It’s Not Brand, It’s Community

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During the 1992 Presidential election, political analyst James Carville kept reminding campaign workers of the issues they needed to focus on. The first was “the Economy”, and Carville’s oft-repeated mantra became “It’s the Economy, stupid!”

For brand stakeholders, the focus in 2016 is on “the community”. As Branding as a practice has evolved, so has our understanding of what it means to be a Brand.

The idea of brand has flipped from a product or service supported by a corporate power to (here comes the flip) a quality of belief and meaning that attracts individuals who share those same values and ideals.

They can become so passionate about the brand’s values they feel obligated and willing to help create that success themselves.

Nearly two decades into the millennium, it is now essential for anyone trying for mass appeal to move their enterprise from being meaningless technology to becoming an essential, relevant and meaningful part of our world. Many unicorns have died to make that statement true.

Quality and quantity have been flattened through the magic of global logistics. Mass differentiators during “The Madmen” era, today they have become price of admission. So much so, that today people are thinking global and producing local. (For those who know history, this is an 1820s New England Industrial Era construct.)

As many already know, Communities organize themselves around a belief system. A belief that humankind is created equally. A belief in life after death. A belief in good schools. A belief in aspirations. Think different. Just do it. Imagine.

These are the ideals, values and emotional touchpoints that resonate, attract and connect people together. They are a web of connecting points that attach themselves at the deepest levels of human behavior. A few years ago, we called this “primal code”. Today, acknowledging the rise of social community, these same elements have evolved to become the
“social code”.

A collection of seven data points (creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicon, nonbelievers, leader), the pieces of social code design and attract social community. They can be identified, put within context, analyzed, promoted, and create a systematic, strategic affinity engine. Designed with an overlay of individual behaviors they can increase advocacy and behaviors.

Strung together in a strategic brand narrative, they create meaningful interactions that become the magnetic core that attracts others to your beliefs—whether it’s two brothers building a bomb in a Boston basement, or 2 billion people calling themselves a nation.

Using this methodology, you can deconstruct brands for competitive advantage, design counter-narratives and distribute digital, social and traditional media in a holistic manner that creates one-to-one conversations, disrupts apathy and moves people from “Nobody cares” to “Everybody cares!”

This is the core of fandom and advocacy: The community of fans, advocates, zealots, and public who believe in and belong to your cult of passionistas. In fact, they may become so passionate about your success, they are willing to create it themselves.

Hashtags, Pins, likes and attendance are the rites of belonging. When those rites are embedded with more and other pieces of code, your fans become more connected to your strategic narrative—all of which makes your community more relevant, resonant, noteworthy and powerful.

The role of “brand management” is not to belabor your innovation and design thinking, but discover how to become more adept at delighting your brand community in every way possible. Sure, sometimes it might be an innovative new product, but more often it will be just figuring out how you best can welcome them into your brand community. Reminding them how important they are to you. And how you can keep them happy, happier, happiest.

They believe in you and they want you to believe in them.

Too many companies make the mistake of turning their consuming public into aggregate data points indicating growth, share, and margins gained when, in fact, every single sale is precious. Each ring of the cash register is a signal of belonging to your community.

If sales are down, it’s a sign that people don’t feel they belong in your community any more. They don’t identify with you. People might be confused about who you are, or you simply might be meaningless to them. Find out.

Quickly.

Identify what’s sticky about your brand community—what makes them stay? You may not want to mess with that. (When he became ceo of JCP, one of Ron Johnson’s first announcements was that he was abolishing the Thursday sales. Sale shoppers were cast out. Unfortunately, Thursdays were the biggest shopping days and one of the strongest reasons why people were shopping at J.C. Penney. There was no “brand” literally or figuratively, without those sales.)

Boom.

Next, figure out what’s keeping people away. In classic marketing terms, what are the barriers to entry? If you can figure out how to remove those barriers, (for example, no one’s writing any reviews) you’ll be much better off.

The role of “brand management” today is to offer information, experiences, and interactions.

But it’s all really about the people. Whether it’s 200 people or 200 million, they are your brand community. Stay tuned in.

Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Photo by Rogue King Photography
A version of this story first appeared in Forbes