Do you aspire to build a brand community or a community brand?

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Two different business organization charts

In my day job at New Kind, I spend quite a bit of my time working on brand-related assignments, particularly for organizations interested in community-based approaches to building their brands.

When marrying the art of community building to the art of brand building, it's hard not to talk about building "brand communities." It's a convenient term, and brand experts love to trot out examples like Harley Davidson and Apple as examples of thriving communities built around brands.

The term "brand community" even has its own Wikipedia page (definition: "a community formed on the basis of attachment to a product or marque"). Harvard Business Review writes about brand communities. Guy Kawasaki writes about brand communities.

Yet almost every article I've read about building "brand communities" shares a common trait:

They are all written by brand people for brand people.

The result? Articles focusing on what's in it for the brands (and the companies behind them), not what's in it for the communities. Learn how to build a brand community so your company will succeed, not so a community will succeed.

Typical corporate thinking.

What if we turned things on their heads for a second and changed the words around? What if, instead of "brand community," the phrase du jour was "community brand?"

Is there a difference? I think so.

If "brand community" is defined this way:

A community formed on the basis of attachment to a product or marque.

I'd define a "community brand" as:

A brand formed in service to a community or group of communities.

I'm just making this stuff up, but this difference is meaningful for me.

I love that smart companies are successfully building brand communities around their products. Companies that can do it well can make a lot of money, and Apple and Harley Davidson are fantastic examples.

But truly enlightened brands are starting to think beyond building brand communities around themselves. They are beginning to think with humility about which existing communities they can serve better than they do today.

Who is thinking this way? A group of over 300 companies, called B Corporations, for starters (my company works with a fantastic one called The Redwoods Group based here in North Carolina).

These companies serve more than just the bottom line, they also serve multiple communities—as small as the community of their own employees and as big as the global common good.

They make active, positive contributions to many communities beyond the ones centered around them.


To sum my feelings up, there is nothing wrong with building brand communities around your products. In fact usually having an active brand community is a good sign of brand health.

My question:

Is it enough? Should we be aspiring to make more of our brands into community brands—brands that make positive contributions to communities other than their own—as well?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.



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Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Yes, you can engage me. Treat me like I am a value to
your company.

The early years of Volkswagen in the USA? Saturn also
started with the concept of community. That works.

Many of the evil corporations in the communications
field (cell phone, cable, etc.) started having or at least
letting their employees go on forums and blogs to
interact with costumers who were at wits end with the
"Help Desk" type of service. It works if you know it
is there.

The article before this one was about the co-op
business model, if I have to contact the company
about anything it sure is nice to get someone who
has their future tied to my happiness.


I like the rearrangement to "Community Brand." It puts community first and disrupts just enough to freshen the thinking of those who know what Brand Community means. We speak here, inside Redwoods, about being "of the community, not above the community." Unlike Apple and Harley Davidson, we have a pure B2B dynamic which adds complexity, and while we're far from perfect at all this, we keep trying.

Thanks for the mention of us and the B Corporation movement.

Dan Moore, CMO
The Redwoods Group

Dan, I absolutely love that phrase, and had never heard the thought articulated that way before! Thanks for sharing it!

You are right in the fact that brand communities are started by brands for the brands, for the $$$ and the market share. That is what business is about. From Harley Davidson to Apple. On the odd occasion, the community is started by a small group of people who are 'crazy' (for lack of a better term) about the brand. Needless to say, the marketing execs should be aspiring to reach out to the communities and find ways of working inconjunction with with them for a better cause. It will be better business (more $$ and loyalty) to the brands and make people feel good about doing something good. GM tries to do things like that with their Hockey program but it doesn't meet half of the turn out that a Harley rally does. It's a fine line, that very few companies seem to be able to walk.

Bottom line, the brands need the communities, and what they need even more if for the community to feel like they need the brand. They can only achieve that through community programs and involvement that enrich people's lives.

There are so many ways to reach out from your own "community comfort zone" and impact other communities. Often there are sub-communities inside your larger one. Being able to create a Community of Opportunity - allowing everyone to create change and impact the community in their own way - is what I get from this article.

This is where you see a lot of Open Source projects navigating to. The smarter companies are seeing that, too. Letting your customers/community members tell you what they like rather than you telling them what they should like.

Great article - thanks!

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