Sunday, August 30, 2009

More on the Brand Community (Chapter 1/5)

Let's look a bit deeper into Muniz and O'Guinn's brand community concept.

Muniz and O'Guinn identify three markers of brand communities:
* Consciousness of kind
* Rituals and traditions
* Moral responsibility
and give some examples of each as they relate to the three brand researched, Saab, Macintosh, and Ford Bronco.

There are two ideas within the "consciousness of kind" marker, legitimacy and oppositional brand loyalty. With legitimacy, there is a ranking of brand users with some brand users feeling that they may be more "legitimate" than other brand users or that some other brand users may not be using the brand for the right reasons. In the case of both Saab and Bronco, Muniz and O'Guinn found that Saab and Bronco users questioned the motivations of some fellow brand users. The assumption was that current mass popularity of both brands may have caused some of their fellow brand users to choose Saab and Bronco, rather than a belief that Saab was very well-designed/manufactured (and should be owned for a long time to bear this out) vs. other automobile brands. Some Bronco fans felt that other Bronco owners had purchased the brand not based on its off-road heritage/performance, but more because the brand had become popular beyond the off-road enthusiasts. This issue of "legitimacy" was not present in Macintosh users.

Oppositional brand loyalty was present in all three brands studied and simply means that it is not enough for brand loyalists to love their brand, but with that loyalty comes a strong opposition to competitive brands. Examples include Mac users with strong dislike of Microsoft and PCs to such an extent that they feel threatened by the larger market segment. Saab users resent the comparison to Sweden's other car company, Volvo, and note that while Volvo may be as safe a car as Saab, Volvo also makes tractors while Saab also develops airplanes. This idea was reinforced on many Saab fan websites. Bronco fans did not assault any one SUV brand but generally chose to discredit the entire 4x4/SUV brands as a group.

Rituals and traditions were also noted in all three brands studied. The two ways this marker takes shape is in celebrating the history of the brand and telling brand stories. All three brands have colorful histories, with Saab's heritage in airplane design and manufacturing being touted quite a bit. All of the technological innovations of Apple and the fact that Bronco has been an off-road brand experience since 1965 were a part of many fan-created websites.

Interestingly, many brand stories may have gotten started from advertising or other marketing communication but this does not matter to brand loyalists. Not only do members of a brand community continue to tell their favorite brand stories, but the researchers witnessed other enthusiasts listening to stories they had already heard, adding the comments, "I really love that story" or "cool story" at the end of the brand storytelling. One interesting insight from the researchers was a fascination with older brand logos that may have been updated but with a reverence to the historical logo, too, even though it was no longer in use.

Moral responsibility is the third marker and strong brand communities have expectations of the brand and members of the brand community in terms of how they conduct themselves. Saab users told stories of stopping to help other Saab motorists who were in need. Some loyal Mac users actually felt betrayed by former Apple users who had moved to PCs, calling someone "a Mac turncoat." A Saab user referred to another Saab user who had left the fold by buying another brand of automobile as having "betrayed the brotherhood." An important aspect of moral responsibility is the recommendation of dealerships, parts suppliers and good sources for technical information other users might need.

One interesting insight from the researchers was a fascination with older brand logos.

Muniz and O'Guinn conclude their paper with an observation that "brand communities are largely imagined communities" that have become social gatherings around commercial ventures. While many critics of our free market system have argued that business commerce has destroyed much of traditional community, Muniz and O'Guinn observed three positive aspects to brand communities:
* Brand communities represent a form of consumer agency by nature of their ability to make brand users congregate.
* Brand communities offer a valuable way for important information to be exchanged by knowledgeable users.
* Brand communities offer social benefits to members in addition to voice and information.

How strong is your brand community? Do you recognize some of these markers? Add a comment here if you'd like.

Thanks for reading! More to come.

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