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Building Stronger Brands through Online Communities



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The word "Community" seems set to take over from "Relationship" as the marketing buzz-word of the late 1990s, judging by the number of times it has been recently mentioned in the marketing press. Much of this interest has stemmed from the Internet, and the "community-brands" such as Geocities and Tripod. There has also been some talk of consumer product brand on-line communities. For example, even pantyhose brand L'Eggs, owned by Sara Lee, is reported as trying to build an on-line community for itself. The desire to create branded communities raises many questions to do with commercial corporate objectives, their implementation, and issues to do with consumers' willingness to participate. "Is there," asks Nessim Watson, "some power to be had in claiming a word like "community"?" . If there is, and brands can harness it, will their communities reinforce the brands, or will they unlock a Pandora's Box? In this paper we explore whether the mixed reception of brand relationship building to date, can be retrieved by a strategy of investing in brand based on-line communities. Such a strategy requires focusing on a different model of communication to that traditionally followed by brand owners. It exploits the interactive potential of the Web to stimulate between-customer relationships as a foundation for on-line communities based around consumer product brands. We examine the lessons which have been learned from studying early developments in virtual communities, and the strategic implications which follow for any brand owner wishing to pursue such a brand community based strategy. A new organizational skill set for brand strategists is proposed.

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