What is a brand? For most consumers, the brands they know are signifiers. In their minds, each brand stands for something: specific products, the company itself, a particular feeling, a specific commercial, or even a personal experience or memory. Those associations are what influence us to take action, whether that’s talking about a brand, recommending something to a friend, or purchasing a product.
Brands that fortify or even generate cultural connections and facilitate community with their target audiences have a massive advantage over the competition. But it’s not easy: consumer behavior is always changing, and different people want different things from a brand.
That’s why we went straight to the master of marketing connection himself, University of Michigan’s Marcus Collins, to find out how brands can forge those powerful bonds with their most important customers—and how to leverage those connections to power real results for your business.
Culture drives decisions: the human need for community
Way way back when our species was just getting on its feet (literally), early human beings required a community to survive; defend against predators, gather food and eventually grow it, and stay warm in the winter.
In some ways, not much has changed: we may have come a long way since cave painting days, but our sense of shared culture and our need for community still affects everything we do, whether we’re trying to fit in by staying up-to-date with the latest clothing trends or looking to impress our friends (and rivals) with the latest piece of technology.
“I express my identity through my consumption, how we’re able to signal who we are in this world. And what happens with this consumption, be it conspicuous, be it through experiences or through services, we use it to demarcate who we are in the world as identity projects.”
But our need for community has gotten more complicated, mostly because of how far we have come. Our world gets more and more connected every day, and the free exchange of information and goods comes with an immense amount of cross-cultural pollination.
That exposure to new cultures and ideas makes us form new identities, and one way we express those new identities is through consumption: the things we buy, the clothes to wear, the cars we drive, and the phones in our pockets.
“Because we are social by nature, we seek out other people who subscribe to the same identity. And then a brand is no longer just an entity. It means something that is congruent with who we are.”
Our association with brands helps us signal who we are to the wider world; most importantly, it helps us connect with other people who share that culture.
Cultural alignment drives brand connection: finding your audience
If you can identify what your brand stands for and believes in and figure out how that aligns with your target audience’s cultural signifiers, you’ve just discovered a new kind of marketing rocket fuel.
“When there’s congruence between the meaning of the brand and what people believe, it creates tremendous opportunity for brands to fortify relationships that enable the brand to integrate into a community’s cultural practice.”
Culture isn’t some unchanging element; it’s not limited to where you come from or who raised you; it’s about who you are and who you consider part of your community. People form new communities every day: when HBO released House of the Dragon, the people who thought of it as must-see TV couldn’t wait to connect with other people who were watching to share their opinions (good, bad, and ugly) about the show. Voila: a new community was formed.
@brettybuckets Follow the lights 🤯 also this new show is awesome! #hotd #gameofthrones #GoT #houseofthedragon #nyc ♬ Main Title – From “Game Of Thrones” – London Music Works
Smart brands look to find those alignments so they can craft and curate communities around their products, but the best brands also understand that these communities aren’t just about the brand. They’re about human connection.
That’s why a two-way conversation between the brand and the community is so valuable; if your brand is inviting those customers to the table by both listening and responding to them, you’re earning a lot more than a single conversion. You’re creating a sense of co-ownership with your customers that you can then leverage to build an army of passionate advocates and evangelists that will spread the word about your brand far more effectively than any advertisement or campaign.
But that also means that you have to get specific about the audiences you’re trying to connect with if you want to build a deep sense of community and cultural alignment that will have a significant impact on your business. If you try to be everything to everyone, you won’t get the level of passion about your brand that acts as a true differentiator in the long run.
“We as marketers have to understand that we can’t market to everybody. I know we want to, but, based on what we know of human behavior, it’s when you focus on a very specific group of people that those people go do the converting for you.”
Building relationships takes time: the brand-audience connection
When it comes down to brass tacks, marketing is meant to do one thing: influence behavior. And there’s no force more influential in human behavior than culture, which is mediated by communities. You need to stop thinking about your customers like they’re points of data in a CRM—instead, think of them as human beings who reside in communities that use brands and products to represent their individual and shared identities.
In the era of performance marketing, efficiency has become a stand-in for effectiveness. But that can’t be the only factor in play if you want to maximize your brand’s potential. If you hit your ROAS targets every month but fail to capitalize on massive opportunities to drive transformational growth, you’re not making the right choices for the business as a whole. You’re stuck on a dangerously short-sighted path that will hurt your brand.
Building relationships is hard, it takes time, and there is no cheat code. That probably sounds daunting, but the reward is worth the investment. You’re meeting people at a human level, and just like friendships and relationships, it needs to build in a way that feels organic. You can’t force it. You have to earn it.
“Developing relationships requires a lot of time, a lot of investment, and a lot of trade-offs. But this is how they are built: through lightweight interactions over a period of time.”
That can only happen by continuously interacting, building out that two-way conversation with your audience, and leveraging what you learn about your audience. This includes their communities, cultures, and identities which you need to align with your brand to ensure your marketing is specific to your customers. That way they feel seen, spoken to, recognized, and represented.
Don’t be afraid to take some risks! Everything that’s mainstream now was once weird, or at least part of a subculture. Dig deep and learn the lexicon of your audience and their specific culture. If you get in early and start leveraging those cultural signifiers in ways that feel organic and make sense for your brand, your audience will recognize that your brand is part of their community for the long term.
You may think you’re selling a product, service, or experience, but you’re really selling a connection: with an identity, a community, a culture, and, of course, your brand. Your business can become the avatar for a real emotional experience for your customers. And that’s how you win customers for life.
Learn how to articulate the performance value of community and make the case for investing in connection with our full on-demand event with Marcus Collins.