In search of community

in search of community

Community as a marketing term really started buzzing back in the 90s.

It was .com days, the world was alight with online content propositions and ‘building community’ was all anyone had to do. Building community was a great phrase for that era, because it had an optimistic ring and easy promise which ‘building a customer-base’ just couldn’t match. Unfortunately, all too often, website traffic and an online community became a substitute for actually making any money.

It never went away of course, gradually rewriting for itself an unspoken definition of an audience somewhere between ‘aware’ and ‘considering’ – all shades of warm. Likes, in other words, clustering around around the role of the brand as an experiential meeting place: how was the product for you?

Community’s recent resurgence into the world of marketing, on the other hand, wears a different face.

Community, since around 2008, often simply means the public. Generally speaking, it’s the same people of course, just described from a different relational perspective. The public is no longer one big audience to be aggregated but instead the fabric of society which makes business possible, and community this time around carries with it a clear sense of social responsibility.

Most corporate websites now talk about community. Classic CR use relates to the communities around operational bases, where the business is rooted in employees and, in these days, suppliers. For brands with a definable audience, such as Nickelodeon, or McDonalds even, it’s relatively easy to identify representative groups of that community: no matter what you think of Ronald, he ticks the community box.

But how does a retail or an online brand define community? How to demonstrate a meaningful commitment to community when your customer base spans many economic and geographic segments?

Like many totem words, community layers like an onion. It has a slightly retro feel, and overtones of collegiate responsibility. Community can also – easily – message social disadvantage, poverty. Community shops flourish where no profit-minded retailer would tread. Community groups all too easily represent support for the unsupported. Despite a slightly socialist ring, it’s a preferable alternative to the rabble-rousing ‘people’ – and sounds more definable than ‘public’… And that’s the trouble: in the world of shmarketing, it’s a power-word: it sounds targeted but actually means anyone and everyone.

From a sponsorship POV, the challenge is of course to define and then sell in an approach to community, because the broad church of community has to translate into a channel. A media channel, an organisation, an interest group – because targeting everyone with the current premise of community is a fatally flawed concept.

Take Pepsi. Pepsi’s much-feted, ill-fated Refresh Project was the epitome of targeting everyone. It proudly and loudly stood out the 2010 round of Super Bowl advertising in support of its community commitment. Refresh offered US$20 million of corporate largesse across the original criteria of Health, Arts & Culture, Food & Shelter, the Planet, Neighbourhoods and Education – just about everything. It had a very simple application process – for everybody. It successfully garnered 61 million online votes in the course of its two year life. But Refresh was a social media experiment pretending to be a brand play: sorry, ‘a long term equity play’, in Pepsi’s own words. The programme design was flawed from the outset, but its biggest failing as a brand play is that it targeted… everyone, every single community it could. Even US$20 million spreads very thinly across the entire US of A.

NatWest’s Cricket Force, by comparison, feels small. The programme, which encourages its staff to volunteer to refurbish cricket clubs up and down the UK, is hardly at the cutting edge of social impact. It doesn’t aspire to change the Planet, or help Health, or offer Food and Shelter, like Pepsi did: it just makes cricket clubs look nicer. But in every dimension bar one, it’s smarter. It’s perversely on brand. It supports NatWest’s longstanding association with cricket. It hits NatWest’s customer heartlands. It’s easy, inexpensive and, hey, it’s sustainable. It’s targeted, in other words: the basic stuff of sponsorship, nay marketing. It only loses in one point of comparison: it isn’t headline material, but we can forgive that.

And once again, we have to hail Red Bull for showing the full potential of building a community around a proposition which is almost as narrow in content – action sports, but universal in relevance: freedom, rebellion, expression. The whole freesports promise.

The word community has become a crutch, a catch-all term and a substitute for actually defining and understanding audiences. Communities aren’t made up of everybody, they define themselves based on who is in and just as importantly who is out. There are millions of communities – they exist in geographies and they exist online, they’re built around shared passions and shared loathings, they can emerge spontaneously or be built and sustained over millenia. They ebb and flow, gain new members and lose old ones, but they never encompass everyone.

Identifying, defining, and working with a community should be used as the basis for great and impactful sponsorship campaigns, it’s the foundation of sponsorship at its very best. But you have to make sure the word community actually means something – because if your community is meant to include everyone, then you don’t have a community at all.