What Brushing Corn Taught Me About Brand Community

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By Caitlin Lister, Senior Project Manager at ico Design

I’m blindfolded in the middle of Savannah. My heart is beating fast, and my palms are sweaty. My ears are filled with shrieking: ‘Lift now!’ ‘Left!’ ‘Right!’ ‘SWITCH!’

In my hand I hold a sleek, white, buzzing toothbrush. My goal: to brush as many coffee grounds off a corn on the cob as possible in 30 seconds. My teammates: a group of excitable, passionate dental hygienists or – as they call themselves – The Purple Army.

Over the last two hours I’ve been urban racing with these women – dancing, quizzing, and hunting tooth-shaped gummies in bowls of whipped cream (with our faces, naturally). Despite our embarrassing finish time, this afternoon – the strangest I’ve spent as a Project Manager at ico Design – will teach me what ‘brand community’ really means.

The term has become a marketing earworm in recent years as brands – both old and new – have come to recognise the power of a community and what it can do for their business. The likes of Glossier and Lego have shown that a well-nurtured community can become a formidable asset for product development and marketing teams – extending their influence further than ever before. Forbes reported that individuals that share brand messages achieve 561% more reach than the same message posted by the brand itself, and the average employee has ten times the following than their company on social media. In a world where Elon Musk personally has five times more Twitter followers than Tesla, it’s clear: people no longer want to talk to companies: they want to talk to people.

The old model of one-way communications from brand to consumer no longer works. Consumers are savvier than ever before and in a world of endless choice, they (we) will always choose brands we trust. Open conversation between brands and their customers, boosted by genuine endorsement, inspires just this – leading, over time, to brand loyalty.

But there’s a big difference between brand loyalty (which is often dormant) and brand advocacy (which is active). When advocacy is authentic, it’s contagious – allowing communities to grow organically.

This is something we’ve witnessed first-hand working with subscription oral care brand, BURST, whose community was created from the get-go to help inform their very first product. The group of now over 35,000 dental professionals are instrumental to every product and partnership decision, and that level of emotional investment is what makes them such brilliant advocates for the brand, making them integral to its impressive growth.

As the years tick by (particularly the last few), communities coming together IRL has become more and more rare. Globalisation, technology, the pandemic, all contribute to a focus on the online world. But if there’s anything we’ve learned since 2020, nothing competes with the feeling of being together (in Savannah, with your face covered in whipped cream.)

Great brands invest in strengthening the relationships within their communities. It’s something that Harley Davidson and Nike do brilliantly – getting their tribes back into the real world to ride or run together. These moments are what allow real connection to develop within a community and cultivate something which has real meaning, beyond the brand.

Save your time googling ‘How to build a brand community’ if you’re expecting a quick how-to for casting your net via social. Brand communities are not a means to an end – sure, they are an invaluable asset to a company, but they’re not your superfans – they’re your expert advisors, insights department, marketing heroes and influencers. They ARE your team. If you’re ready to commit to building yours, here are a few things to do:

  1. Remember quality over quantity – you may already have a group of followers that can be leveraged – take the time to create real connections with these people and allow the community to grow organically (even if that means slowly).
  2. Be you – these people are giving you their time and effort; they deserve to know who you are. Authenticity and transparency go a long way.
  3. Listen – this group are your ears on the ground and can give you invaluable insight into your target audience. But they’ll also open up about things you don’t expect. Have they found an injustice in the industry that you could help change? If you hear a call that you can answer, you should.
  4. Make space – these people are a community because they share a set of values/lifestyle choices, so bring them together IRL and give them a place to belong.
  5. Let go – once your community is up and running, let it thrive. Fostering real connection that’s above and beyond your business is the most valuable return you can give to people doing so much for your brand.