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Brand: Building a Community of Lovers

My senior year of college, one of my professors took a group of us to Chicago for three weeks to visit all the “big” ad agencies and PR firms. Despite being a little intimidated, I remember one moment like it was yesterday; I was sitting in a high-rise building with floor to ceiling windows listening to a panel of Account Planners at J. Walter Thompson (JWT). They were telling a story about working on the Harley-Davidson brand. They laughed about spending their days drinking in bars with bikers and learning what made them tick.

To a college senior – terrified about the prospect of working long 8-5 days – the idea of getting paid to hang out in bars was inspiring in and of itself. But as I listened to them talk, the inspiration grew deeper. Immersing myself in places and with people that would challenge me, and maybe make me a bit uncomfortable was intriguing. Understanding people and why they do what they do and love what they love…I was hooked. It’s all I ever wanted to do. And, it’s still the one thing that drives me today.

That’s why last week, while attending a conference with other agency leaders and employees, I was re-inspired by the idea that as marketers, our one and only job is to connect with people.


Free Range Brands

Free Range Brands
Author of Free Range Brands, Nicole Ertas, presenting at the AMIN Integrated Conference.

Our independent network of agencies, AMIN, invited Nicole Ertas, author of Free Range Brands, to come and speak to our group of creatives, strategists, user experience experts and digital gurus.

Nicole, a long-time marketer for a variety of consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies, explained that most of her life she was indoctrinated into the idea that brand was about standing out – having a clearer, stronger, more powerful (and often louder) message in a sea of look-alike products and brands. And, often, she learned, brand was about control. Don’t change the logo. Keep repeating the message. Buy the most media. Have the best package design.

Today, however, Nicole recognizes what I think those planners at JWT recognized, and the passion they ignited in me. Brand, at its core, is about community. And, every brand holds the challenge of asking itself, “who are our people?”


Building a Brand Based on Community

I’m honored at Simantel to work on some of the hardest-working brands in our nation. And, it’s always inspiring to see that our clients’ brand values are often mirrored by the communities they serve. Contractors, miners, tradesmen of all types – they share one thing in common. A relentless desire to work hard, overcome adversity and take pride in what they have done.

What I recognize about this idea of “community” is that it isn’t about defining audiences or personas (although that’s important too). But rather, what Nicole is saying is to make brands excel today, we have to find the reason our brands’ communities exist. What do they have in common? And, why do they care? And, it’s highly likely that if we can tap into that camaraderie, that brand love will spread. Just as it does for Harley Davidson followers who believe in the battle cry, “Live Free or Die.” But even for Harley-Davidson, it’s not the message that makes the community believe, the message is simply a really powerful wrapper. Instead, this love happens on its own. And, in more organic and “real” ways than anything we can control as marketers.

Nicole also suggests there’s maybe not just one, but many communities – each loving the brand or its piece parts in different ways, for different reasons.

She likened brands to vines. While they still need strong roots, we have to let them grow where they will to truly find their way into the hearts and minds of the people they serve. She shared many examples of brands that simply let their communities evolve the brand – sometimes violating brand guidelines (gasp!) – allowing consumers to make brands their own. All the more important in today’s social environment.


4 Human Truths for Better Marketing

Nicole summarized her presentation at the AMIN Integrated Conference by noting the best brands understand and embrace four essential human truths:


We are Lovers. All of us are seeking an emotional connection with companies that share our values. As marketers, this part of branding isn’t optional. If we can’t solve for this, then we should probably stop here.

As a young marketer, I remember the thrill of finding “the nugget.” What’s a nugget? I didn’t know either. But, I quickly learned in the agency-world that a nugget is the one insight that succinctly defines the place where the brand’s values and the customer’s desires connect. It helps define where a brand is and where it wants to go. It’s aspirational; its transformative and it’s at this place where lovers begin.

And, this is still our job as creative thinkers. Find the nugget and tell the story in ways that grow and spread the love.


We are Lords. If we overcome the “lover” hurdle, Nicole suggests we all have a little “Lord” in us as well. A Lord, by definition, is someone who has power, authority or influence. And now, more than ever, having information and being “in the know” gives us an ego boost. Brands that tap into this human desire understand that giving their fans something special makes them bigger fans.

Whether it’s a secret product insight “teased” before a brand launch, or a simple useful piece of content that saves customers money – the brands we serve have communities that appreciate know-how. It’s our job as an agency partner to make that information useful and compelling – as only an agency can do.


We are Hackers. – People love to tinker, explore and experiment. It’s how most people learn. Brands that tap into this desire to “kick the tires” and offer full-scale ways to experience the brand – be it a store, a contest, a taste test or a free sample – are much more likely to be remembered.

The challenge is, marketers often forget this when building our big ideas. Break out of the “message” and “content” strategies – and disrupt someone’s life. Make them stop and think about the brand, and make it fun for God’s sake.

Related: Distruptive Marketing: The Hook vs. The Strategy


We are Hawks. – Each of us care deeply about a variety of causes, and we advocate for those things in our life that mirror our values. What brands should be asking is what causes do their communities care about? What would they shout from the rooftops on our behalf?

If this community is real, what would they do for us if armed with the right tools? This one might be scary, but if you let go just enough, they might make the brand something you think it’s not. Or maybe, just maybe, they’d take it somewhere you never thought possible. This takes bravery.


Taking a Risk

When I think about the best brand work Simantel has done, I think about conversations that were created with the customer.

For one, I think about the rap video that promoted a tractor. Why did it work, even though it pushed the boundaries of its own brand standards? Because the client understood that this community had admiration and tremendous pride in their “ride.” So, to be part of the conversation, we tapped into that love and gave them something to share. And it worked! The message resonated with the target audience, leading to greater engagement and an increase in website traffic. Our most successful clients are the ones willing to get out of their comfort zones and take a risk.

From here forward, I vow that when thinking about brand – I will think first about community. Because the one thing I know to be true is this: Companies don’t own brands, people own brands. We all gotta get a little bit more comfortable letting go.

Thanks for the reminder, Nicole.

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