Online communities are becoming “places” of belonging, information, and emotional support that people cannot do without. These social groups have a real existence for their participants, and thus have consequential effects on many aspects of behaviour. This article examines collective value creation and empowerment in an online brand community. It presents the main features of an online brand community, the process of value co-creation, and motivators for participating in online brand communities. These key factors jointly characterize collective value creation and empowerment. This netnographic study focuses on an online brand community called BrickBuilders, which is a meeting place for LEGO builders in Finland. BrickBuilders’ members feel a sense of belonging, they share similar motivations, and they create value together. Introduction
A brand community can be formed by any group of people who share a common interest in a specific brand and who create a parallel social universe rife with its own myths, values, rituals, vocabulary, and hierarchy (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001; Cova and Pace, 2006). Brand communities become more than a place. They become a common understanding of a shared identity, which can be found in both face-to-face interactions and in cyberspace (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001).
Analysts no longer question whether the concept of community should have a place in the domain of marketing (Cova and Pace, 2006). However, the concepts of brand community and online brand community are relatively new and have yet to find their place in the academic world.
Traditionally, companies produced products relatively independently. Today, consumers and other stakeholders can create value more collectively. The purpose of this article is to describe and analyze collective value creation and empowerment in an online brand community.
Main Features of Online Brand Communities
Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) used three constructs to identify the distinguishing features of brand communities. First, a sense of belonging is a connection that members feel toward one another and the collective sense of difference from others outside of the community.
The second feature is the presence of shared rituals and traditions that surround the brand. Rituals and traditions perpetuate the community’s shared history, culture, and consciousness. Traditions include certain behavioural norms and values.
The third feature is a sense of moral responsibility, which is a felt sense of duty or obligation to the community. The sense of moral responsibility is what produces collective action.
Heinonen and Halonen (2007) have identified motivators for online brand community activities. Members want to belong to something, build and strengthen their identities, get feedback from others, and create something new.
The Process of Collective Value Creation
Schau and colleagues (2009) have identified the process of value co-creation in online brand communities. The process consists of four thematic practices, which are social networking, impression management, community engagement, and brand use.
Social networking is a practice that focuses on creating, enhancing, and sustaining ties among brand community members. These include welcoming, empathizing, and governing. These practices operate primarily in the intangible domain of the emotions and reinforce the social or moral bonds within the community.
Impression management includes evangelizing and justifying. Online brand community members act as altruistic emissaries and ambassadors of good will. Members devote time and effort to the brand, share the news of the brand, and inspire others to participate in the community.
Community-engagement practices are those that reinforce members’ escalating engagement with the brand community. These include staking, milestoning, badging, and documenting. Staking, milestoning, and badging mean that community members bring out brand experiences and proclaim openly that they are fans of a particular brand. Documenting occurs when brand community members construct a narrative of their brand experiences.
Brand-use practices are specifically related to improved or enhanced use of the focal brand. These include grooming, customizing, and commoditizing. Grooming means that members share, for example, homemade tools and advice. Customizing means modifying existing ideas and discovering new ideas, which result in customized products. Commoditizing means that members rant or chastise some products, but at the same time, they have new ideas on how those products could be developed.
Synthesis of the Theoretical Framework
The main features of online brand communities, value co-creation, and motivators for participating in online brand communities (Heinonen and Halonen, 2007; Kozinets, 2010; Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001; Schau et al., 2009) are the key factors that jointly – realized in various combinations – characterize collective value creation and empowerment in an online brand community. The collective value creation and empowerment in the online brand community may occur when its members have a sense of belonging, they create value together, and they have similar motives.
The collective value creation and empowerment of the online brand community allows mutual interaction between the online brand community and the company as well as other stakeholders. Companies have an opportunity to communicate with consumers and influence their opinions (Kozinets, 2010) and vice-versa. We have moved away from one-way transactions to a relationship-based interaction model that emphasizes consumers’ and other stakeholders’ roles in networks and communities.