The digital revolution has completely reshaped the retail industry and changed the rules of brand-building. Before the internet, if you had a strong brand, great product, and a well-organized distribution, you were the winner by default. Replicating your product would take anyone years to develop, so once you were ahead of others you didn’t have to worry about a thing. On top of that, if you have managed to build a community around your product – well then you had a super-brand on your hands.
A community is something that a brand like Hermès employed to build its empire. The principle was simple: to purchase one of Hermès it-bags, you had to spend significant sums on accessories first to gain access to that premium product, granted only to the selected few. As a clever analysis by Loose Threads “Building Bulletproof Brands” points out, Hermès – type community is, in essence, a top-down group that is centrally controlled by the brand and directly linked to the company’s product. Every time one customer buys a product the community grows by one. The problem with those types of communities is that they get weaker as they grow. Exclusive community-based brands have to carefully manage their growth – it is very hard and often involves creating artificial limits to production, playing on a perceived “shortage” of products and destroying unsold merchandise to avoid discounting.
Communities were foundational to super-brands of the past, but today we are talking about “networks” instead. Networks take the idea of a community and push it to the next level through connectivity. Unlike communities, networks can grow independently of the product itself and shopper’s involvement can often precede a purchase. Strong network is a new unit of measure for a modern super-brand and is the most valuable thing a company can own today – mostly because networks are truly proprietary and cannot be replicated unlike any branded product.
One has to keep in mind that networks do not strive around the brand in a natural way unless the brand is specifically built with this setup in mind. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that more traditional brands are a lost case. Provided that the brand is open to a shift in mindset and is ready to review its politics in terms of consumer interaction there are good chances for success. Let’s look at a couple of brands who are the “crème de la crème” of network leveraging and identify the key elements for success.
Lesson 1: Keep your production tight and let the network thrive
Supreme is definitely one of the most interesting brands out there today. Instead of releasing products in big collections several times a year, skater brand releases a few products in weekly drops every Thursday. While Supreme products are arguably special, the true differentiator is its obsessive network. Members of the network line up for hours before product hits the stores, use computers and “bots” to purchase products online at all hours of the night. Since products are only available online and in a handful of Supreme stores around the world in purposefully limited quantities, the after-market potential for the brand’s products is incredible. Supreme has virtually no control and captures no direct revenue from it, which is part of their strategy. The lack of top-down control over the Supreme network allows all of its shoppers, buyers and sellers to act on a much greater scale than previously possible with centralized control. Supreme has realized that the act of letting the network thrive by generally doing nothing is the best thing a brand can do.
Lesson 2: Become friends with your customers, promote inclusivity.
Glossier, a blogger- founded beauty brand was launched to fill the gaps in the market that Emily Weiss identified when examining women’s beauty routines through her blog section “Top Shelf.” The goal, she said, was to build a brand that young people could call their “friend” and be a part of. In just a few years, Glossier has become the legend in the beauty world. Glossier started off powered by vast customer feedback – a mentality that has been ingrained in the company since the beginning.
Most beauty brands choose celebrities as the face of their products. Glossier, on the other hand, uses employees and customers as models in its campaigns, constantly shares photos from its army of supporters. This approach powers the growth of Glossier network and every customer of the brand feels extremely engaged and becomes an instant advocate. “Building Bulletproof Brands” analysis suggests, that instead of trying to scale exclusivity like many others, Glossier is scaling inclusivity – as a result, the brand gets stronger as it scales. When asked about the quality of Glossier products, responses are very mixed, often even worse. What is unbelievable, is that this feedback had no impact whatsoever on Glossier growth and brand equity.
Lesson 3: The new ROI
The last couple of decades were all about “exclusivity” with brands trying to build narrow, impossible-to-get-into communities. Things have changed as the new consumer is looking for more information and participation. Honest and open relationship with the brand is now at the heart of the customer experience. The new consumer relates less to “what I have” and more to “who I am.” As a result, a much greater value is placed on the experience associated with consumption versus simply the idea of owning the product. Anything that relates to the involvement of the customer in the process through feedback or personalization will be helpful in building a network around the brand.
Think of it as the new ROI aka “return on interaction.” Putting resources towards relationships, and giving value to meaningful interaction will do more good for your brand than any other form of traditional marketing. If your brand can “become friends” with its customers through interactions, then you create “zombie loyalists” – a vital army for a modern super-brand.
When examining modern super brands, it becomes clear that the power of a brand network is priceless, irreplaceable and completely core to the business success in the digitalized world. Having a great product is certainly important, but figuring out how to create an obsessive network around it is paramount. Independent of the price point, product type or distribution strategy, an engaged network will make sure to grow your brand for you if you promote authenticity, experience and autonomy.
Olga Pancenko is chief operating officer at luxury leather goods brand Perrin Paris. She is also on the advisory board of the CMO Council. While at British public relations firm Freuds, she advised Fortune 500 companies on their communications and marketing strategies. Companies consulted included Google, PepsiCo, BMW, Walmart and Burberry, among others.
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