Is there such a thing as a community brand?
Viewpoint #17 (The Future Laboratory)
A two-storey glass exhibition centre appeared in one of Vienna’s most famous junctions just over a year ago, announcing that one of the world’s megabrands had decided to rename the whole square.
Karlsplatz did happen to be one of the city’s most prestigious vacant sites, and perhaps that is why people believed the ‘Nikeplatz’ idea was for real.
The centre included elaborate artist’s impressions of the 100-foot red swoosh that would dominate the square, and an impressive website too (still at www.nikeground.com).
After a flurry of furious letters to the local papers, the whole enterprise turned out to be an elaborate hoax or – as the perpetrators described it – an arts project. The joke was the brainchild of a radical arts group called 0100101110101101.org, but Nike did not find it amusing.
The trouble was that the Nikeground slogan – ‘you want to wear it, why shouldn’t cities wear it too?’ – sounded all too credible.
The significance of the whole business, which went almost unreported outside Austria, wasn’t so much the vulnerability of brands to guerrilla arts – that was obvious – but that it went to the heart of why big brands are having a tough time.
It seemed somehow obvious that, if Nike could rebrand a much-loved corner of Vienna – or any similar capital city – they probably would have done.
This obvious ambition of the big brands to dominate our mental lives increasingly seems to unnerve people. It is hard to pinpoint precisely where the backlash against brands is coming from, except that politics – in the shape of No Logo and the anti-globalisation movement – is really just symptom rather than cause.
Partly the distaste for these monstrous corporate creations is because, as Anita Roddick puts it, they seem unable to experience any other emotions than greed or fear.
Partly it is the realisation that artificial food, artificial intelligence, virtual sex, virtual teachers and bank managers are not after all just as good as the real thing.
Or the disturbing sense that behind the shiny, jolly logos, there are often miserable sweatshops making Winnie-the-Pooh bags, where the underpaid workers are banned from going to the lavatory.
But most of all, it is the creeping exhaustion that comes with dealing with constant manipulation. Almost every public discourse, from magazines to television news, is subtly attempting to cajole, shame or fool us into some kind of action, and we want a break.
If you are rich enough you can avoid it – the US cable channel HBO has no advertisements; McDonalds is banned from the Bahamas. The rest of us get tired of having our defences up all the time.
As a result of the backlash, anti-brands like Muji or Uniqlo have emerged to give the impression that they are somehow more authentic. Yet still the annual surveys by Interbrand show a consistent fall in brand value among the biggest brands. Last year Ford, Disney, AOL, Coca-Cola and Microsoft continued their slow decline.
They respond by swooping on local brands – anything from micro-breweries to local TV channels – and battling each other (as HSBC and Interbrew did) for the right to call themselves ‘The World’s Local...’.
But still the minority revolt against what is fake, spun, mass-produced and manipulated continues. Very quietly, they are driving the rise of farmers markets, slow food, real ale, reading groups, organic vegetables, poetry recitals, complementary medicine, unbranded fashions and much else besides.
Somehow even the ‘Citizen Brand’ trend, important as it is, is unable to slow this process. International brands are rootless almost by definition, and that makes their efforts on behalf of real communities and people worldwide carry less conviction.
“Authenticity,” wrote the marketing writer Seth Godin: “If you can fake that you can do anything.”
But authenticity is notoriously difficult to fake, especially for brands – which are polyglot, glitzy, shiny constructs run by shadowy people in distant boardrooms. They have no depth by definition.
When you interact with them, you do so with a computer programme – either operated in a call centre or behind the counter by a salesperson who is the frustrated slave of a rationalised delivery system.
The branding think-tank known as the Medinge Group has recognised the basic problem that brands must become “more human and more humane” or they will fail. Humanity is indeed the essence of authenticity, and it is why the big brands have such difficulty meeting this demand. They are one-dimensional non-human approximations.
Kieron O’Hara’s recent book Trust points out that the core function of brands is to develop a sense of authenticity, and therefore trust. “Brands hold reputations, and that gives the consumer power in the economy,” he writes.
But this fails to recognise how the very ubiquity of brands, the sheer effort behind their will to win, also now undermines trust – because it isn’t really human.
So it isn’t somehow that corporate brands – brands as distinguished from simple reputations of organisations – are morally wrong. Or that consumers have changed. It’s that they have shouted so loud, so cleverly and so all-pervasively, that they are increasingly useless as generators as trust.
So as conventional branding loses its edge because it seems de-humanised, it is not surprising that the word ‘community’ – a collection of humans – is emerging as the crux of the matter.
Our attitude to ‘community’ has changed almost 180 degrees over the past half century or so. It is still possible to hear elderly people describing their dislike of communities – the curtain twitching, the disapproval, the stuffy restrictions. But the twenty-first century, exhausted by a culture without roots, longs for community – or at least some sense of it.
Even television, which some social critics blame for destroying our social lives, has to respond – and has done, judging by the success of series like Friends.
Actually, ersatz community has been at the heart of branding philosophy for some time: the idea that by sharing a logo, you join some kind of enthusiastic virtual group. Like so much else in conventional branding philosophy, this is fantasy, but that’s not quite the end of the story.
Where brands have been able to use the concept of community more successfully has been by providing a venue for genuine communities to coalesce. Like Starbucks, which linked up with the Conversation Café movement that began in Seattle.
Or the pub chain J. D. Wetherspoons, one of the fastest growing companies in Britain, which adds to their creation of user communities with an individualistic sense of place.
But the most successful ‘community brands’, in this sense, are those that are not conventional profit-making ventures.
Linux, the open source software, is the product of a virtual community of de-buggers, and is increasingly eating into Microsoft’s market share – the number of server computers loaded with Linux is growing at 50 per cent a year. That community at its heart is actually one of the main sources of its trust.
Perhaps this also explains the sense of authenticity around an internet giant with no genuine geographical roots at all: eBay.
Like Google, eBay is fast, accurate, doesn’t overwhelm you with selling messages, and treats you like a real person, rather than a selling opportunity. Like Amazon, they deliberately eschew traditional aspects of branding, spending their money on the service itself. Like Starbucks, they simply provide a venue for new communities, and a highly-efficient search engine that you can use however you want.
eBay simply provides a system whereby people can interact. But with eBay, Google and Starbucks alike, it is the customers themselves who are creating the experience.
There is no hype and no glitz. Yet eBay now has 48 million users, 430,000 of whom earn most or all of their income selling through the site.
These are not ‘community brands’ in the sense that they are themselves communities. But they do enable community to evolve, and somehow manage to do so as a by-product of their core business.
The dot.com era was committed to the idea of virtual communities, communities of interest, as if they were somehow just as genuine as real geographical communities.
But that always missed the point. Neither eBay nor Google has geographical roots. Starbucks do in the sense that they have a bricks and mortar presence, but they are otherwise ubiquitous and therefore rootless.
In the end, communities are at their most authentic when they are ‘real’ ones somewhere on the map, and it is clear that we no longer quite see it the dot.com way. In fact, over half the British population now lives within a 30 minute journey of where they were born.
This probably has more to do with house prices, and the need to have parents on hand to look after children if both partners need to go out to work. But it is not exactly globalisation, and it is not entirely unwelcome to people who are searching for roots, whether they are psychological, genealogical or historical.
So there is another category of community brands that are designed to provide some aspects of the local.
Slow Food, for example, is a brand despite itself. It will never open a shop, or sell you anything except books, yet its membership of over 60,000 and its increasingly influential defence of ‘real’ food, has given it brand status.
Not perhaps on its own account, but as a portal for a range of geographically distinct, local and seasonal foods. Its very logo – the snail, taken from a 1607 food book – demonstrates the rising importance of historical roots along with the geographical ones.
Champagne , Stilton or Parma ham are already local brands, with authentic roots in the past, and now protected by the EU. Slow Food provides a means to revere a whole range of others: Siennese pigs, Vesuvian apricots, Pietmontese cows – real in a way packaged international brands can never be.
You will find a similar phenomenon if you go into Neal’s Yard Dairy, for example. Or the new store brand launched in Richmond in London called Source – slogan: ‘real food for real people’. It’s true that these cater for the upper end of the market, but the geographical roots are clear: every product is labelled according to precisely where it has come from.
As the demand starts to grow for fresh, local food – and the success of farmers markets is testament to that – these small food brands, absolutely rooted geographically, will be making themselves much more apparent.
And the portals that make them available, like Source, will be ‘community’ brands in their own right. Even the new Sainsbury’s stores have a string of stalls where you can tailor and have cooked precisely the food you want: it has a whiff of the same thing.
Like Slow Food, and like Google in a sense – though not like Sainsbury’s – these are brands that eschew their own importance. They step back from the limelight and provide a simple gateway to the local roots we demand.
They are ‘bottom-up’ brands. Lynda Gratton’s book The Democratic Enterprise urges companies to abandon their command-and-control management techniques. The same principle can be applied to brands – they work more effectively, carry more conviction, if they grow out of a very local reality, instead of the shiny constructs imposed from the centre.
One of the obvious symptoms of demands for authenticity has been the way companies are rowing backwards from the Coca-Cola ideal – exactly the same everywhere – to one where every package tells a story of its own.
Café Direct has pictures of some of their growers. Some crisp companies give the name of the fryer that made the packet. Lush packaging even has a picture of the employee who made the box.
These mini-stories are the stuff of authenticity: the real people and the real places – communities in a way – that made them.
Companies that can’t tell stories, because the people who made their products are semi-slaves in dingy sweatshops, are at an increasing disadvantage.
None of these ‘community brand’ categories quite manage to be a community. Google, Starbucks and eBay create communities of interest, but no geographical roots. Slow Food and Neal’s Yard create a sense of geographical roots, but no real community.
But all of them are brands that have a sense of authenticity because of their ability to connect people with what is authentic, or with each other.
It hardly needs saying that it is hard to pin down this glimmer of light for branding. For one thing, the ingenuity of marketing guarantees that there will be other ways of injecting authenticity into your image – or seeming to. For another, communities are awkward places, difficult to live in sometimes, certainly inconvenient.
But you can I believe point to four ways in which you can tell a genuine ‘community brand’ from one that won’t make it. Those that will succeed will:
** Eschew glitz and rationalised delivery systems, and garner trust partly by telling simple stories, partly by their resolute ability to wander off-message.
** Connect with what is human – either because the brand is an expression of a single personality, or because it reveals the personalities of the range of people behind it, or because the service is genuinely personal.
** Have genuine roots to a specific place, or provide a portal to ordinary producers or sellers in specific places.
** Allow customers and employees to feel better connected to their own ideals and values (see for example Neil Crofts’ new book Authentic Business).
What is interesting is that these are not options for conventional big brands, though some are already trying to muscle in on the community-creation business.
Microsoft has been setting up mini-trade fairs in airports. Coke has its ‘Red Lounge’ initiatives, aimed at creating a sense of community among its consumers.
But this is a fantasy born of desperate brand managers. It is bound to disappoint, just as HSBC’s supposed local roots disappoint when you phone them up and find yourself talking to a computer somewhere in the ether, using software designed for nobody in particular.
Real community has imperfection at its heart – that’s why people tend to trust those with the humanity to risk being off-message – and “imperfection carries a story in a way that perfection can only dream about”.
I didn’t say that. It comes from the manifesto of the Glasgow-based consultancy Erasmus, and I think they are absolutely right – but imperfection is particularly hard to fake.