OPINION: The ‘C’ Word We Should Be Talking About

OPINION: The ‘C’ Word We Should Be Talking About

In this op-ed, Brittany Meale (pictured), strategist at OMD Sydney explains the “C” word we should be talking about. And no, it’s not cake.

In the face of financial uncertainty and declining consumer confidence, brands need to move beyond focusing solely on competitive pricing to create a new form of value. Consumers are increasingly looking for meaningful interactions with brands, where they can feel connected and engaged rather than simply being targeted for sales. The opportunity for brands is to engage with emerging communities, a prospect currently overlooked or undervalued.

The rise of communities is influenced by pressures such as increasing cost of living, the lasting impact of Covid and the looming climate crisis, with people seeking comfort, belonging and familiarity.

Communities present challenges and opportunities for brands. Engaging consumers through traditional methods is becoming harder and less impactful, but creating ongoing interaction turns community members into advocates and salespeople for your brand.

Long-term community engagement creates personal customer investment and shared experiences that deter customers from switching to competitors, ultimately boosting loyalty.

A community isn’t a social following or an audience, it should be reciprocal and mutually beneficial

The traditional Oxford dictionary defines community as a group of people sharing a common characteristic or living in the same place. Zoe Scaman, founder of Bodacious, provides a modern definition: “a peer-to-peer network driven by shared interests, reciprocal relationships, and mutual value creation.” Viewed through this lens, engaging with communities is more than having a social following.

Technology enables individuals to connect with niche communities across fragmented platforms, posing a challenge for advertisers sticking to traditional methods. Take Discord, an ad-free social platform with 150 million active members globally. It captures consumers’ time and attention for 280 monthly minutes through niche-driven servers, relying on in-app purchases for revenue. Meta is experimenting with a similar approach, launching a paid subscription in the EU to remove ads.

Engaging with communities requires two shifts. Moving from demographic thinking to affinity and prioritising communication that fosters mutual value creation. Emerging cultural trends can help forecast what will become mainstream. In the media realm, peer networks can be found in web forums, social media communities, interactive virtual environments like gaming, and real-life settings where communities gather.

Trust is shifting from corporate giants to personality-driven and emotionally connected brands

PRIME sports drink, co-founded by Logan Paul and KSI, built their community on YouTube. In just over a year, PRIME surpassed Gatorade in Instagram followers and could potentially account for one to two per cent of Woolworths’ drink category sales, if momentum continues at the current rate in Australia.

Their bold brand-building tactics, such as encouraging fans to throw bottles at them during meet and greets, generated significant and intended earned media, and ignited passion from their community. While critics may dismiss PRIME’s success as a fad, it underscores a shift in how consumers want to interact with brands.

Other brands actively build real-world communities that are more aligned to what they offer, with Lululemon offering free yoga classes in its stores across Australia. This not only fosters relevant peer-to-peer interaction but also generates genuine value by aligning with its consumers’ passions to create ongoing relevance in each local community.

These immersive consumer experiences are challenging to monitor using our usual tools for tracking competitor activity and can fly under the radar. Social listening can be useful to identify who your brand’s consumers are discussing, as well as tracking sentiment related to competitor brands.

Engaging with communities enables brands to shape conversations, narratives and valuable brand identities

The shift from passive consumers to active brand participants has been gradual. In 2009, two Coke-loving Los Angelenos created a fan page, making it the second most-followed social account after Barack Obama, well before the brand itself joined the platform. Consumers discuss your brand, whether you’re involved or not, so it’s worth actively seeking the right opportunity to connect.

This shift from passive to active participation could extend to adjacent category partnerships or even involve customers in product development and innovation discussions. Reebok’s ‘First Pitch’ initiative in 2020 unveiled sneaker prototypes on their website, allowing customers to vote for their favourites. The first voter pays $1, and subsequent voters pay more until the total retail price is reached. This empowers passionate sneakerheads and involves them in the decision-making process, not just the end product.

For brands, it can seem risky to outwardly engage core fans in product development but there are other ways to explore this. At OMD, our flagship OMD Insider platform offers clients the opportunity to build their own bespoke community of up to 2,000 consumers for near real-time consultation.

AI has the potential to enhance community and brand co-creation. Fans now use AI tools to remix brand assets at home, creating a wave of AI-induced branding collaborations on the internet. Ikea x Patagonia or Balenciaga Pope might have been fan-made memes, but Balenciaga did dip their toe in the water with a real-life partnership with The Simpsons.

However, legal and copyright guidelines for AI-generated content are currently lacking. Embracing and rewarding communities for engagement could allow brands to set rules, encouraging collaboration without losing control. The artist Grimes launched AI software that lets users infuse her voice into music, with royalties shared equally. This model helps brands embrace and reward community engagement.

But isn’t it like, kind of hard to execute?

Your brand can start small by engaging with an existing fanbase, like Duolingo’s TikTok obsession with Dua Lipa turned viral organic account. Your brand community may even already exist. The Nike Run Club is a free app that connects runners across the globe to participate in challenges, all while enhancing Nike’s first-party data.

Tips to chart your brand’s journey to connecting via community

  1. Explore whether your brand already has an active fan base or identify an adjacent community where your brand could play a credible role. Make sure there is a strong brand alignment, and the community offers shared value for participation.
  2. Leverage social listening tools to gain insights into the community’s platform preferences, communication norms and behaviours. This knowledge will enable your brand to seamlessly integrate into the community’s environment by fostering a more authentic connection.
  3. Look beyond the typical pool of ambassadors to find new-age spokespeople. Many of the brands you will compete with in the future will be influencer- or personality-owned, or be influential individuals who advocate for your competitors.

2024 will surely be another one for the books, and Aussies will continue to find solace in the comfort of communities amidst external pressures. Brands that fall short of creating this shared value will risk long-term brand growth and customer loyalty.

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