I’ve been loyal to Starbucks for over 20 years. I have memories of when I had to choose between food and shopping at Macy’s New York and settled for a hot chai tea latte in a Manhattan Starbucks. I just felt I belonged in that city when I sipped my drink there.

I was an Apple fan girl long before I could afford their products. I like the idea of being an Apple person. Think Different was embraced by Apple before diversity and neurodiversity were common phrases. Steve Jobs was dyslexic – maybe why he thought visually and differently. And designed inclusive products.

Certain products help you identify your tribe – Enfield, Harley Davidson, Montblanc pens, Nappa Dori, Suta Saris, Cartier, Total Environment Homes, Brooks, Birkenstock, iPhone. Teens can significantly lift revenue if your product becomes a tribal accessory like Stanley Cups, Air Jordans, iPhones, Sol de Janeiro.

Why do some brands stay trendy while others fade away?

I think the difference is whether they help you fit in or whether they make you belong.

I like Dr Brene Brown’s definition – “Belonging is being accepted for being you, fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else”.

If everyone in your office wears a white Louis Philippe shirt, then showing up in one will help you fit in. The basement car park is full of BMWs you’ll fit in better with your neighbours if you succumb. On the other hand brands like Levis or FabIndia or Starbucks or Taj work hard to make you feel like you belong – no matter how you are dressed or what you do. Indigo (yes, yes, I know  they aren’t always nice) has always tried to make everyone feel comfortable – language choices, Braille safety cards, and just one class. The individuals at the front line may not always live up to your expectations, but the brands would like them to.

Community as a Brand

Successful brands invest in communities – online, offline, loyalty cards, co-branding – you name it. Customer forums are a big element of success in IT services marketing – a chance to meet the faces behind the tech. Product forums like SAP User Groups are a powerful body in themselves. Ather Energy, Xiaomi and many others invest in online customer communities. Paul Writer evolved from a LinkedIn group to a having a newsletter that brings together 30,000 marketers weekly and a Whatsapp group for more intimate CXO conversations. I’ve run communities all my career and I can vouch for the fact that they build a lasting relationship, when entered into with a spirit of dialogue.

What is the requirement for a community

My friends are barely active on Facebook, yet I visit multiple times a day. Why? There are various groups based on an interest and I find them hugely useful when I need to learn something. Pastafarian? There’s a group for that. Woman graduate of an IIM? Yep. Parent? Zillions with every possible niche. Expat? That too. The shared interest lowers your walls and you trust the members enough to share intimate details and even meet them in a public location.

Online communities really start to vibe when they offer face to face meetings and the ability to connect one on one with someone – whether it is the host or other members. Virtual meetings are better than none, but IRL is the best. Even better is when it is a group activity – a workshop, volunteer work, celebration, cake-mixing, singing, karaoke…

Joy brings us together

I’m attending a Coldplay concert tomorrow. It’ll be a shared experience where 60,000 people will sing along. I have written earlier about a Beatles tribute concert in Bangalore performed by the De Trippers – many of the audience sang and danced with the band, it was a very memorable evening. Weddings and similar joyous family gatherings build culture and cohesion. Growing up in a village there were so many weddings to attend during the “season”.

Building your community blueprint

Decide who will “belong” in your brand. And who might want to fit into it.

The Hofstede Cultural Onion – values, symbols, heroes, rituals – is a great way to gain clarity on the culture of your organization, brand or country.

Hofstede cultural onion

Values alone will not suffice. The other elements are required.

For example, at Ogilvy Advertising, we learned that it was better to hire people better than yourself. David Ogilvy quotes, books etc were very visible and he was a hero of the organization. Piyush Pandey was similarly a hero in India. The logo and brand colours were the symbols. And where you sat in a client meeting, who you sat with, whether you stood or sat while presenting, stand-up meetings – all part of the ritual.

If you want to change the values you need to change the other elements. This is why a Trump America looks a bit different to say, a Obama America. Changing the outer layers of the onion will change the inner layer – including values.

Before you apply it to your brand, try it on something you are really familiar with like your country, religion or family. It’s a great framework to understand the impact of many events whether it is the inauguration of a temple, an army parade, a new headquarters, or hosting the last Ambani son wedding at Jamnagar.

I hope you enjoyed my weekly ritual of writing my newsletter – it’s a symbol of my brand 🙂

And if you’re wondering what the headline is to do with anything – Ryan Gosling got an Oscar nomination for Ken in the movie Barbie. Neither the director nor Barbie did. In the run up to International Women’s Day this is an interesting development to ponder.

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