How LEGO, Sephora, and The American Red Cross are Using Empathy to Drive Their Brand Communities

Jaime Netzer

Whether you’re an industry rookie or a seasoned Marketing veteran, you have probably developed a keen eye for differentiating good marketing strategies from great ones. It’s widely known that effective marketing strategies rely on a variety of business best practices, but what’s lesser known is that sitting at any strategy’s foundation is the ability to expand on your brand’s emotional intelligence — and use that empathy to build strong brand communities. Disengaged marketing that relies too heavily on riding the waves of current trends always falls flat, and that’s mainly because it lacks the vital human touch that today’s marketing strategies need. Consequently, brands who lack empathy often come across as superficial, insincere, and emotionally vacant. Social media continues to prove itself as one of the most important tools in a modern-day marketer’s repertoire: not only does it allow brands to combat these pitfalls, but it also gives brands the opportunity to fine-tune their emotional intelligence and consider the way people’s emotions operate independently and as a collective entity online through social listening.

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During this year’s Smart Social London event, Chief Strategy Officer of IBM Jeremy Weight explained the importance of reigniting your passion for marketing when he said, “The challenge is that most marketers have stopped doing the job that they loved, and they’ve come back to being analysts, they're publishing reports, and they're building dashboards. They forgot the thing that they fell in love with in the first place, which was building communities.” It is this kind of apathetic marketing that the industry needs to detach itself from, and Weight explained that the easiest way to do this is by investing time in building your brand’s community. When done correctly, the brilliance of branded communities is their ability to create a participatory experience for the customer. Instead of relying on overdone call-to-actions and perpetuating the ‘us-them’ relationship, authentic branded communities dissolve the boundaries and form a “we” experience — a community founded on exciting, engaging, and fulfilling end-to-end experiences.

Shaping a customer experience by being precise about the emotional connections you’re trying to build and investing in the touchpoints that drive these connections is a powerful way to increase customer value and maximize ROI while simultaneously decreasing risk. According to a Harvard Business Review article, “emotionally connected customers not only generate greater value but in every interaction become more and more convinced that “this company gets me.” Developing a sense of belonging and acceptance is key to building a strong brand community and is something many businesses are now starting to implement in their social-first strategies. Below are three brands who have invested in their brand’s emotional intelligence and used it to inform the aim of their end-to-end user experiences and build a sense of community. Even more on this topic is available in our Digital Customer Care Playbook.

1. Sephora

Sephora is certainly no stranger to inclusivity and the idea of community building. This has become evident with the debut of the company’s online community, BeautyTalk. The beauty forum encourages customers to ask questions about products, share their favorite makeup tips, and voice their opinion about the different products carried by the company. Likewise, Sephora’s Beauty Board offers customers another way to engage with products and other members of the community. Here, customers are given the opportunity to upload pictures of themselves featuring their favorite Sephora products. The nifty part about this is that the website automatically links the products featured in the image to the product page on Sephora’s website.

Sephora’s ingenious platform gives customers the opportunity to become brand ambassadors from the comfort of their own homes while also creating buzz about new products. It’s a marketer’s dream to cultivate a self-sustaining community like this one, and it’s a customers dream to be able to rely on a supportive community who shares the same values, lifestyles, and digital experiences.

2. Lego

Since it first launched in 1949, LEGO has been a brand committed to creativity and the diligent research of all things fun. With a mission statement that sets out to “Inspire and Develop the Future Builders of Tomorrow”, it is clear that they are a brand motivated by building a brand community and fostering a sense of encouragement and innovation within it. LEGO brilliantly encapsulated this idea with the development of their online community LEGO Ideas, which allows users to voice ideas for new LEGO products, enter exciting contests, and vote for their favorite ideas and designs.

Not only does the online community encourage customers to explore their creative side, it effortlessly generates brand buzz through the ability to share project ideas on social media. Furthermore, the site works to break down the stark divisions between company-customer relationship through their LEGO Review, which assigns a review board to choose which projects will reach fruition and become a bona fide LEGO product. This community doesn’t just keep brand excitement fresh — it also offers the company a treasure trove of accessible market data.

3. The American Red Cross

The American Red Cross has earned a legacy of value and dedication through 137 years of unprecedented community service. However, having such a long run can also prove to be a challenge; the brand must constantly find new ways to engage with their ever-changing customer base and adapt their market strategies to accommodate today’s current trends. So, how does a brand that was founded on the idea of community-building maintain momentum in the digital age? The answer is simple: through social media.

In a recent survey, forty members of the American Red Cross were interviewed to investigate the role social media plays in communicating with key publics. The results showed that investing in your brand’s PR through social media is both effective and necessary in today’s digital age, as shown through the Red Cross’ development of a two-way dialogue with younger constituents, the media, and the larger community. This dialogue was achieved by taking advantage of a variety of high-traffic social channels, like Facebook and Twitter.

Additionally, The American Red Cross and Dell recently launched a new Digital Operations Center devoted to humanitarian relief. The Digital Operations Center showcases the usefulness of social in emergency situations and will help expand upon the Red Cross’ ability to fully engage with the public during emergencies. Gail J. McGovern, CEO of the Red Cross, explains that “the use of social media during disasters has grown exponentially in recent years, and this partnership with Dell will enable us to better understand and anticipate disaster needs and help connect people with the resources they need during emergencies”. This case demonstrates how the Red Cross is taking advantage of social platforms to become a social liaison for people, families, and communities to support one another before, during, and after disaster strikes.

All three of these cases highlight the potential social media provides in building communities across a wide scope of business models. They also highlight how important it is to differentiate between creating an authentic online community, instead of simply engaging with fans. The tenets of a community constitute a group of people that have a common set of values and beliefs, that support each other and that lacks a hierarchical structure. Jeremy Weight states, “You compare that, a lot of the time, to what we're actually doing in marketing; it's super transactional and we're just trying to get the click and value the data, and we're trying to drive traffic. It feels, to me, like we've come a long way from what social was originally set up for”.

The main challenge marketers are presented with when building brand communities are finding the reason they fell in love with the industry in the first place; to bring people together. Community building is a powerful strategy, and if approached correctly, can positively affect customer loyalty, brand meanings, and can generate more creative ideas for how to grow a business. If a company invests time in their community-focused strategy, they can develop the levels of engagement and support that drive brand communities and receive significant returns.

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