Last year, I interviewed Bernard Cova , the author of a founding book on tribal marketing in the 1990s. Here he is again on the radar of marketers who are not afraid of new ideas and should prepare themselves to face the 5 levels of community marketing. I translated and adapted this October 2017 interview. A must-read for all those who are involved, or would wish to be involved in such activities.
Community Marketing: from marginal to mainstream
Your latest book* clearly goes further than the 2009 Neo Marketing (a new edition based on the 1992 best-seller). It poses the question: “Have brands become unavoidable in our lives?”
Brands have moved beyond mere Market definition in B2B and B2C - The very notion of "market" is at the heart of any marketing approach. A market can be defined... value and they have become embedded in our social lives. You can look at the life of brands without ever being interested in marketing or selling products or services and that’s what I do in these 200 page-book [editor’s note: this book is only available in French at this time].
In this book, I demonstrate, for example, that we can no longer name certain things without using brands as verbs. We are “skyping” or “googling” or “Twittering”… etc. I also show, matter-of-factly, how communities are built around a passion for brands that go so far as to organize brand celebrations.
*editor’s note: this book “the social life of brands” has not yet been translated into English
February 5th is Nutella day is now organized by Ferrero, but was started by a consumer. Star Wars Day is May 4th based on a play on words (May the fourth be with you!). All of this shows the imaginative power of individuals.
It reminds us of “Things” by Georges Perec but in a whole new light
Yes. It reminds me of Baudrillard too. What’s new however is that we, as a Society, have moved beyond materialism. Jobs no longer provide us with an identity. Individuals no longer have fixed jobs, the working world is becoming ‘liquid’, as Bauman said of businesses.
Individuals are seeking other pillars to build their identity. Most of the time these pillars are found outside the workplace, in the passions that animate them.
We go climbing, diving, we are passionate about operas etc. Passions are fascinating and we may even call them consumers’ passions, because if we do not spend money, we can not satisfy them.
Consumption has become something central in people’s lives but it is not about supermarket consumption, it is a matter of cultural consumption, sports etc. which requires large sums of money.
There is even investment going into the maintenance of one’s body and health. Individuals spend enormous sums of money to fuel their passions which are central to their identities and this should be looked at as a cultural phenomenon.
Iconic brands, cult brands and community marketing
Douglas Holt, one of the world’s leading branding professors, says that a brand’s success in becoming what he calls an “iconic brand” is based on cultural analysis at country level. Chipotle, the Mexican organic restaurant chain in the US began to understand that fast foods didn’t have the same appeal for Americans, and not just in San Francisco.
The average American is starting to move away from fast food chains. Chipotle has not only understood this trend, they have rebuilt their brand around this underlying fact.
From brands to cultural branding
To become a cultural brand, you must not make do with the launch of your brand in the market, you must opt for a countertrend strategy and do everything possible to help that countertrend to grow and become mainstream. Hence, you will have to learn to tell the difference between iconic brands and cult brands.
Some brands have a very strong impact on given communities, large or small. If we go back to cultural branding, the goal is to build a brand, a cult brand on a countertrend, which grows into an iconic brand. But the danger for iconic brands is to fall from grace and regress to cult brand status. I once worked for the Alfa Romeo brand. When you mention that brand, it brings memories of the 1970s, The Graduate and Dustin Hoffman’s Alfa Romeo convertible .
In those days, this brand was in all movies. It was really the iconic brand of the 70s-80s. For many reasons, including poor Fiat management, it has regressed to cult brand status. There are still fans of this brand in Italy but it no longer is that venerated. In more recent films, another Italian brand, Ducati, has taken its place, as it did in The Matrix.
Community marketing is no longer considered esoteric
Then I was writing on the subject of Tribal Marketing in the 90s, the whole thing was often dismissed as cryptic. Now the trend has reversed. Marketers all want to jump on the bandwagon. They say things like “we want to create a community” then “let’s open a Facebook page” or “let’s install a platform or a forum” but communities are never created upon request. Marketers still don’t understand how they work. So there is still a lot of work to be done for them to understand community marketing.
The five levels of community marketing according to Bernard Cova
- The first level consists in trying to create a business or establish a brand in relation to a community built around existing activities. This is the case of Tough Mudder races, whose community pre-existed the brand.
- The second level is epitomised by the mantra that I have promoted for 20 years: affinity is stronger than goods. We can mention Escape Rooms where people go to in groups, for example.
- The third level is the one where we encourage interactions, that is to say that people have to tell their experience, hence the approach named “experiential marketing”. It is about repurposing client-generated content. Regarding this point I find that marketers’ lack in imagination is unbelievable!
- The fourth level is to facilitate collaboration marketing with customers. This does not mean that such customers all want to be part of a community. What it means is that they are interested in engaging with marketers. Again, marketers do not have a particular good track-record in collaborating with their customers and this generates a lot of frustration. Customers would love to be part of the product creation or re-creation process.
- The last level is when you go beyond all community marketing techniques and understand that individuals take part in communities not only to work within a group but also to be acknowledged as persons. Smart marketers will not fail to expose their customers and highlight their uniqueness.
Community marketing may be all the rage, but there is still a lot of work on marketers’ plates for them to evolve their cultural understanding of the true nature of communities and how they work. Community marketing is miles away from traditional marketing, with its abstract and impersonal views of business, which have long been rejected by post-modern consumers.