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Can Brands Fill the Modern Social Void?

Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

September 06,2017

It is one of the great ironies of the digital age:

The more opportunities we have to connect — through social media, text messages, communication apps, and so on — the more disconnected we feel. Studies show that loneliness is on the rise1, and the use of social media, despite its ability to facilitate interactions among millions, is associated with feelings of social isolation2. The satisfaction from a "like" or an online chat, it seems, doesn't hold a candle to the pleasure derived from an old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation.

What, if anything, can fill the modern social void? The answer may evoke delight among marketers and perhaps a groan from cynical consumers: brands.

Today, the term "brand community" may bring to mind Facebook fan pages with follower counts in the six or seven digits. But the power of brands to convene like-minded people was proven long before the social network was a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg's eye — and much of this community-building happened (and continues to happen) in real life, not just virtually. Think of the throngs of Vulcan-eared attendees at Star Trek conventions or "the brotherhood" of Harley Davidson riders roaring into the motorcycle maker's outreach events.

Some consumers may approach brands' attempts to build communities, whether through online groups or real-world events, with skepticism — as well they should. In the worst-case scenarios, consumers may join a group or event only to find themselves getting a hard sell and little else. But the savviest companies know that, when they engage in community-building, they should prioritize their consumers' needs instead of brazenly promoting the brand at every turn. That means identifying how to provide helpful information to consumers and also encouraging conversations among their followers. Ultimately, this is good for both consumers and brands. "Often, people are more interested in the social links that come from brand affiliations than they are in the brands themselves. They join communities to build new relationships," wrote Susan Fournier and Lara Lee, who explored Harley Davidson's community-building success for the Harvard Business Review3. And when companies successfully meet consumers' needs, Fournier and Lee argued, they are in fact rewarded with brand loyalty.

When companies engage in community-building, they should prioritize their consumers' needs instead of brazenly promoting the brand at every turn.

The most visible examples of companies encouraging community formation are in the retail space. But business-to-business brands partake in community-building too. Corporate-sponsored industry conferences, for instance, are more conducive to socialization than ever, as many conference agendas morph from "sit and be spoken to" lectures to sessions that encourage a two-way dialogue. And then there are more intimate opportunities for B2B brands to bring their customers together. Here at State Street, as we tackle issues of gender diversity in financial services, we're bringing our clients' senior female executives together for dinners dedicated to discussions on a variety of business topics. It's been amazing to me how successful these dinners have been, not just in inspiring dialogue, but in building relationships. Attendees have told me how grateful they were to connect with women whom they suspect they would have never met otherwise.

We intend to look for more natural points of connection for our clients, both for their good and our own. After all, it doesn't hurt that in meeting their desire for community and relationships, we're also building appreciation for our brand. We may never see the same adulation that bikers have for their beloved chopper brand or that Trekkies possess for their favorite TV series. But as long as our customers feel we're meeting their needs, we'll continue to bring them together, no Vulcan ears required.

1. de Turenne, Veronique. "Lonely Planet." U Magazine. Fall, 2016.  Retrieved Aug. 8, 2017: http://magazine.uclahealth.org/body.cfm?id=6&action=detail&ref=1426

2. "More Social Connection Online Tied to Increasing Feelings of Isolation." Retrieved Aug. 2, 2017: http://www.upmc.com/media/NewsReleases/2017/Pages/primack-smu.aspx

3. Fournier, Susan and Lee, Lara. "Getting Brand Communities Right." Harvard Business Review, April 2009.

CORP-3216

Topics: Market conditions


Hannah Grove | State Street Corporation

Hannah Grove is our chief marketing officer. She focuses on using technology to help us approach the market in new and different ways.  Hannah is currently listening to the Reveal Podcasts and Damien Rice.