FieldNotes: When brand community is more valuable than growth
by Marguerite Coetzee. The Bo-Kaap’s heritage protection sheds light on trends of ethical consumption.
It’s often argued that one of the attributes making us human is that we have both consciousness and a conscience. We are capable of thinking, reasoning, and acting — of behaving as rational, autonomous and ethical beings. We’re familiar with the idea that individuals are shaped by the time and space they find themselves in. We know that our context provides us with social notions of responsibility, accountability, agency, and intentionality. In short: we are socialised to adhere to particular moral rules, actions and reasoning within our social context.
What happens, then, when individuals act within the context of an organisation? Can an organisation be moral? We could argue that morality here would be shaped by individual choice, environmental factors, and organisational structures. In industry terms, the concept we’re looking for is “brand community”.
Bo-Kaap is Cape Town’s cobble-stoned, vibrant-coloured, community-oriented neighbourhood and oldest suburb. What started out as rental homes for enslaved peoples was later transformed into a colourful expression of freedom. Today, the community faces challenges of eviction, gentrification, property development and advances by wealthy outsiders looking to relocate to a prime urban location.
Recently, protests were held in a call for the protection of this Heritage Site. With the rise of ethical consumption, we’re increasingly seeing corporations come under fire for their seemingly immoral and unethical behaviour. The community of Bo-Kaap is united by a strong bond, communal purpose and shared sense of belonging. Threats to this community appear to be organisations and corporate individuals lacking integrity.
Lesson 1: Build a brand community
It seems that “growth” remains the strongest word in the corporate dictionary. Companies constantly want more consumers to buy into what they are selling, but there is a limit to growth. Companies risk losing their existing community in their pursuit of others. The problem with focusing on an untapped market is that organisations chance losing those who already form part of their brand community. Sometimes, fostering existing loyalty is more valuable than chasing after uncertain growth.
In the case of the Bo-Kaap, enabling and empowering it to be sustainable, recognised, and respected is vital to the continuation of the community, as well as its meanings, values, history, and culture. Building a deeply rooted sense of connection is difficult to do in any context — sustaining an existing one is simpler.
“There’s a kinship among [people] who have sat by a dying fire and measured the worth of their life by it.” —William Golding, novelist.
Lesson 2: Conduct ethical business
We’ve all at some point come across the phrase “the triple bottom line”: people, planet, and profit. While it’s admirable to address these three areas of responsibility, there are several others that should be taken into consideration. Some of these include: environmental sustainability initiatives, philanthropic giving, ethical business practices, economic responsibility, legal dimension, and more.
It’s wise to respond to trends of ethical consumerism while upholding the values of the organisation. In conducting ethical businesses, it would instil a deep sense of responsibility towards the brand among its community. It’s through the brand community that its attitudes, meanings, behaviours and more are furthered.
“Morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits” —Ruth Benedict, anthropologist.
Lesson 3: Apply community-based solutions
Most marketing, advertising and business strategies aim to attain new customers and consumers. Alternatively, some brands are turning to community-based approaches in which they encourage their audience to be active participants in conversations and brand engagements. Traditional marketing tends to be one-sided and instructive, while a more-modern approach is non-intrusive and addresses the needs of existing community members.
Tips on how to conduct community-based marketing
“Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” —Niccolò Machiavelli, diplomat.
Marguerite Coetzee is an anthropologist, artist and futurist who provides research and insight services through Omniology. FieldNotes, the latest series in her regular column on MarkLives, captures experiences from the field, shares the cultural lessons learned, and advises on qualitative tools, methodologies and frameworks when exploring the world of the consumer.