Building brand foundations through opinion leaders and communities

Unless one wants to position the brand in a niche at the very high end, high market shares and sales will come from a mass market positioning. However, paradoxically in order to influence the mass of the market, the people less involved with the brand, the ‘switchers’, a brand must be carried by a smaller group of opinion leaders. Consumer behaviour relies too much on an individual approach to consumer choice, using the paradigm of a person deciding in a social vacuum. But everyone belongs to a network, a group, a tribe. Building a brand means getting closer to these groups, which are mediators of influence (see Figure below).

Proximity to opinion leaders

In all groups there are influencers, also called opinion leaders. The concept of opinion leadership is not new, but its significance has been hidden by an over-reliance on advertising. In fact, to build a brand one of the first questions to ask is, what group(s) will carry the brand? Here we do not speak of the market segment, but of the group(s) who will influence the market segment.

A brand alone cannot convince. It needs relayers, committed relayers. Modern taste makers belong to tribes: microethnic, cultural and geographical groups. These groups need proper identification and a programme of continuous direct relationship. They must experience the brand, its values, and eventually interact with it. The brand must understand them, and present itself as being on their sides, sharing the same values.

Who are these influencers? Who are the opinion leaders? The two concepts need to be distinguished. Recent research (Valette Florence, 2004) suggests that opinion leaders combine three necessary traits. They are perceived as experts, are endowed with charisma and have a desire to be different from others, and have a high social visibility. Not all experts are opinion leaders: they are influencers, as are salespeople or prescriptors.

Influencers can be professionals. Canson would not have succeeded without the close ties that it is permanently weaving with the teacher community. Pedigree (pet food) relies on professionals too. L’Oreal relies on hairdressers, La Roche Posay on dermatologists.

They can be hobbyists. T-fal, positioned as tools for the successful cuisine, develops ties with cookery schools and with all the professionals engaged in developing a high level of skill in cuisine.

They can be the persons most involved in the category: all consumers are not equal. Some are more involved, more interested in all that concerns, not the product itself, but the need. They read more, use the internet much more, participate in chats and forums. For instance, mothers with more children play an influencing role.

Opinion leaders are to be found in specific community groups. We stress the word ‘groups’ because one should now speak of trend-setting tribes. As a result, the goal is to interact not with a sum of individuals, but with preorganised groups, be they formal or informal. These groups can be met at specific places.

Groups are organised, so it is easier to organize events with them. Salomon is obsessed with increasing the level of interaction with surfer groups all around the world, for they are trendsetters. Absolut Vodka succeeded because it came to be available at all the parties of the New York gay community. Bombay Sapphire gin did the same in Los Angeles.

To reach these groups, direct contact is needed and virtual intimacy on the net is necessary. One does not create strong ties at a distance. The goal is show that the brand is becoming part of their world, by means of participating in occasions that show the brand and group share the same values, in some way or another. Eventually the brand should be creating these occasions.

Creating a hard core of ambassadors

As soon as the brand is launched the reflex must be of creating a hard core of supporters, involved in the brand. Clarins, a very small cosmetic company when it started in 1954, facing giants such as Estée Lauder and l’Oréal, was extremely innovative in that respect, but it went unnoticed up to the point when market research showed to its competitors that the small brand was getting bigger, and that it experienced a high rate of loyal and even fanatical clients: with each product there was an invitation to write to the company and to Mr Courtin, its founder. One-to-one and CRM were already there, far before these became ‘musts’ for management.

There are many frameworks that have shown how consumers can be segmented on a dimension of closeness of the relationship to the brand. Typical segments range from hell to paradise, with a mix of behavioural and emotional dimensions:

  1. Those consumers who dislike the brand, even hate it. It is really not part of their world.
  2. Those who are not consumers because they consider the brand is underperforming on a sought attribute.
  3. Those who simply are not consumers, without a specific reason (simply the brand has nothing salient to their eyes to induce trial).
  4. Those who would like to buy but cannot (no availability, no accessibility, price problem).
  5. Those who buy from time to time, switching between brands.
  6. Those who buy more often.
  7. Those buyers who are involved, engaged with the brand, its ambassadors.

As soon as the brand is launched everything must be done to create and identify consumers in segments 6 and 7, the heavy buyers and the involved consumers.

Asking for identification is a sure way to build the precious database that will enable the organisation to give VIP treatment to these forerunners: specific tips, a specific code number on the website, specific invitations, specific offers, PR events and online sales. There is another way of creating a hard core of supporters.

It can be summed up in one key phrase formulated 50 years ago by Paul Ricard: faites-vous un ami par jour (make a friend every day). Of course, this is easy to say if you happen to be – as Ricard was – the man who created what is now the world’s second-largest spirits group. But the phrase deserves closer examination:. He did not say ‘make a customer every day’, but ‘a friend’. Service, free gifts, responsiveness, personalised relationships, attentiveness and the sharing of enthusiasm at small and large gatherings alike are the rungs on this upward ladder.

Creating word of mouth, buzz

Status is not granted by oneself: it is given by opinion leaders, experts, and the press. Virgin, although it is one the very few brands known throughout the world, hardly spends a dime on advertising. However, everybody has heard of Virgin, or will hear about it. Paradoxically Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin galaxy, is not an extrovert. However, he knew that by seeking publicity he could avoid spending a lot money on advertising – money he did not have in any case.

Branson has become a man of public relations: he knows how to create events that will become widely broadcast and diffuse the buzz.

Consumer empowerment provides opportunity for bonding

Word of mouth should not however be seen as an alternative to advertising. Advertising is surely not dead. Brands have two feet: shared emotions and renewed products.

Advertising remains a fantastic tool to shape these common, shared imageries, or to create instant knowledge of an innovation. How can one create the buzz, this modern, fashionable word for word of mouth, or positive rumours (Kapferer, 1991, 2004)?

The first approach is to make plenty of time for the press and media. Naturally, it is a good idea to recruit a specialist agent, but journalists will be flattered to be welcomed by managers themselves. This is where the work of making friends should begin: it is crucially important to know how to assist a journalist (for whom, as we all know, time is in short supply).

We should also remember that everyone deserves attention, from the bigname television reporter to the freelancer from the small trade journal. The highpowered editor of the future is sure to be lurking among the dozens of freelancers you meet.

The second approach – which should become a discipline – is to do nothing without considering the press fallout. As the adage goes, every dollar you spend on public relations requires another to promote the fact. A buzz has to be activated and energised: it does not always start on its own.

The third approach is always to look for the difference and disruption in everything (Dru, 2002). It is said that in the world of PR, it has all been done before. This means that your job is to surprise, because surprise is what gets people talking.

This is why brands create their own events, engage in street marketing, tie up with celebrities, invest in sport or music sponsorship and so on.

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