In an uncertain market, it’s only natural for leaders to look for ways to economize and hoard resources for future recovery. Yet, especially in these moments, people crave a sense of community. Rather than shrinking, leaders should tap into this and build communities that deliver tangible and emotional value. Done right, they can create lasting bonds of loyalty and discover new sources of growth.
Management advice from academics and consultants tends to come in waves shaped by economic cycles. On the upswing, it’s about capitalizing on emerging trends and new technologies. On the downswing, it’s about finding ways to economize that won’t upset consumers and hoarding resources for future recovery.
Marketing, often maligned as a discipline whose results can’t be measured, is particularly vulnerable to these management mood swings. A few years ago, no self-respecting CMO would be caught dead without a Web 2.0 strategy. Today, marketers are advised to ride out the recession by cutting back to 15-second ads, repurposing old creative and refocusing their attention on segments that are wealthy, hedonistic or both.
There is a better way to rethink marketing in a downturn. It’s not about shrinking your way to growth; fundamentally, we all know that doesn’t work. It’s about reframing challenges to find new opportunities and looking with fresh eyes at the needs of people around us. It’s about finding resources to pursue new growth by letting go of what is no longer valued by the people we serve. It’s about tapping into old, proven values that both resonate today and support reinvention of a better tomorrow. It’s about rethinking marketing through the lens of community.
The case for community-centric marketing is compelling:
Community Costs Less
Some of the world’s strongest brands were originally built through low-cost community-based marketing. Nike, Starbucks, Google … The list goes on. When companies focus first on meeting the needs of the people they serve, they don’t have to spend big money to attract new customers. And when they stay close to their communities they don’t need market research to tell them what people want.
Kiehl’s, for example, is a purveyor of premium body-care products beloved by models and the elite. People from around the world make pilgrimages to the original New York City store. A renowned global brand now owned by L’Oreal, Kiehl’s packaging is plain, its stores are basic and from its 1851 founding until today, the brand has never advertised. Success has been driven by products tailored to customers’ needs, word-of-mouth promotion, free in-store product trials and the personal connections forged by requiring active community involvement of every employee.
Community Grows Loyalty
Human beings are programmed to want certain things. Chief among these are belonging and feeling understood. These needs are most often met through families, clubs and communities. When companies begin to focus on building communities–getting closer to an existing one or helping one to start–it makes a powerful impact that forges emotional bonds. When a new community is established, people who once felt left out now find kindred spirits. They begin to have a place to belong. When an existing community is strengthened, people who once felt marginalized now find validation. They discover that they have an important role to play.
While its brand image is brash and unapologetically competitive, Nike has done an amazing job of connecting with under-appreciated consumer segments and fostering communities that build empowerment, from making running mainstream, to supporting inner-city basketball, to empowering girls as athletes. The reward has been intense customer loyalty.
Community Maintains Authenticity
Community brands remain relevant because they’re constantly adapting to the changing needs, interests and values of the people who give them meaning. Starbucks originally provided aficionados a “theater of coffee” experience, with each nuance carefully engineered. As more newcomers joined the tribe, baristas were trained to educate them on coffee exotica, developing a dimension of accessible adventure for the brand. When technology caused a convergence of work and home life, Starbucks became our “third place” escape, adding “refuge” to the brand mosaic.
Amidst rapid growth and diversification, individuality became a concern. Starbucks responded by tapping the larger cultural trend of consumption-based self-expression to offer an endlessly configurable array of unique toppings, ingredients and preparation techniques inspired by customer requests and baristas’ creativity. While Starbucks has stumbled of late, it’s telling that upon his return to reinvent the company, CEO Howard Schultz quickly reached out to the community by establishing mystarbucksidea.com.
Community Drives Innovation
There’s no better source of growth and innovation than a passionate brand community. Vans, originally a maker of cheap deck shoes, followed the interests of its dedicated customers to expand into custom surf shoes, surf competitions, skateboarding shoes and gear, skateboard parks, touring music festivals and even a feature film. And within each of those businesses, new products, features and ways of marketing were generated through a continuous flow of ideas from the grassroots.
Harley-Davidson understood that while its community shared a core passion for the brand, they also had a wide variety of unfulfilled needs and challenges. By methodically focusing on meeting these, the company built substantial new businesses around motorcycle customization, riding gear, motorcycle-inspired fashion and home decoration. It also created the largest motorcycle club in the world, motorcycle rentals and rider training businesses, a museum, shipping and travel services, and even destination cafés.
Community Supports Natural Reinvention
In times of profound change, businesses must often reinvent themselves to survive. Yet the impulse for many is to hunker down, wait for the tide to turn and worry about changing later. This both increases the risk of failure and misses the opportunity to energize employees and leapfrog the competition through community-driven change. By engaging its community–starting with customers, but extending to channel partners, employees, government, society and investors–a company can reinvent itself in a way that’s organic rather than wrenching. Products and activities that are no longer adding value can be eliminated, freeing up resources for new initiatives.
Focusing all activities on deeply understanding and meeting the community’s changing needs keeps spending in check while seeding new growth and laying the foundation for expansion. Lou Gerstner reinvented IBM in precisely this way. Under pressure to dismantle the massive organization, Gerstner instead initiated “Operation Bear Hug,” tasking executives across the company with reaching out to their most important customers and discovering their most pressing challenges. This led to the insight that IBM’s real strength was as a provider of integrated solutions–and its reinvention as the “e-business” company.
In tough times more than ever, people crave a sense of community support. When companies provide this– by building communities that deliver tangible and emotional value, through employees and customers working together to solve collective challenges–they build lasting bonds of loyalty and discover new sources of growth. Good marketing always puts people at the center. Smart marketing in tough times taps the collective power of community.
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