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Anthropology tells us why online communities for brands may not work

You can build them but they may not come..

Soccer Fans North AnthropologyI was reading a rather good article the other night by Olivia Knight called Common Cause. It was posted on The Challenger Project web site, which in itself is a free community project web site from the folks at eatbigfish, an English company that describe their activities as so - "We are a consultancy whose unique focus is Challenger behaviour and thinking." That's a great one-liner, it sucked me right in.

What struck me most about Olivia's article is how she cleverly nuanced the idea that the internet brings nothing new when it comes to building "communities." She looks to anthropologists and city planners who already understand that a "community" is incredibly hard to "create." As she correctly points out - "..that while the internet may indeed replace the fixed geography of the streets with an open and accessible virtual network, it is not the streets or the network that make a community." The city planner will tell you that building a new suburb and providing a store, a church and a library does not guarantee community. Olivia again - "To feel part of a community people need to share a sense of purpose, a common set of values and beliefs. And for the community to grow and thrive it needs to draw on collective resource and a culture of support and interdependence to meet common needs and defend against shared risk."

She goes on to explain that just as real life communities are only a simulacrum of people who live closely together, brand communities are not made up of a number of people who have given you an email address. Then she drops this hilarious observation - "..even in this age when ‘consumerism is the new religion’, no sane person sits down with friends in the pub discussing membership to recent sports, book or speed-dating clubs and proudly declares that they have become part of a new ‘washing machine community’ just because they bought a new fluff filter online and forgot to tick the box that said ‘please don’t contact me’."

Here's how Challenger brands work to invite people to become a part of their community:

  • The brands are built upon a clear set of beliefs that guide their entire business

  • They establish a cause and communicate what it is about their category or the wider world that they want to challenge and change

  • They genuinely open up and reach out to their users for insight, ideas and problem solving

  • They gain strength through outside contribution rather than being undermined by it

  • The bottom line for a Challenger brand is the immeasurable value and benefit in harnessing the collective people power of a consumer community who are willing and able to champion the brand's beliefs and cause.

    More North posts on anthropology and the social web:

    Intelligent cities, hives and human clusters
    Anthropology, technology, the social web and advertising
    We are all soft-wired for social media

    I forgot how much I loved these commercials..

    The curse of the disposable cup and the Beta Cup contest