How do members of brand community influence the reputation and performance of a company online?
Written by Maximilian Hochsteiner
The internet gives us the opportunity to be whoever we want to be, say whatever we want to say and listen to whoever we want to listen to. Social media platforms are the perfect place for people to do all of those things without facing the same consequences as they would have to in real life. Companies with social media channels nowadays have to deal with consumers that are gathering together and either hyping or criticizing their brand in a large scale (Fournier and Avery, 2011). Fundamental researchers named this type of brand-focused group a brand community (Muniz and O’ Guinn, 2001, Zaglia, 2013, Albert, Merunka, & Valette-Florence, 2008).
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THIS WORK?
The purpose of this work is to explain what a brand community is and determine its main characteristics. Furthermore, I will take a closer look at the members of this special type of community, show how they behave online towards a brand and how they interact with each other. First I will start with the theoretical parts of this phenomenon in order to make the topic easier to understand. In the second step I will explain the community-brand (in other words consumer and company) relationship with its positive and negative effects. In the third and last part I will provide a practical example of a brand community with help of the relatively young German clothing company Distorted People.
WHAT IS A BRAND COMMUNITY?
This specific type of community differs from regular communities, which we find in everyday life, due to the commercial interest of members towards either a brand itself or its products and services (Muniz et al, 2001, Zaglia, 2013, Alber et al, 2008). According to Arvidsson and Caliandro (2016) three main characteristics describe this type of society in the best way: interaction, identity and social relations.
The first and fundamental aspect is that brand communities need an interaction between the members. They have to share and spread their ideas, views and opinions around the brand. It is not mandatory that all the community members constantly stay in contact with each other, but nevertheless, the important criterion is that there must be some sort of active discussion around the brand with at least some participants. The possibility of interaction at any point in time is enough to fulfil the idea of a community (Arvidsson et al, 2016, McAlexander, Schouten and Koenig, 2002).
The second characteristic of a brand community is that the active members receive or develop a special “sense of identity” for the brand (Arvidsson et al, 2016, p. 729). They consequently distinguish from other people the “non-users” as Canniford (2011, p. 594) describes them, who are outside of the community. The type of identity, all the members share, creates a feeling of belongingness, promotes passion and interest for one brand (its products and services) and unites them all (Arvidsson et al, 2016).
The last point claims the necessity of a social relation aspect which depends on the members themselves and does only exist if the above mentioned interaction occurs. Through an active exchange of views, concepts and critique on various platforms, communication among the members becomes the most important issue. This establishes but furthermore maintains a brand community in the long run (Arvidsson et al, 2016, McAlexander et al, 2002).
In addition to the three main characteristics mentioned above, Muniz et al (2001) claim that brand communities distinguish from each other not only through the brand in focus or the type of members. Rituals and traditions that occur on the inside also determine the nature of a society. The way of interacting (discussing, sharing and criticizing topics) in the group creates over time a standardized pattern which characterizes the specific brand community (Muniz et al, 2001).
THE PRESENCE OF BRAND COMMUNITIES AND THEIR INFLUENCE ON A COMPANY
The internet nowadays and especially social network platforms are a perfect place for people to talk about a brand with the same focus of interest and establish a community around it (Muniz et al, 2001). According to the findings of Zaglia (2013) members of online brand communities follow a two-step process. First of all, they create a profile on a certain social media platform (Facebook, Twitter, a blog etc.) which enables them to take part in a community. Secondly, motives like interest in a brand, wish to share own opinions or the joy of social interactions persuades an individual to join a brand community (Zaglia, 2013).
More than ever before, people have the chance to communicate with companies online and are able to proclaim their needs or criticism immediately through, for example, a post on a social media platform. Brand officials are – or at least must be – aware of the situation that the power lies nowadays to a large extent on the consumer-side, especially in the world wide web. Members of a brand community are in the position to influence a company’s reputation in both, a positive and negative way (Barwise and Meehan, 2010, Cova et al, 2006). The higher and easier access to needed information and the possibility to diffuse an opinion within seconds provoked the shift of market power from the company to the consumer (Labrecque, vor dem Esche, Mathwick, Novak and Hofacker, 2013).
A positive effect of a brand community’s online presence for companies is the opportunity to collect as much first-hand consumer insights as possible directly. If firms monitor actively their social media platforms, listen and participate the undertaken discussion by members, they will be able to understand their customer needs better. Responding faster to feedback and developing future strategies in a more efficient way become easier too (Barwise et al, 2010, Fournier et al, 2011). The resulting aim for the company is to strengthen the relationship between them and the customer trough all kinds possible of online activities (Ho, 2015).
On the opposite companies must be aware of the possible negative effects of a brand community. The internet allows the members to share and widespread complaints and negative comments 24 hours per day and 365 days per year (accessible and visible for everyone). There is no chance for the company to completely avoid or even influence that. Due to this fact, brand community members nowadays are more judgemental and tend to be more critical if it comes to the examination of a company’s product or service (Fournier et al, 2011).
PRACTICAL EXAMPLE: THE BRAND COMMUNITY OF DISTORTED PEOPLE AND THE COMMUNITY-BRAND RELATIONSHIP
I am now going to show how a brand community works in practice. In order to do so, I chose for the German clothing company Distorted People. The company is very active on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The most interesting fact about their brand community is that the members (subscribers, followers on social media) are not aware of the situation that they are a brand community. The three main characteristics mentioned above – interaction, identity and social relations - are applicable for these people which I am going to present in the next paragraphs with examples of their Facebook page (Arvidsson et al, 2016). Furthermore, I will examine the community-brand relationship and how well Distorted People achieves to keep a strong connection to their customers.
Some facts about the company
The clothing company is located in Munich (Germany) and was founded in 2008. Their product range goes from T-shirts, over hoodies to pants and shoes. The represented fashion direction is a combination of urban street style with vintage nuances. One of the biggest identifying features of the brand is the logo which shows a barber razor and a butcher knife crossing. The company owns three stores (Munich, Karlsruhe and Frankfurt) and an online-shop integrated in the official website. The online presence focuses on the main social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest) and video-sharing platforms (Youtube and Vimeo; Distorted People – About us, 2016a). Furthermore, it is possible to become an official member of Distorted people. The membership costs around 30 Euros per year and includes a constant discount of 20 percent on every order, availability of limited edition products, exclusive rights of first refusal and pre-order possibilities (Distorted People – Membership, 2016b). In the next two sections I will examine the company’s Facebook page and their community-brand relationship.
The brand community’s activities on the Distorted people Facebook page
The company announces and presents all the new products on their official Facebook page (2016) which starts the discussion for the community. The people tag each other on pictures and posts, ask questions and start interacting with each other (see pictures). A significant majority of the consumers are, according to the posts content, also official members of the brand (as mentioned above) which leads to a high communication activity among them. The people in this community share the same interest for fashion and they identify themselves through this particular type of style (combination of urban street and vintage style). Furthermore, they are able to distinguish from other brand communities or also normal consumers through the official membership and this particular way of interacting. The Distorted people community appears as an exclusive club for fashion-conscious consumers trying to create uniqueness and escape the mainstream (Distorted People – Facebook Page, 2016).
The community-brand relationship
The company understands how to handle with the community members on their Facebook Page (2016). They answer each and every comment that aims at a brand response within (maximum) a day. Distorted people reacts to every feedback (regardless if positive or negative), question and concern. As presented in the picture beneath, the company replies comprehensively to a consumer issue rather than ignoring it. A consumer reacts with frustration due to the non-availability of the jacket on the left picture. The company answers with a friendly and well thought out post that there will be more and even better things to come. This reply provides the community member with high degree of understanding and support. Therefore, the company achieves well to strengthen a tight connection between them and the brand community. The members get the feeling that their issues do not remain unheard which creates positive awareness and reputation for the brand (Distorted People – Facebook Page, 2016).
CONCLUSION AND SUGGESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE
Companies nowadays have to be aware of online brand communities and their influence on the overall performance. As the Distorted People example shows, if you as company face a brand community in your environment it is very important to satisfy their needs and requests. As Fournier et al (2011) and Ho (2015) pointed out the positive but also negative effects towards the brand which makes a strong community-brand relationship the key for success. The internet equips the consumer with influential power and companies have to deal with this situation. Ignorant behaviour of a firm and overhearing the consumer’s voice could lead to a terrible performance and reputation of the brand (Barwise et al, 2010, Cova et al, 2006). In my opinion it will become more and more important to stay as close to the customers as possible. Understanding needs, listening carefully to issues and taking requests seriously become the main aims of a company in times of social networking. The creation of a long-lasting bad reputation is sometimes only one Facebook post away.
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Figure 1: Distorted People,2016a. Distorted.people.com – Official page [Facebook]. Available from: https://www.facebook.com/distorted.people/?hc_ref=ADS&fref=nf&ft[tn]=kC&ft[qid]=6358409280259777051&ft[mf_story_key]=7397388502798360327&ft[ei]=AI%4057ef7be9e04ff5d0d21c0223a3249373&ft[fbfeed_location]=1&ft[insertion_position]=1&__md__=1 [Accessed: 28.11.2016)
Figure 2: Distorted People, 2016b. Distorted.people.com – Official page [Facebook]. Available online: https://www.facebook.com/distorted.people/?hc_ref=ADS&fref=nf&ft[tn]=kC&ft[qid]=6358409280259777051&ft[mf_story_key]=7397388502798360327&ft[ei]=AI%4057ef7be9e04ff5d0d21c0223a3249373&ft[fbfeed_location]=1&ft[insertion_position]=1&__md__=1 [Accessed: 28.11.2016]