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From Branded Audiences to Branded Communities

This report is part of Rival Spark, our collaboration with Attest and the marketing faculty at Imperial College to understand what makes successful challenger brands. You can see all our Spark reports here.

From Branded Audiences to Branded Communities

We live in a world of increasing openness when it comes to brands and content. Consumers are more empowered than ever to repost, review, remix or rethink the brands, campaigns, content and messages that are served to them. Throughout the last two decades, the growth of social media has led to a focus on creating a “brand relationship” with communities of consumers. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and others have been a platform for brands to share and engage audiences with content. However, openness is changing the relationship between brand and consumer – shifting their role from one of an audience to an engaged community. Brands,especially challengers, are moving from the traditional storyteller dynamic, where communities exist to consume branded content, to a facilitator dynamic, where brands can create communities and spaces around shared values or interests.

This expansion from storyteller to facilitator is accelerating due to changes in the marketing landscape, from an increase in the importance of owning more of the experience and first party data to wider platform innovation, such as Discord or ‘Metaverse’ style opportunities. This looks to further shift how marketers think of building and leveraging brand digitally, expanding from just a content source heard by a ‘rented’ audience to a platform recruiting and powering a more ‘owned’ community.

The Growing Power of Community

Community may be increasing in prominence as an opportunity, but it has long been a consistent driver of brand growth, especially for challenger brands. Engaged communities have helped challenger brands change markets, such as Monzo, Xero or Airbnb – serving as supporters, advocates and guides on where to go next. From Monzo’s name, chosen by the community after its original name, Mondo was found to be unsuitable, to Xero’s community product suggestions – engaged supporters have been a defining advantage in challenger brand growth.

Academic research has further shown the power of community, finding that when consumers feel they are part of a branded community it increases their brand love (the degree of emotional and passionate affection that consumers have towards particular brands) as well as word-of-mouth and loyalty (Coelho, et al., 2019).

Derik Sutton – Autobooks – Building a Community through Shared Values and Purpose

The power community has to help a brand have a direct relationship with an audience is increasingly relevant as shifts in consumer data push brands to consider how to own or use more of their consumer data. As 3rd party cookie & targeting options continue to decrease, walled garden community access from Meta, Google and others become increasingly powerful, with an increased first party data capability offering brands a chance to counterbalance the ‘rented’ community access these platforms offer.

Linda Wang – Omnipresent – What does Community Mean to B2B

The Current Social Engagement Landscape: The Expected and the Long Tail

Consumers now largely expect to engage with branded content online. Our Spark research shows 77% of US & UK consumers believe it is likely or very likely they will follow a brand or engage with its content in social media.

Source: Rival Spark Survey – March 2022 – US / UK n:1000 – Powered by Attest

While consumer acceptance of brands in social media is generally high, the platforms on which users expect to engage with brands varies – with brands seen as more or less of the natural platform experience. Facebook & Instagram, both long established homes for brand activity in social media have created a high level of expectation from users that they will encounter branded content. Others however, such as TikTok and Pinterest see varied expectation levels, especially across markets, showing that the appetite for brand engagement isn’t universal and a consideration for brands seeking a wider social presence.

Most importantly, smaller or more activity specific networks such as LinkedIn, Reddit and Twitch feature a low expectation that brands will attempt to engage relative to others – a potential outcome of less brand activity, but also tighter communities and expectations of value. When job hunting and networking on LinkedIn, connecting with users who share consumer’s interests on a Reddit board or gaming on Twitch, brands have a much more specific role to fill, limiting and directing how they are allowed to engage. Respecting how and where to engage with consumers is key on any platform, but especially on those with tighter communities or less of a history of branded activity.

New Platforms for New Communities

Adding value to communities, not just speaking to them isn’t just a truism of activity on the wider range of social platforms, it’s integral for what’s emerging next. A new wave of platforms opening up for brands has further expanded the way they can more openly engage with consumers. Emerging platforms such as Discord, clearly empower a brand to be a community facilitator, creating and providing a platform for groups around shared interests – with the brand as a more equal focus. Adidas, StockX, Chipotle, New Era and others have tapped into Discord to grow communities, often in concert with other branded activity around NFTs or cryptocurrency.

While overall awareness of Discord is limited, those who do use it show a higher level of branded engagement than many other emerging platforms. Discord’s role in helping to incubate, develop and launch many different web3 technologies positions the platform as a natural place to build community for brand and non-brand alike.

Source: Rival Spark Survey – March 2022 – US / UK n:1000 – Powered by Attest

The Rise of the Community Owner

As web3 technologies expand and mature, community will take on different forms – including shared ownership. Branded NFTs and cryptocurrency are giving brand fans the ability to be more than audience members to a brand’s story, but to become owners of a part of the brand itself. The ability to buy and trade ‘parts’ of a brand is a powerful driver of community – as long as brands can provide a value that makes them stand out. Branded NFT projects that have shown a more open relationship providing additional value, beyond artwork or brand IP, such as access and exclusivity to foster a relationship, are creating communities with longevity and higher engagement.

Anheuser-Busch’s brands have embraced the opportunity to foster community through NFTs, merging virtual rewards, contests and events. Recently, holders of a Budweiser Heritage Can or Royalty Collection NFT were invited to #NFTBeerFest, a real life celebration held at its St. Louis brewery. Additionally, Stella Artois has created several lines of NFTs, including ones to raise awareness of World Water Day and previously supporting the bartender and server community with the auction of its ‘Neverending Tip’ NFTs.

The potential of ‘Community Owners’ goes beyond brand ownership however, and looks to extend to helping incubate and launch next products for brands. The ability to raise funding and rapidly scale a new business offering through NFT sales is an area that has yet to fully develop, but projects like FlyFish Club highlight the opportunity in the space. FlyFish club, the world’s first NFT based membership restaurant from NFT enthusiast Gary Vaynerchuk and partners raised $14 million for its initial launch through NFT sale – providing access and perks to holders in return for investment.

Metaversal Community Potential

Beyond NFTs, growing interest in Metaverse style platforms is pushing brands to think about what spaces and experiences they can virtually create and host – opening up new parts of a world for consumers. What might have previously been the purview of an events or experiential team is increasingly being applied to digital platforms who can allow users to gather, game and explore together in branded spaces. However, the ‘Metaverse’ is a broad term entailing everything from legacy virtual worlds such as ‘Second Life’ through to gaming and entertainment properties such as ‘Fortnite’ and ‘Roblox’, as well as social spaces like ‘Decentraland’ and ‘The Sandbox’.

59% of US / UK consumers are aware of the ‘Metaverse’, but awareness of the specific properties that live within the concept vary – with gaming platforms such as Fortnite and Roblox holding much higher prominence and brand activity on platform than others. The nature of gaming based experiences and the more refined branded toolkit they offer make it an attractive place for brands to start experimenting with metaverse experiences and community building. Nike’s history with branded community stretches back to their own Nike+ ecosystem, but recent acquisitions of virtual design company RTFKT and the 2021 launch of their own space, Nikeland in Roblox has shown how they’ve used gaming as a springboard. Nikeland has reportedly reached 7 million users in the first 5 months, offering a range of mini-games and branded experiences.

Fast food brand Wendy’s path into building metaverse spaces and communities went directly through Fortnite. In 2019, the brand brought their ‘fresh burgers’ USP to life by creating a character resembling its mascot, which targeted freezers, in a virtual kitchen, in game instead of players. Streaming the freezer destruction on Twitch, the brand encouraged other players to follow suit – mobilizing a community of gamers to help carry its fresh message in and around the game. Building on Fortnite, in 2022 Wendy’s launched the ‘Wendyverse’, a branded space on Horizon Worlds. The move away from Fortnite into a more bespoke ecosystem shows how brands are considering the balance between existing audiences and greater control over the experience.

Scaling Community: Building So They Will Come

Building the foundations of a branded community is a challenge, but ensuring people will come to provide scale is the real issue facing marketers in this space. Whereas more traditional social networks naturally provide access – to either a mass audience at scale or a more focused specific interest group – emerging platforms, from a brand’s own platform to Discord, Decentraland or other opportunities have a naturally lower starting audience. As brands begin to consider the potential of expanding into new spaces, audience growth becomes more vital and difficult. Planning for a longer term value, as consumer attention ebbs and flows is necessary for building long term community.

Source: Rival Spark Survey – March 2022 – US / UK n:1000 – Powered by Attest

When it comes to communities powered by the emerging platforms discussed, not all brands and sectors will naturally scale equally. Data show that sectors with higher frequencies of daily engagement and relevance are most likely to have an advantage in creating engaging communities online. Food & Drink, Entertainment, Fashion and Electronics are all daily presences in consumers lives, something that looks to power potential engagement more than the aspiration offered by Automotive, Luxury or Finance.

The power of relevance doesn’t block aspirational brands from building community however, but it does change how they potentially go about it. Gucci’s foray into new community platforms didn’t directly draw on its long fashion heritage or luxury cues, but instead leveraged collaborations with creators like Superplastic. Supergucci combined Superplastic’s characters, sold as digital & vinyl collectables, and Gucci’s brand assets to create a line of NFTs that existed digitally, as well as in the real world through limited edition ceramic sculptures. The collaboration combined two communities, a growing Gucci community centered on its Gucci Vault Discord and Superplastic’s digitally engaged community to stretch the brand into new spaces.

Gather Round: Branded Actions to Foster Community

Regardless of specific plans on how to build a community for your brand, there are several things to consider when it comes to shifting from an audience to community focused approach.

1.) Plan for Collaboration, Not Just Recall

Traditionally, brand has functioned as a construct built on top of a product value – a set of values, principles, assets and supporting points which help to ensure that the promise laid out by a product is consistently understood, believed and remembered. Brand messaging’s ability to be distributed by high frequency, push media channels traditionally led marketers to think of brand only as a story to be remembered – something that is transmitted and then remembered in a similar fashion.

However, the reality of modern media is that a brand may be planned in a boardroom, but it is built in consumers’ minds – assembled as components ranging from what we’ve intended the brand to be, as well as related opinions, social content, experiences and discussion that are amplified or served in social media. Brand planning in the age of social media has led marketers to understand that a brand isn’t just something pushed to consumers, it’s also picked up, played with and discussed.

The evolution of the modern brand now increasingly requires us to be even more open with the world – considering how the values, principles and assets your brand possesses can be used, taken or owned by your audience. Our comfort with this openness comes from thinking about use cases, not just memorability. ‘What do we help people do?’, is a traditional brand planning question that can be augmented by ‘What do we want to do together with our audience? Or “What do we want people to take?”’

2.) Scale through Partnership

The scale required for a branded community to make an impact on an overall business is unique to each, but planning for this early on is a universal requirement to make community building effective. Defining how many people you need, what value the community can provide and how difficult it will be to recruit them can frame the challenge a brand faces to build a community and whether it is viable.

However, while defining scale is individual to a business, partnerships are a key element to scaling quickly. A branded community doesn’t have to contain consumers, but can also expand to other brands and partners. Thinking about partners to include or invite into a community can offer access to other communities or opportunities to create unique content or experiences.

3.) Learn About Your Audience & Adapt

James Kyd, Xero – Planning to Give Community Value

One of the key benefits of building brand communities is the ability to know more about the consumers you engage with. Planning ways to analyze what engages your audience, what value they’re responding to and how you can optimize is key. Define what types of data you are collecting and consider the experiences you provide as a hypothesis to be tested, which community engagement either validates or disproves. Over time, through adaptation and listening to the community, consumers will lead you to the types of experiences they want you to provide.

4.) Assume Attention & Community Will Change Across Platforms

The platforms that communities thrive on aren’t all created equally. Attention around different platforms changes with the communities that exist on them. Planning for attention to shift can help you find places with either higher attention, and greater existing scale or lower attention, and a greater value needed to scale an engaged community. Shifting your approach based on different communities and platform norms allows you to complement the experience that currently exists – fitting in more seamlessly. Take for example the Vienna tourism board, that has adopted a strategy of tapping into the most talkable communities and platforms. From promoting Vienna’s art on OnlyFans, that often falls afoul of filters on Instagram, to providing a virtual Freud to users on Decentraland, the brand has adopted a strategy that follows and adapts to where consumer attention and potentially community growth goes.

Further Reading on Community:

Coelho, A., Bairrada, C., & Peres, F. (2019). Brand communities’ relational outcomes, through brand love. Journal of Product & Brand Management.

The researchers studied the importance of “brand love,” the degree of emotional and passionate affection that consumers have towards particular brands. They focused on how the sense of being in a brand community contributes to brand love. A brand community is described a group that has specific rituals, social interactions, and shared awareness and beliefs about a brand. According to these researchers’ findings, when consumers feel they are part of a brand community, this increases their brand love, as well as word-of-mouth and loyalty.

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