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Severin Matusek: Brands Can Build Strong Communities, When They Are Patient

A talk on communities and retail brands at the Retail Futures Forum 2019

This April, Severin was invited to join the Retail Futures Forum, organized by The Future Laboratory in London. There, he had a conversation with creative researcher Rachael Stott, providing insight into how retail brands can build authentic communities. Below we’re sharing the edited transcript of their conversation.

Rachael — As a retail brand, what is the best way to build a community in an authentic way, without becoming contrived?

Severin — I think, first of all, we have to come to a common understanding of what we mean by communities. Community means so many different things to different people.

The big rise in community in the last 5-10 years owes mainly to the rise of social media. Suddenly every brand,every retailer and every company out there is like: we have to get on social media, we have to build a community. But I would say, in 90% of these cases, what brands define as communities are simply new channels of pushing news, products and services to people in wanted and unwanted ways.

My definition of community is participating around a shared purpose. These two things are key: purpose and participation. People have to participate with more than just liking or following stuff. They have to actually think whether there’s a financial transaction, or creative transaction, or sharing knowledge, or helping other people. That's the participatory part.

So to answer your question, I think there are great examples of brands having built very powerful communities. But the challenge I see often is that communities need to be built with a long-term goal. If you want to build a community for the sake of improving your Q4 results, it won't work. So a lot of brands who try to invest in communities can't do it in a sustainable way because there is a CEO or CMO who needs quarterly results, and if they don't get there within a year or whatever the goals are, they turn it off. That's not how community works.

R — So longevity is key to community. After you create a sense of purpose and get people on board, how do you keep up the momentum, the long-term brand engagement?

SA community has to provide value. There needs to be a reason why people are there, they need to get something out of it for themselves. So to sustain the longevity of a community, its purpose and the value it brings need to always renew themselves. Like, you never finish being part of the community. There's always a new goal to reach. For example, at my previous company [EyeEm]–which was kind of a competitor to Instagram, a photo platform where you share photos–we had been asking ourselves for many years: How do we differentiate ourselves from Instagram? Why are people here, why do people engage? And we realized at some point that the number one reason people were on the platform was because they wanted to improve their photography skills, they wanted to become better photographers. So what we did was to constantly create new formats like competitions, collaborations with brands, opportunities to get published or exhibited, all things that helped people with their goal of becoming better photographers. And because in real life you can never be the best photographer, the learning is a long journey, and that's why people kept being with us for years and years, because as they progressed their goals became bigger. So that's what I would strive for in building a community, finding that purpose that’s never fulfilled.

R — Big digital communities such as Facebook and Instagram have redefined how we connect globally. But have we now reached a saturation point on these platforms? Can they still cultivate community or have they lost touch?

S — I'm not a big fan of social media anymore. I don't want to dive too much into the whole techlash, why Facebook sucks, how it violates our privacy and so on. But I definitely think that we are at the peak of social media as we know it. We only see incremental changes now. 5-8 years ago, new platforms came up all the time, but now we have the big giants, they have the lion's share of the market. And yes, what they do is they capitalize on it and basically improve it for consumerism and not really for the value for the user. I don't think social media is going away anytime soon. As long as capitalism exists, social media will exist because it's still a hugely effective tool to reach people. That's where people hang out. Whether you like Instagram or not, you look at it five times a day at least, and that little advertising that's being pushed through, if it's at least relevant–thanks to the tons of data that they have about you–then it still works.

That being said, what we currently research with co-matter is something we call post social media, because we believe there are platforms coming up that will do things differently, and will also introduce new behaviors. I think we have become very accustomed to the like system, liking stuff to teach the algorithms. And I think new platforms coming up will need to respond more to user needs and behaviors, which include more mindful consumption of content, and a less spammy way of getting people’s attention.

R — Should community be commoditized? Is there something brands can do to add real value to communities, or should they just keep clear and not get involved?

S — A lot of people in our network actually think that brands can destroy communities, but I don't believe that. I think the are great examples of very successful communities behind which are commercial brands. One of the best brands that I think have built community and meaning in people's lives is Patagonia. Another example I'm a big fan of Red Bull Music Academy. A month ago they announced that they’re stopping, but Red Bull Music Academy is still an amazing example of a brand building a purposeful, sustainable community. Yadastar, the agency that invented Red Bull Music Academy, was given a lot of freedom in doing so for the past 20 years. It enabled Red Bull Music Academy to build up this amazing culture of supporting and empowering up-and-coming musicians.

This shows that a key challenge for brands is having to live with the fact that you’ll lose a lot of control. You have to be very transparent about your efforts and support your community in the long run. If you understand that, and if you can measure the value of your community in something else than reach and performance metrics–because these metrics don't work for communities–then you are in for something. But if you don't understand that, then I would urge you to back away, because it’s a lot of responsibility. If you build a community that creates meaning in people's lives, and they join and discover a passion for, let’s say, running or outdoor hiking or whatever, and then you shut it down, it will really suck for those people, and it will also damage your brand.

R — Within a retail business, which roles do you think are best fitted to build that genuine community? Is it the marketing team, sales assistants in the store, or dedicated brand ambassadors?

SIdeally, everyone in the company is a brand ambassador. I think many great brands cultivate that. If you look at Nike or Adidas, for the people who work there the brand is a big part of their identity. So a specific community is ideally part of the DNA of a company, but that’s hard to achieve. Organizationally, we often see that the community building role is within the marketing team, and my understanding of marketing is that this team should be the closest to the customers and advocate for them. So yes, I'd say community is probably best at home in the marketing team, but it needs to have a very strong support from leadership. If it’s all just: Hey, let's hire a community guy to build a community – that won't work.

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