The Rise of Brand-Led Community

Exploring the intangible factor that might be the $1 billion secret sauce

Cultural Capitalists, a warm welcome! I’m genuinely so glad you’re here.

This is the first part of a series on the rise of community and its importance as an important value lever for both new and emerging brands. I’ll send out one part each week and compile all parts into a full thesis at the end (so stay tuned for the full series! And bear with me, this is my first go around at running a newsletter :))

In 2020, a year when many of us felt more alone than ever, community seemed to be the one thing (after health & safety) that we wanted more than ever. We congregated in online chat rooms and crowded into Zoom happy hours and blind dates, watching our collective screentime climb higher and higher.

Notably, one of the main places we also sought community was among our favorite brands — whether that be through proprietary apps, in private Slack groups and Discord channels, even in the comments sections of public platforms like TikTok and Instagram.

Creating community is an art and well-practiced task, something that takes time and effort. It is both an under-appreciated, massive value driver for companies and compelling opportunity to build genuine inclusivity, accessibility, and joy among customers. But how did we get here? And what does this mean for the future of consumer marketing and brand building?

What is Community?

Before we dig in, it will be helpful to define what community is, at least within the parameters that I’ll discuss in this article.

Merriam Webster’s condensed definition of community may be read as:

“A unified body of individuals: such as people with common interests, having a common history or common social, economic, and political interests, linked by a common policy.”

As this applies to brands, community typically refers to connection between customers, potential customers, employees, and other key stakeholders.

The best communities have an almost intangible factor, a feeling that replicates the idea of family and an expansion of self, even among large groups of people. In her hallmark 2012 essay, Marina Keegan described this as “the opposite of loneliness,” the feeling of being surrounded both physically and metaphorically by others, fostered through shared lived experiences.

Marty de Jonge wrote recently that the difference between a group of people and a team is psychological safety (a term coined by Harvard psychologist Amy Edmonson). The idea of safety is interesting to me — what does it mean for brands to make their customers, their employees, and other key stakeholders feel safe (and by extension: included, appreciated, and valued)? As it turns out, these are questions that companies have been grappling with for the past century.

The Rise of Brand-Led Community

The idea of fostering brand-led community is nothing new. For the past 150+ years, companies have sought innovative ways to connect with customers, turning goods from a commodity to cult-status products.

One of the first examples of brand-led community might be found in the Sears Catalogue, first launched in 1888. Notably, it included notes and letters from customers, creating a space for individuals to connect and a shared sense of identity around the idea of being a Sears Customer.

In the second half of the 20th century, brand-led community evolved from the printed page to in-person events and localized groups. McDonald’s launched the Ronald McDonald charitable house program in 1974, Apple launched its Worldwide Developers Conference in 1983, and Nike began sponsoring youth basketball camps in 1984. 

By the 2000s, event-driven community was in full force. Lululemon launched its annual SeaWheeze summit featuring group yoga and a half marathon. Sweetgreen hosted a Sweetlife music and food festival, attracting thousands of young, salad-loving fans. One of the strongest examples was Vans’ Warped Tour, a multi-city music festival that reached up to 500K fans annually when it ran from 1995 to 2019.

Americans’ increasing isolation has been well documented (Bowling Alone is a seminal text covering this phenomenon), and as of 2019, 40% of adults reported being lonely, up 100% over figures from the 1980s. Over the same period, the number of individuals enrolled in in professional and local community groups also dropped by 10–20%.

Without claiming correlation, it is notable that as religious practices declined in the U.S. over the past four decades, a version of brand allegiance verging on cultish fanaticism was on the rise. Indeed, over the past ten years, while 30M U.S. adults reported being newly religiously unaffiliated, Nike Run Club amassed over 28M members who have logged in regularly to share over 500M hours of collective activity.

Lululemon’s manifesto reads like biblical verses (and is adhered to by a loyal base of Wunder Under devotees as a life guide). The same has been said about fans of Outdoor Voices, who revere founder Ty Haney as equal parts fitness role model and lifestyle guru. Tesla’s rabid fans have crowded into a 918K strong Subreddit and powered Elon Musk to 42M Twitter followers (and $176B in net worth).

Brand-led communities have a compelling and important opportunity to fill the void of connection and belonging as many traditional groups (religious, local, professional) decline. As we enter 2021, what is clear is that these brand-led communities are, by necessity, evolving in innovative, unexpected ways in the digital arena. 

Next week’s newsletter will dig into some of the new ways online communities are forming and what this digital community framework looks like.

Thank you for reading this first installment (huge thanks to Sarah Wood and Faye Maidment for their input & advice!) I’m excited to grow the community around this newsletter in 2021. I would love to hear your thoughts—you can always feel free to respond to this email.

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