News & Views

Opinion / Community Action

by Emily Hare

In politically divisive times, brand communities are becoming more important than ever

Mark Zuckerberg’s open letter on Facebook last week asked ‘the most important question of all: are we building the world we want?’ He implies that brands, as much as individuals, have a responsibility to influence how the world progresses, through their actions and values.

In contrast to this optimistic rhetoric, trust in companies and politicians is currently at an all time low. A report from the Pew Research Centre at the end of 2016 found that 58% of Americans had ‘not much’ or ‘no confidence’ in business leaders to act in the best interests of the public (although faring somewhat better than elected officials, who scored a deplorable 73% in the lack-of-trust rankings).

In these untrustworthy times, we are turning to friends, relatives and even strangers on review sites to get information and to help us make choices, rather than brands themselves. Weber Shandwick and KRC Research found that the biggest factor influencing how people feel about companies are what customers say about them. Word of mouth is an established tool for marketers, but increasingly gathering your customers into a community, and working in a way that means they have positive things to say about your actions has the potential to have a huge influence on business.  

Both the trust concerns and importance of a strong community are issues that Mark Zuckerberg is hyper aware of. Facebook is still countering issues of fake news and the associated trust issues that surrounded the company at the time of the US election. In his recent post, Zuckerberg takes a value-driven and idealistic approach, writing, ‘the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.’

When I interviewed renowned Ted speaker and business consultant Simon Sinek for the upcoming issue of Contagious, he told me that: ‘The most trusted companies are the ones where we get the distinct feeling that the company and the leadership and the employees all want to do right by us.’

In this case, having strong values and a sense of purpose provides a shortcut for taking decisions to speak about the company and give the community something to talk about. Airbnb is a business built around its community, relying on them to host, travel and recommend. A belief that people can ‘belong anywhere’ makes it a relatively straightforward decision to run an emotive Super Bowl ad proclaiming that #weaccept or to take steps to provide short term housing for people in need, such as refugees. It also explains why the company has updated its Terms & Conditions to ask all hosts and guests to agree to treat everyone in the community ‘regardless of their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age—with respect, and without judgment or bias’.

These strong values bind the community closer and make them feel like they are standing for something through their involvement with the brand. Beyond hosting or travelling being a member of the Airbnb community says something about who they are and how they choose to live.

IBM, a much less overtly community-focused business, is also taking an inclusive approach with the launch of its We Belong podcast with Resource/Ammirati. This promises a series of interviews with experts, authors and business leaders on the topic of ‘belonging’ and why this is essential to brands in the cognitive era. A company blog post explains that ‘belonging has always been an essential ingredient in the business of brand building’. It also goes on to say that the company is investing time and resources to better understand belonging and the nature of people’s relationships with brands.

Communities have always been important to brands. For example, we wrote about Sweden handing over control of its Twitter account to a different citizens each week in its Curators of Sweden campaign in 2012, which it followed up with similar community-focused ideas such The Swedish Number. However, the strongest communities aren’t short lived, based around a campaign but are ongoing. For example, the @sweden Twitter account was on hand this weekend, manned by librarian Emma Johansen, to counter President Trump’s assertions about the country.

Trump claimed that Sweden is ‘having problems that they never thought possible’ regarding taking in refugees, after he saw a documentary on Fox News. In response Johansen told BBC Radio 4, ‘I just told the truth… I’m a school librarian, so I just went out and checked all the main news sources and radio channels and I concluded it was not true and said it the way it was.’

In many ways, Visit Sweden’s Twitter account is the ultimate example of community – giving people the opportunity to speak, to come together, to interact, and, this week, to get involved in some pretty meaty democratic discussions. The idea consistently says more about the country through its actions than many comparable advertising campaigns.

In an era of fake news, low trust and political disruption, the power of community and a galvanising vision for people to gather around has great potential to have both a positive impact on both your brand and the wider world.