal to them and engage with their content – this is what a brand community is.
However, it is not as simple as creating a Facebook page and hope for the best. It has to be a two-way communication, by letting fans co-create the content and the brand, but simultaneously staying true to the brand identity and the core values of authenticity.
Ben & Jerry’s really manage to combine offline with online marketing activities in a great way, they also manage to keep their core values by creating content and campaigns that always resonates with their brand focus while being involved in what happens in the world.
Not only do they have a great product that has been hyped for so long, they also have a great brand identity that follows the initial core values, and that survived the bought up by Unilever. Ben & Jerry’s are a just a great example of - having a strong brand community offline - shifting to an equally strong online brand community and - combining the both to maximize their campaigns in engagement.
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