When products get a social life

Consumers rally around brand names - and form grass-roots communities with clout

It's a chilly Wednesday evening, and a group of runners trickles into the Niketown store on Newbury Street in Boston.

As the lobby fills with sociable, bundled-up runners, a young man with a British accent asks to lead the group in a stretch.

"I've gotten so much from this group," he says, "I wanted to give something back."

This store-hosted running club, which averages 40 to 80 participants weekly, has earned a reputation as a way to help runners meet each other, and, not so incidentally, promote the Nike brand.

The weekly event is an example of what marketing experts call a "brand community" - or a group of people who are enthusiastic about the same product and know each other through social events or online message boards.

Some companies have encouraged brand communities as part of their marketing strategy. Saturn, for example, is famous for its owner reunions and barbeques. And Harley Davidson pulled itself from the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1980s after introducing Harley Owner Groups.

But more often than not, brand communities are a consumer-controlled phenomenon not fully understood by marketers, who simply seek to manage them.

"Community" has become one of the hottest buzzwords in marketing, thanks in large part to the Internet's usefulness as a tool for linking members of affinity groups of all kinds.

By creating social events and online message boards where customers can exchange ideas about a product, marketers achieve two things: a positive "group hug" feeling for consumers and a firsthand look at what consumers want from a product.

"There is a definite feeling among marketers that if you want to build up loyalty to your brand, your product has to have an active social life," says Susan Fournier, associate professor of marketing at Harvard University. "Marketers [say] if you can build these community groups, these people will advocate your brand, and when people get together it ... puts the brand on the radar screen for other consumers."

Increasingly, marketers find they've been nudged out of the driver's seat. Tom O'Guinn, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a specialist in brand communities, says he gets flooded with calls from marketing managers saying they've got a "brand-community situation going on."

"Their issue in 95 percent of the cases is: 'How do we manage it?' Some don't even want a brand community because it makes the consumers really powerful."

The existence of a brand community presents companies with the threat of being confronted by consumers who have organized into a group and have specific demands - ones not easily ignored.

"If a guy shows up at your doorstep and says 'I represent 10,000 users,' you as the marketing manger are probably going to say 'Yeah, come on in and have a seat,' " says Professor O'Guinn.

Consider the swirl of consumer discussion among users of the Palm Pilot, a leading brand of personal digital assistant. Palm Pilot can be configured to use several different operating systems. But recently, Palm users worldwide have been hammering out a consensus on ways they want their devices to interface and perform, and then communicating their preferences to software companies like Microsoft.

While Palm says it does pay attention to its consumer groups online, it declined to comment on how it is monitoring those groups or applying the feedback gleaned there, citing it as proprietary information.

Not all companies embrace the idea of letting consumers weigh in on product development.

Michael Kiely, chairman of Boomerang, a relationship marketing firm in Sydney, Australia, said that when his firm first introduced the concept of developing brand communities to their clients two years ago, nobody got it. "It's not the control-and-command model that people understand," he says.

Other companies appear to be keeping consumer clubs at arm's length.

Toyota's Land Cruiser Club of Australia - orchestrated entirely by volunteers - puts participants through a two-day training program in the outback, where they learn about things like escaping from bogs and crossing rivers with water up to window-level.

But for now, Toyota is mostly keeping its distance.

"We think it's a great thing the clubs are out there, but we don't actively involve ourselves on a day-to-day basis ... because the clubs are too numerous," says John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman. "If a large group came to us and said, 'We would really like Toyota to come out to our event,' and if we thought it would be beneficial to our marketing plan, then we would indeed get involved with it."

Analysts agree that while most brands could have a social component to them, there are limits to building brand communities. Riding around the outback in a truck may hold more long-term appeal than, say, a Friday-night dinner built around a leading brand of spaghetti sauce.

Still, like-minded consumers are bound to embrace an opportunity to bond.

Mr. Kiely and his wife, themselves Toyota owners, have joined in a few of the Land Cruiser Club outings.

"To really experience the full value of the product, the community is the best way to do it," he says. "It can be a transforming experience."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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