When Wisconsin Cheese made the decision to activate at this year’s virtual SXSW festival, members of its brand community, Cheeselandia, were the first to know. As brand VIPs, they’re given special access to all kinds of events, promotions and products in return for their fervent devotion. But Cheeselandia isn’t a rewards program or a pay-to-play subscription model. It’s a group of passionate consumers that formed organically based on a shared love of all things Wisconsin Cheese. And it’s propelling the brand’s business forward.
“It wasn’t about having people click and join and say, ‘I love cheese,’ it was about finding the people who are your everyday influencers, people who are going to share recommendations with family and friends,” says Rachel Kerr, senior director-experiential and brand marketing at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “It might be through social media but it also might be through individual, in-person conversations, which we know are very impactful when it comes to transitioning people’s desires into actual purchases.”
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It’s a similar story for outdoor lifestyle footwear company Chaco and its brand community, Chaco Nation, which formed spontaneously around a love of the brand’s signature sandals. Chaco consistently leverages user-generated content from the community in its marketing efforts to deliver more authentic messaging. “It’s just more organic and more believable when we’re using people who are already wearing our products and are already talking about them,” says Katie Nguyen Huber, marketing manager at Chaco.
Indeed, brand communities have the power to lend credibility to a company’s marketing approach, amplify reach and dial up engagement, especially in this digital-heavy era of experiential marketing. But the puzzle pieces don’t fall into place overnight. To find out what it takes to manage and nurture a dedicated brand community, we asked Chaco and Wisconsin Cheese for their tips and insights.
Create a Rallying Cry
Brand communities generally start out as somewhat unorganized self-governing bodies. By creating structure around the community and helping to shape its direction, brands can begin to harness the group’s full potential and grow membership.
“When we first launched social media many moons ago, we quickly found that we had a really passionate following that was growing quickly and something that the followers really loved to be a part of,” says Jamie Kirby, marketing director at Chaco. “It just happened on its own. And we got to mold it and put some language around a rallying cry for it so that people within the community could identify as Chaco Nation.”
Start Small and Be Patient
Growing membership will take time, so don’t walk in with guns blazing. To expand Cheeselandia’s membership in the early stages, Wisconsin Cheese kicked things off with some grassroots efforts. The brand selected a few individuals to host at-home cheese parties for 10 of their friends, providing hosts with various cheeses, a cutting board, knives and other essentials for a night in, and arming them with in-depth product knowledge.
“Ultimately, they were building their connection with us as a brand, but also advocating for Wisconsin Cheese, learning about the cheeses and products that are coming out of the state,” says Kerr. “We were giving them information and the stories on the different cheesemakers—people are very tied to where their food is coming from and learning the story behind what they’re eating. They used that as social currency within their own small communities of friends and families.”
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Lean Into the Brand’s Unique Culture
Companies can grow community membership and elevate engagement by leaning into an “ownable” cultural characteristic that is unique to their brand. Members of Chaco Nation, for instance, are proud of the distinct tan lines the brand’s sandals create, so the company launched an annual Chaco Tan Contest.
“Last year we launched the tan competition around Labor Day, which is past our peak season, and we got the most engagement of the year during this timeframe because we were able to tap into that thing that our consumer wears like a badge of honor and give them a chance to show it off,” says Kirby. “Brands finding something that’s very ownable, that’s specific to their consumer and just building a contest around it, or a moment of excitement around it, is a great way to continue to raise awareness and grow the community.”
Be Consistent with Communications
Regularly communicating with and creating calls to action for brand communities is a must, but it’s critical that the brand’s voice and engagement approach remain consistent amid those efforts.
“We make sure that we have a guideline that we follow for how we will respond to people, and try, as best we can, to respond to everyone in a consistent way,” Kirby says. “Having a full-time consistent resource that is the voice of Chaco has been a great best practice for us that helps the consumer have their expectations managed of what they’re going to get when they interact with the Chaco brand.”
Support Community Connections
The thing about brand superfans is that they’re keen to compare notes and revel in their shared passion for the company and its products. It’s essential, then, that brands consistently provide a platform for community members to engage with one another. The solution? Events, of course. Pre-COVID, Cheeselandians met up at various sampling experiences executed by Wisconsin Cheese in regions with large concentrations of community members. But the pivot to virtual events has proven just as impactful in keeping the community connected.
“What has been so incredible over this past year is this has allowed us to connect our Cheeselandians in places that we couldn’t before,” Kerr says. “So where we would go to a specific city and hold a pop-up event that would attract people within a certain radius, in this case, we’re bringing people [together] from across the country… It really has proved to be a pandemic-proof marketing strategy.”