It turns out it was never about the roast beef and pie.
I spent two summers cutting grass, painting pipes and burying dead gophers out on the industrial end of town.
On Fridays, my grandfather would pull up in his Volkswagen Rabbit and we’d go out for lunch. We’d drive past McDonald’s and KFC and head over to the Royal Canadian Legion branch a few blocks from my grandfather’s house.
The legion served a roast beef feast with a mountain of mashed potatoes, gravy by the gallon, a side salad smothered in Italian dressing and a wedge of pie. My grandfather would smuggle back an extra dessert. I was a growing boy who apparently needed to eat half a pie for lunch – three quarters if my grandfather didn’t have room for his dessert.
I was always the youngest one in the dining hall. Yet I was likely older than all the veterans when they went overseas to fight in World War II and went years without eating a roast beef lunch.
No one traded war stories during lunch. The veterans sat alone and ate in silence. It was as quiet as a library.
Yet for the veterans and my grandfather, this was a community. What they’d seen, done and survived forged a bond. They needed each other’s company.
Everyone longs to belong, says Mark Schaefer, marketing expert and author of Belonging to the Brand.
Smart companies, organizations and entrepreneurs are figuring out how to satisfy that longing. Their move to a community-based business model is rewriting the rules of marketing.
“Helping a person belong to something represents the ultimate marketing achievement. If a customer opts-in to an engaging, supportive and relevant brand community, we no longer need to lure them into our orbit with ads and search engine optimization, right? What we used to consider marketing is essentially over.”
Community was the first and is now the last great marketing strategy, says Schaefer. “It’s the only marketing strategy people really want. Intellectually, psychologically and emotionally, customers need it.
“A customer committed to a relevant brand community doesn’t require any further convincing, coupons or coaxing to love us. They’ve become an engaged advocate for our brand, sustained through the purpose they find through our community. Moving customers from follower to audience to community is a process they will actually embrace!”
There are three distinguishing features of a community, says Schaefer. Members have a connection to each other. They have a shared reason for belonging to the community. And the community has relevance to their lives. “A community will dissolve if its purpose becomes irrelevant,” says Schaefer.
Most brand communities – upwards of 70 per cent – fail, says Schaefer. Why the high mortality rate? Companies confuse community members with customers, they sell instead of share, they talk at instead of with members and they refuse to give up control. Companies also waste big money building their own online communities that no one visits. Use Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, Twitter Chats, Discord, Reddit or other popular community destinations instead, advises Schaefer.
Schaefer includes case studies and entire chapters on thriving brand communities, including Dana Malstaff’s Boss Mom community. It’s a community for women who want to start a business and a family. Malstaff built Boss Mom into a half-million dollar business in the span of a couple years, with no sales or marketing team. “That’s worth repeating,” says Schaefer. “Dana’s marketing budget is zero. She runs no ads. There are no sales promotions. She had reached a six-figure salary in her first eight months, and at that point her business had more than doubled every year.”
And then there are the brand community juggernauts, like Sephora’s Beauty Insider with nearly six million members. IKEA, Lego, Harley Davidson and Nike are other companies that have created hugely successful brand communities that meet online and off, discussing, reviewing and co-creating new products.
So if anyone longs to belong to a community that shares an interest in reading, writing and reviewing business books, let’s talk. Discussions over slices of pie would be an added bonus.
Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.