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Companies building "brand communities".

Whether their product is an automobile, a soft drink, or laundry detergent, successful companies long have considered the concept of brand loyalty the Holy Grail in the world of consumer marketing. Now, a growing number of firms are taking that concept to the next level, creating or supporting "brand communities" that can form around the use of their products, according to an Oregon State University, Corvallis, study. From "Jeep Jamborees" to Apple computer groups, these communities can deepen customer loyalty and create relationships between consumers and companies that last for years.

"Marketing efforts in the past have recognized that consumers can have strong ties to brands and products," notes Jim McAlexander, associate professor of marketing. "But marketers haven't fully understood the values consumers find in brand community nor the advantages that can come from attentiveness to the diverse relationships that build from product experiences. We find that there can be real value, for example, in bringing consumers together with each other and the company in situations where they can share experiences, opinions, and ideas. It is beginning to change. Companies are starting to understand the [advantage] of giving their customers something they really care about. It's all about reciprocity."

The idea of "brand communities" evolved from earlier research by McAlexander and University of Portland (Ore.), marketing professor John Schouten into brand loyalty toward Harley-Davidson products. During their research, the pair hopped on Harleys and went to numerous rallies. What they discovered was that the "Harley experience"--including bonding with fellow motorcycle enthusiasts--created a special relationship among the consumer, the company, and other customers. The seeds for their "brand community" model were born.

"We [then] took an idea ... to Chrysler that had impact upon the creation of 'Camp Jeep,'" recalls McAlexander. In addition to teaching new Jeep owners such skills as driv-ing off-road, the company went all-out to create a social atmosphere built on an understanding of the interests, values, and lifestyles of their owners. They brought in sportsmen to give fly-fishing lessons, offered mountain biking experiences, and established a rock-climbing course. "What this says to the owner is, 'This company cares about me,'" McAlexander emphasizes. "'They understand me and my lifestyle.' It puts individuals together with other people who feel the same way."

Other examples abound. Manufacturers of cereal aimed at children have created websites for their young consumers, where they can play various games and engage in other activities. "Sometimes," McAlexander says, "these communities exist in an ephemeral way. Marketers should use them as a lens to see how they make their customers' experience better."
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Title Annotation:Advertising
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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