Your brand’s fans just may be your biggest assets. Building a ‘brandom’ (brand + fandom) is the latest way to harness the power of community to meet your company’s strategic goals. “Your brand’s community is where you create brand loyalty and relationships. You bring your audience into the decision-making process,” says Kara Cronin, Community Manager at Meta.
Instead of ads and eblasts to spread the word, a brand community trades in the megaphone and throws open the door inviting brand fans to engage with the brand in a more intimate way. Perhaps even more importantly, it allows them to engage with each other. The idea is that customers who like your brand may also like each other. Building a community allows them to interact in ways that can both enhance your brand and your customers themselves.
This is something that brands have long been doing IRL in their retail stores by way of events, and this strategy is seeing a resurgence in the post-COVID return to in-person experiences. State of Kid, a Miami, FL-based retailer, leverages its space with a large roster of children’s programming from hand-picked local teachers. Building a ritual of coming to their space for these classes is making State of Kid’s retail component top of mind (and exceptionally convenient) when the parents need to make a purchase. According to Alana Oxfeld, co-founder of State of Kid, the brand community fuels brand loyalty. “Our customers’ closest friends are there,” she says, noting that by offering the range of classes, parties, and retail they see the impact. “At a birthday party recently, I could see that all the girls’ friends were from her ballet class.” The same is true for the parents, Oxfeld notes. “We have a lot of clients who are new in town, who have moved to Florida from the Northeast. We give them resources and networks”—not to mention parent-friendly programming like a recent LoveShackFancy pop-up where moms could choose their favorite looks while kids engaged in brand-related floral activities.
Erin Rechner, Head of Childrenswear at trend forecaster WGSN, notes that brick-and-mortar businesses leveraging their space is a strategy they’re seeing right now both in and out of kids’. She points to two non-traditional “stores” in New York (outside of the children’s space) that are offering free education and experience instead of goods. Tech company Solana opened a shop in Hudson Yards dedicated to Web 3 education, while Studio V at the Oculus uses their “retail” space in the Calatrava-designed mall to enable creative exchange so to better understand systems of learning, she says. But experiential or educational offerings don’t have to be all or nothing. “Children’s store CAMP is a good example of this,” Rechner adds. In addition to a full range of toys offered for sale, there are kid-friendly games, interactive experiences, and classes ever-present, inspiring repeat visits and brand affinity.
Of late, more and more consumers have warmed up to online brand communities, and these communities are popping up everywhere. Bloomingdales recently sent an email to its loyal customers inviting them to join their exclusive community myBloomingdales, a place where one can provide opinions and get rewards. In doing so, they’re offering customers a seat at the table for the department store’s business decisions. Sephora’s Beauty Insider club gives a space for community members to share makeup looks and techniques online, sample new products, ask questions, and connect with other makeup lovers. Luxury brands like Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana take it a step further by launching token-gated communities where members can get access to exclusive drops and collaborations of digital wearables and physical products.
It’s not only large brands with significant tech resources that can get into the online community game. Tools like Facebook Groups, Instagram, What’s App, and Discord extend that ability to build a digital brand community to all. Kevin Murray, Co-founder and CEO of Rylee + Cru, the popular Southern California-based children’s brand, says that they’ve been using Facebook Groups to host their brand community since 2020. Having identified a thriving buy-sell-resale group started by a superfan several years ago, they decided to follow suit with an invite-only official brand Facebook Group. Although they started by inviting people on Instagram, Murray says they passed over the reins to the group itself. “Now we just let the folks [in the group] invite people organically.” Topping 8,000 fans, the private VIP group enjoys exclusive sneak peeks of new Rylee + Cru styles, gets insight into sizing from Rylee + Cru’s technical designers, and receives style advice, try-ons and matching suggestions. Members even get the chance to have their own family snaps elevated into Rylee + Cru’s social and brand properties.
If you think your brand is too small to get results, think again. It’s not about size, it’s about what you stand for. More often than not, the community of brands that attends Playtime’s trade shows stands for some important topics: health and wellness, authenticity, sustainability, and delivering a better world for the next generations, to name a few. This provides a huge advantage in driving fans to your brands. Not only are they connecting over loving your brand’s products, but also over loving your brand’s values. “People don’t only want to be consumers anymore,” says Cronin. “They want to be a part of something.”
Judging by how many people are doing it, there’s no doubt, brand communities are having a moment—and there are good reasons why. First, brand communities improve customer loyalty. Rechner notes, “It’s no longer about instant gratification. Customers are looking for longevity. They know their time is valuable and they’re tired of going from brand to brand in their feeds. They want to find a brand that they believe in and stick with it.”
Furthermore, after our global experience with COVID, people are savvier than ever digitally and crave connection both in person and online. On top of that, with the rise of Gen Z in the parenting communities, there’s an increased drive toward authenticity. “People want to see things that are real, not so polished. Community is a way to do that—allow people behind the scenes,” Cronin says. Kelly Fondots, Rylee + Cru Brand Manager and CMO agrees, saying their brand’s authenticity has been key to their community’s success. “Our brand grew out of Kelly Larson’s blog following the birth of her child, Rylee. Its promise has always been authenticity–from the founder-illustrator’s own artwork, to human hands in the dyeing process, to transparency in our production and business practices.”
It’s not only customer taste that is driving this trend. Marketing options for SMBs like social media advertising and Google AdWords price out the little guys in favor of larger players. Murray says Rylee + Cru is putting increasing its focus on areas that are more personal and creative, including its brand community.
So get out there folks, your fans are waiting. Build your “brandom,” and with attentive nourishment, they will come.
OK, we know what we have to do, we know why, we know we’re well-positioned, and we know we’re in good company. Now let’s talk brass tacks. How do we do it? Here are 10 easy things you can do to start building your brand community right now.
Look to build where your fans are. Rylee + Cru found they already had a fan group online operating independently on Facebook Groups. Seeing its success, they made the decision to create their own official Facebook Group. Instagram and Facebook are clear winners as plum platforms in the kid’s world, as this is where most parents are spending their time. But, Rechner says, you should also be looking ahead at the next generations’ preferences, as social media can be fickle. Discord is one platform she says is garnering attention at WGSN. Discord has been the preferred platform for the gaming world, interesting in that it enables peer-to-peer communications. “There are no ads in Discord, so there’s nothing to bombard you. Gen Z finds this way more interesting—you can go deeper, unlock experiences and even digital collectibles.”
Cronin says when talking to those building communities at Meta, she advises that figuring out what you want your community to do is an important early step. Do you want your community to give product development insights? To drive growth? To inspire customer retention? Of course, your community will evolve, but it’s good to have a specific goal in mind when you begin. his will drive how and why potential community members will participate.
A few true fans along with a focus on your hero products that underscore your value and are emblematic of your brand is an easy, and doable way to dip your toe into community. “Look to see who is organically engaged with the content and reach out. Understand who they are and what their motivations are. Put a few in a group and see what happens,” Cronin advises. She even suggests scheduling a 30-minute call with each community member. “It’s the relationships you build that matter. Get to know them as people.”
It doesn’t have to be big or expensive—it’s the acknowledgment that counts. “For engaging in the community, you can give a tote bag, discount codes, or access to the CEO. Be creative,” Cronin suggests. The strategy should be focused on evoking a feeling. It’s that feeling they get when they’re in the community that they’re going to want to share.
Don’t keep it all on your community platform—user-generated content and fan stories are ripe to be shared on other of your social media and digital channels. For instance, Fondots says, Rylee + Cru runs exclusive contests in their community space where the winners’ images can be elevated to other brand channels.
Assign someone to monitor the content and activity on the platform. Murray notes that Rylee + Cru’s social media team owns the brand community, staying interactive with the fans and maintaining 24/7 approval of the posts. They even involve some of their biggest fans to help in content moderation.
“You want to connect the why of the business with the community. Tell them who you are and what you stand for,” says Cronin. Your community members are your best and most authentic ambassadors. By making it clear what’s most important to share will ensure that’s top of their talking points.
In their article, A better way to build a brand: The Community Flywheel, business consultancy McKinsey calls brand communities a good investment. This low-risk strategy doesn’t require companies to scale up their tech or marketing infrastructure ahead of demand.
Digital communities are great, but if you can include some IRL experiences as well, even better. Rylee + Cru did a pop-up around the holiday time and invited their community. This was a great way to get in touch with their local brand fans face to face.
The beauty of brand communities is that unexpected things can happen. You may control what you share, but the nature of a community means peer connections are being made every day. New friendships can blossom, and new business ideas can be formed. If all goes well, your brand becomes part of your community members’ life memories and milestones.
Watch the seminar from Playtime & Kid’s Hub New York featuring this expert panel here.