On (brand) community: Theory & Practice at Impact Hub Amsterdam (2)

This is the second post from my 2 post series on (brand) community. This article is not a study case on the Impact Hub Amsterdam but aims to take you through the theoretical frame I used to understand the concept of (brand) community.  For an overview of how I applied it in the Impact Hub Amsterdam see my first post.

One of the questions I am most asked when coaching companies (this being especially true for tech startups) is “How do I build a (brand) community?” More often than not, behind the question lies the assumption that the answer is a set of marketing tools that applied within their budget will bring them a targeted number of consumers that will stay, engage and perpetuate their brand further.  Nevertheless, the “how” of the question implies that they already have the answer to the questions that come before, meaning “what is community?” and “why do you need a brand community?”. I think an anthropologist is specialized in searching for the “why” and the “what” and can guide a company on this reflection while a marketer is specialized in the “how” and can, on the base of the previous reflection choose the most appropriate marketing tools to use. In this article I will take you through my investigation into the what and the why of building (brand) community.

The what – defining community

Community is one of those “big” words (like culture or identity) that are not easy to define as they go to the core of our humanity trying to convey some essential characteristic that defines us as species. For community is our ability/desire to live our lives in fellowship or “communal” = as part of a bigger group, in one capacity or the other. There is an impressive body of work surrounding this concept but for the purpose of this paper I will focus on its European/North-American meaning and contrast it to the African/South American one.

In the European/North American meaning the concept of community is applied to the individual first (We are because I am = community exists because a group of individuals come together based on their individual needs and wants).  In the African/South American concept community comes first, before the individual (I am because we are = community just is (as an ecosystem around us including also the environment and all other living beings) and we exist as part of it, interconnected inside it, subordinating our individuality to the purpose of the whole.  A more practical difference between the 2 can be made when thinking about the concept of “trust”. In the European/North American meaning you are “trusted” and welcomed as part of a community once you prove your role in it. Whereas in the African/South American meaning you are automatically given trust from the beginning as there is an inherent assumption that we are all part & interconnected to the same bigger whole so there is no need to prove a role.

What makes the 2 approaches different is the relationship between the individual and community and which one is subordinated to the other. What makes the 2 approaches similar is that independent of who is subordinated to whom the concept of community has 2 dimensions that it relies on:  rationality of purpose=mutual obligation and exchange, and emotional bonds=sense of belonging. I will use etymology to explain both.

In the European/North American meaning (Bender, 1978) community is “a network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds.”   The etymology of the English word “community” derives from Latin munus which has a range of meanings, including service, duty, gift or sacrifice.  According to McGinnis, House and Jordan “the word community is a metaphor. At its root is the idea of an exchange of services. A community then is the assemblage of individuals to whom one is bound by this kind of relationship – one defined by mutual obligation and exchange.” The correspondent German word for community are actually 2  words: Gesellschaft – which is similar in meaning to munus meaning community as a transactional exchange between its members – and  Gemeinschaft which adds other dimensions –a sense of belonging together which translates to both a feeling of solidarity and an understanding of shared identity.  Both meanings describe community coming from the individual first with the Latin one putting a strong emphasis on rationality of purpose while the German adds to it the sense of belonging.

In the South African meaning, community is best described through the word “ubuntu” which subordinates the individual to the common. Thus, if we compare it to the Latin meaning, the South African one puts sense of belonging first, before transactional exchange. It goes even further than this and detaches the sense of belonging from the individual and associates it to the higher common of the group.  According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of ““ubuntu”” can best be summarized as follows: “A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”.

In the South American meaning, I want to draw attention to the concept of  Mink’a or minka which is a type of traditional communal work in the Andes in favor of the whole community (ayllu). Participants are traditionally paid in kind. Mink’a is still practiced in indigenous communities in PeruEcuadorBolivia, and Chile, especially among the Quechua and the Aymara. The concept of Mink’a is very similar in purpose to the African “ubuntu”.

So we have established that a community is formed on the basis of exchange and emotional bonds and there are different manners of subordination between the individual and the community depending on the cultural context. Before going into the core elements of a community I would like to cover shortly the development of the concept within the moving context in which we live with others.

The concept of community navigates rural / urban / digital

The history of how we understand and apply community runs in parallel to the history of how we live with others and the environment we do that in. “Communal” living has gone through substantial transformations in the European/North American regions as we move from rural – to urban – to digital ways of living together.

In rural communities social relationships were primarily determined based on kinship (family ties) and likeness and secondary based on specialized functional roles. The personal relationships and their intensity defined the functional roles within which exchange occurred. Within rural communities we find closer proximity in meaning of the European/North American approaches and the South African/South American ones. The development of urbanization – and later on digitalization – gave rise to a higher visibility to the functional role as the social lives of individuals became more specialized, not just in their labor but also in all the social relationships. They engage with different people for different and limited purposes. Their lives are led on a variety of levels and in different locations as well (and in the case of digital the geographical boundaries are completely removed). They are known to others primarily in terms of what they bring to the interaction with them – as student, film-maker, baker, blogger etc. and secondary through kinship (personal ties) and likeness.  In this context is where the individual becomes more important that the whole and we see as more striking the differences between the European/North American meanings and the South American/African ones.

Nevertheless, the shift from rural to urban to digital is not a linear one and there isn’t a clear opposition between them. What has clearly changed as mentioned before is boundary removal and access.  As of today, individuals live within potential infinite networks of communities available and they have to negotiate the type of foundation they build with each one. In this negotiation the rural is a symbol for  the type of community we are part of where our role is defined  based primarily on personal/close relationship while the urban/digital is a symbol of the wider networks we are part of based on a more functional relationship. This means that an individual can develop a rural type of community within a digital setting as well as a digital, more functional type of community within an urban setting. This can also be applied transversally within the same community with sub-communities.

One of the things that make it possible to simultaneously be part of some many different types of community and still feel close is the concept of “imagined communities”. Anderson (1983) suggests that all communities maintain themselves by notions of imagined, understood others that cannot be seen but their presence is made visible through the act of imagining. The concept is nevertheless not restricted only to urban or digital spaces as even within villages you have “imagined communities” of shared spiritual beliefs such as Roman Catholicism.  With the transition to digital communities this is particularly relevant as the imagined communities release the concept of community from the geographical setting. This allows community members to possess a vast sense of the unmet others fellow community members, to imagine them.

The main point here remains, that in the move from rural to urban to digital the basic principles of forming community remained (mutuality and emotional bonds) while the environment in which they were manifested expanded and got “noisier” (as technology removed boundaries and gave access to a multitude of possible communities).  Belonging to a community or another is a constantly negotiated process as individuals have to juggle which to be a part of and which one to let go of.

The elements of a community

But how do you decide between different communities of belonging? Why be involved in one and not the other? If we think of communities forming on the foundation of exchange and emotional bonds we can identify the following 3 interlinked elements:

  1. Purpose(s). This is both the individual purpose of the person entering the community as well as the common purpose of the community as a whole (that depending of the culture either emerges from the clustering of purposes of its members or defines the purpose of the members). No matter the relationship of subordination they are both interconnected and enforced by one another.
  2. Common values and ideas If the purpose is about the “what we do” the values are about the “how we do it”. It is the main differentiator between communities of similar purposes but that have different ways of going about making that happen.
  3. Own field of communication & Interaction this is referring to the way the purpose and the values are being lived in the “daily life” of the community. How it’s captured in the way they communicate, in the structures that facilitate exchange and, in the rites and rituals that facilitate belonging and maintain the values and the purpose. This includes also the space in which the community manifests itself.

In order to analyze the elements it’s helpful to use what Frederick Barth called “the boundary concept”. In analyzing ethnic communities he urges us to look carefully at their boundaries = meaning what the community defines as “themselves” or “the other”. What he is saying is that it easier to understand our allegiance to each other, “that we are playing the same game” in the moments when we are made aware of the “team” we are playing against or of others that play different games. This awareness is not aggressive and confrontational as it is strengthening and underlying the identity of both teams.

The why of a (brand) community

One of the key tasks of a marketer is managing the relationship between a brand and its consumers. The aim is to develop it (just like any relationship) and increase engagement to the brand so that they have a stronger chance to become loyal consumers that do not migrate to competitors. Moreover, some brands (that represent for example user generated products) need to have that engagement from the start in order to actually make the product work.  In the search for engagement and loyalty, communities are seen as a good tool, with many brands investing in building spaces where the brand is central and the consumers  come together to “worship” it, talk about it and evangelize it.

Nevertheless, brands must not forget that within a community the members develop first and foremost relationships to each other. And these relationships are built on exchange of purpose and sense of belonging. If the brand wants to be part of those relationships it needs to either provide a reason and context for the relationships of exchange to occur (in the case of a new community) or enter within already established ones. I will try to detail these 2 different types of communities below:

  1. The brand makers

This is the community of people that build the brand: produce, market and sell it. This community has inside also consumers of the brand – their weight depending on the relevance of their role to the brand making process. In the case of a football game, for example, the people that are on the stadium are as important to the delivery of the game as the players in the field. They are part of the product, they are brand makers. The ones that are at home watching the final product on TV are just consumers. This is what makes the difference.  The first ones are a community together with the players, the stadium, and the organizers behind the scenes. Together they make the product work, they have clear roles and responsibilities and exchange and a field of communication and interaction.

The involvement of consumers as makers differs depending on how vital their role is in the making process.  It can range from minimal (for consumer goods products for example) to essential (for user generated digital products or co-working spaces). If & when a company is thinking about involving consumers in a community of makers it needs to reflect to which extent they are contributing to the brand making process and to which to each-other.

  1. The brand partners

This is where the brand enters an existing community as a member. So, the brand is not the generator but one of the elements. For example the brand can choose to act through its marketing strategy as partner/member in existing communities – like organizations for example. It could be through investment – like a sponsorship strategy, or skills – partnering up with other brands to develop industry programs. In this way the brand acts/performs its identity alongside other members.

This approach puts the brand on the same level of interaction of all the other members and makes it act as an integral identity. It is important as the act of being in a community enforces to the others the individual purpose and values of the brand not just on an ideological level but as a day to day interaction.

The difference between the 2 types of community participation is that in the first one the brand is the purpose & the outcome of the community itself (here the brand is created) and in the second the brand acts out as part of a community to fulfill the purpose of that community.


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