Brand communities: The relationship between non-consumers and brand engagement

Written by Julia Lövgren

In today’s society, brands have become increasingly important in the everyday life of consumers. The time when brands were just a pure symbol of quality is long gone and brands are to a greater extent used as a way of expression and as a reflection of the self (Levy, 1959). Using symbols as a form of expressions can be traced back decades ago, but the concept of using brands as a form of identity tool to connect, is a fairly recent phenomena and can in modern times be referred to as brand community (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001). The way we consume brands and socially participate and engage with them is among other factors what defines a brand community, where the existence of the community is brought to life by the admires and advocates of the brand (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001). 

There is a plethora of research on brand communities, its members and how they are engaged with the brand itself, but little on the relationship between non-consumers and the brands. By looking at academic articles within the field of brand communities, it can be observed that in order to become a member of the community, the consumption itself is not necessarily a requirement.  In fact, some of the loudest advocates might in fact be non-consumers (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001). In the light of this, one can wonder why and how a non-consumer of a brand can get so engaged and invested in a brand, without any direct attachment or experience from it. By looking at examples of brand community where the members are not necessarily consuming the brand in question, this paper seeks to investigate and eventually answer the following question:

“What are the underlying motives for non-consumers to engage and commit to brand communities?” 

By digging deeper into this topic, the analysis may exemplify better insights in the structure of brand communities and the drivers for members to engage in brand communities. In a world where the brand serves a great factor in purchasing decisions, companies must provide strong brands that consumers would want to be associated to. This serve as a purpose for companies to gain better insights of what drives people to engage in brand communities and what factors will get them committed and ultimately, become loyal (Zhang, et al., 2013). Although the consumers of the brand are those who make the brand become profitable through their consumption, non-consumers can cater to brand equity by increasing the brand awareness and its popularity through brand advocacy (Kim et al., 2008). 

The structure of brand communities and the relationships behind: 

The concept of brand community was brought to life 2001, when Muniz and O’Guinn introduced their article “brand community”. Certainly, what we define as a brand community has been present long before, but the acknowledgement of the phenomena is often traced back to this particular article. Like any other community, brand communities are signified by strong social relationships that bridge cultural and geographical gaps. The members of the community are connected by the admiration of the brand, and when social interactions are made among the members, the connections to the brands are strengthened (Muniz & O’Guinn, 2001). According to Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) brand communities are characterized by, a strong shared consciousness within the group that signals a “we-feeling”, rituals and traditions that provide certain behaviors and norms related to the consumption of the brand and a sense of moral responsibility to the brand community and its members.

But why do people engage in brand communities and what is the value in doing so? As mentioned before, brands serve other purposes than pure functional benefits, carrying social and symbolic meanings (Levy, 1995). When being tied to a brand or products, its meaning and values are transmitted to the users and consumers. With this in mind, consumers tend to surround themselves around brands that will enhance their social status and along with those that will enhance their self-image (Tian et al., 2001). Brands can also be used in a social context for categorization, meaning that, consumers use brands to distinguish and identify social categories and by becoming more embedded in social categories, their identity is enhanced (Stokburger-Sauer, 2010). According to Matzler et al. (2011), people tend to surround themselves and engage with brands that enable them to express their personality and individualism. This will in turn will have a positive impact on the brand attachment i.e. brand commitment since the ties to the brands are linked to their unique personal values (Marzler et al., 2011).  

What about the relationship between brand commitment and brand loyalty among brand community members? A study conducted on Harley Davidson shows that the brand- affection and commitment is strengthen by participation within the brand community (Marzler et al., 2011). When the brand commitment is high, it fosters brand loyalty to flourish (Zhang, et al., 2013). As brand communities are characterized by social interactions among the members, brand trust is likely to follow, opening up opportunities for the brand community to grow (Marzler et al., 2011).  When the trust and commitment is high, the consumers are more likely to engage as brand advocates (Wirtz, et al., 2013). 

Becoming one with brand and the community itself:

But how is this transmitted in reality, and more specifically, how and why are non-consumers engaging in brand communities? Muniz and O’guinn (2001) mentions the Saab community and more explicitly an occurrence where a 16-year old Italian boy approaches the community, expressing his admiration and asking for pictures of the ’83 and ’84 3-door models, despite the fact that he does not know how to drive yet. This example seems to exemplify aspiration, a longing for the brand and the values attached. By expressing a sense of belonging and admirations, the user might attribute values of the brand to the self (Stokburger-Sauer, 2010). 

By looking deeper into the brand community of Rolex, more specifically their Facebook community, this mini-case is aimed to give better insights of how non-consumers interact on a brand community and the motives for doing so. Rolex as a brand is considered to be a symbolic one, colored by hedonic values and meanings, where consumers of this particular brand often purchase for other reasons than functional benefits. When purchasing a Rolex watch, status seeking and ego fulfillment are considered to be two purchasing drivers (Nandan, 2005). By looking at the Rolex brand community on their Facebook page, it became quite evident that many of the members in fact are non-consumers (Rolex, 2015). This might not be too shocking, considering the fact that in order to become a consumer, a larger investment would be required to make (Hanksjourney, 2014). But why are the users participating and engaging time in the brand community without any direct attachment to the brand? One of the community members expresses his admiration by “My dream is have a Rolex one day”, another member writes “Omg such a tease, love these. Only if I was a Wall Street tycoon haha” (Urrea, 2015; Henderson, 2015). The presented quotes illustrates two non-consumers expressing their desire to one day become an owner of a Rolex. The interesting thing about the second quote is that the community member does not seem to express a belonging to the community, he has made a distinction between himself and what he considers the community members to be like. This could perhaps be explained by a feeling of not fulfilling the requirements to belong, and more so a desire to one day become one (Stokburger-Sauer, 2010). The opposite of the quote above, and more aligned with what the theories says, a member expresses “I only like gold if it's an investment! This watch I can see myself wearing everyday!” how he sees himself as a Rolex owner (Guerrero, 2015). This quote on the other hand exemplifies a member that identifies himself with the brand and feels connected to the brand, despite his lack of consumption. In this case, it might be the more symbolic aspects, like social status that is the driver and by associating oneself to the brand, express the personal identity (Tian et al., 2001).  A female community members comments, “Would love any Rolex”, Indicating that she would settle with any model, as long as she could own one (Venables, 2014). This type of comment can serve as a desire to become more tied to the brand to and with this attachment, attribute some of Rolex values to the self (Tian et al., 2001). Many of the community members seem to look up to the brand, and attribute it with almost sacrosanct values which the following quotes illustrate “If your were aspiring to take over the'd wear a Rolex”, “That is awesome, what a great concept, for the first time in watchmaking history. And only Rolex could achieved it. Bravo!” and “No need to that's why they're the BEST time piece in the world for keeping precise time, even royalty have them.... "and of cource James Bond...” (Goldsmith, 2014; Poole, 2014). The quotes mentioned above, illustrate the highest level of admiration, tying the brand to figures like royalties and world-leaders, which also exemplified the social status and the hedonic values that the users experience with the brand (Nandan, 2005). On the Facebook page and on a Rolex forum, community members were found to engage with each other and to share their personal experience of the brand. Traces of members deciding to meet in person and discuss their experiences of the brand and their passion were even identified (Rolexforums, 2015). This example illustrates what Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) refer to as shared consciousness, where the ties to brand are strengthened when social interactions are made and experiences are shared. 

Enhancing the personal self by connecting to the brand: 

The mini-case of Rolex represent a brand community that is to a great extend symbolized by extravagance and hedonism, which also makes the members of the brand community behave in a certain matter (Nandan, 2005). How this particular brand community looks like, how the members behave and what drives them to engage might not be the same or even close for other brand communities. A lot of the features that the literature discusses can be found in the Rolex community, for instance how the brand is used as a way to express the self and the personal identity and how the members surround themselves and engage with brands that will enhance their social status and self-image. Also, how the members are committed to the brand in terms of the shared consciousness, how experiences are shared and social interactions are encouraged which seem to enhance the brand commitment. What seems to be the biggest driver of brand loyalty and commitment is the desire to consume, the longing to own, which seem to be what engages the consumers to actively participate. This strive to consume, is further enhanced by how the consumers relate to the brand, and how they attribute the brand with influential leaders, such as royalties among others. This mini-case serves to prove that companies can benefit from creating desirable brands, because nevertheless consumer or non-consumer, engagement and commitment feed prosperity! 


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