CORVALLIS, Ore. - Whether their product is an automobile, a soft drink or laundry detergent, successful companies have long considered the concept of brand loyalty the Holy Grail in the world of consumer marketing.
Now a growing number of companies are taking that concept to the next level, creating or supporting "brand communities" that can form around the use of their products, according to a new study published in a recent issue of the Journal of Marketing.
From "Jeep Jamborees" to Apple computer groups, these communities can deepen customer loyalty and create relationships between consumers and companies that last for years, the researchers say.
"Marketing efforts in the past have recognized that consumers can have strong ties to brands and products," said Jim McAlexander, an associate professor of marketing at Oregon State University and lead author of the journal article. "But marketers haven't fully understood the values consumers find in brand community nor the advantages that can come from attentiveness to the diverse relationships that build from product experiences.
"We find that there can be real value, for example, in bringing customers together with each other and the company in situations where they can share experiences, opinions, and ideas," McAlexander added. "It is beginning to change. Companies are starting to understand the value of giving their customers something they really care about. It's all about reciprocity."
McAlexander conducted the study with Harold Koenig, also an associate professor of marketing at OSU, and John Schouten, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Portland.
The idea of "brand communities" evolved from earlier research by McAlexander and Schouten into brand loyalty toward Harley-Davidson products. During their research, the two business professors hopped on Harleys and went to numerous rallies, including one that drew 300,000 people to Sturgis, S.D. Their goal: to see why so many people had such fierce loyalty to Harley-Davidson products.
What they discovered was that the "Harley experience" - including bonding with fellow motorcycle enthusiasts - created a special relationship between the consumer, the company and other customers. The seeds for their "brand community" model were born.
Then an ad agency working with Jeep invited the professors to see if the lessons they learned from their Harley experience could transfer to Jeep products. So they rented Jeeps and went to jamborees in Ouray, Colo., and French Lick, Ind., and their model began to take shape.
"We took an idea back to Chrysler that had impact upon the creation of "Camp Jeep," where owners were invited to attend and the company had an opportunity to establish a relationship with those owners that is much different than found between most auto makers and their buyers," McAlexander said.
The company went along, and the first Camp Jeep was held in Colorado. In addition to teaching new Jeep owners such skills as driving off-road - in a course call Jeep 101 - the company went all-out to create a social atmosphere built on an understanding of the interests, values, and lifestyles of their owners. They brought in Orvis representatives to give fly-fishing lessons, they offered mountain biking experiences, and established a rock-climbing course.
"What this says to the owner is 'this company cares about me,'" McAlexander said. "'They understand me and my lifestyle.' It puts individuals together with other people who feel the same way."
By the end of Camp Jeep, McAlexander said, many people had established friendships and made connections to meet the following year. This type of experience is instrumental to the creation and sustenance of a brand community, he added.
Vehicle manufacturers may be among the most visible hosts of brand community, said McAlexander, citing Saturn's Homecoming, as well as Chevy truck and PT Cruiser owner groups. But Apple computers and Starbucks coffee provide successful examples of marketers who have benefited from the same concept.
In some ways, the fictional example conveyed in the sitcom, "Cheers," hits a similar note.
"It's the place 'where everybody knows your name,'" McAlexander said. "It's not just a bar or a place to get a beer. It's establishing an experience and a community about which you care deeply."
Other examples abound. Manufacturers of cereal aimed at children have created websites for their young consumers, where they can play various games and engage in other activities. "Sometimes," McAlexander said, "these communities exist in an ephemeral way. Marketers should use them as a lens to see how they make their customers' experience better."
Universities also engage in brand community building, attempting to create long-term loyalty with alumni. McAlexander said fraternities and sororities are part of community building, as is athletics.
"They should be viewed as investments, not expenses."
So can any company create a "community" from its products? Maybe, he said, and maybe not.
"A company's strategy has to be grounded in how their particular customers see and experience things," McAlexander said. "People will recognize shallow, hollow and self-serving methods and, in that environment, communities won't last long. Efforts need to be sincere and based on their specific customers' needs and wants.
"What companies should do, for starters, is be aware of the points of connection between the company and the customers," he added. "And if the product and brand can help form those connections, you have potential for synergy.
"The smart companies will identify that," he said. "The others will fall behind."