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The Best Brands Are The Ones That Build “Belonging”

Companies that can help their customers remake the social fabric have an enormous opportunity.

The Best Brands Are The Ones That Build “Belonging”
[Photo: Apple]

Early one morning last week a group of about 50 people gathered in Santa Monica shortly after sunrise, before any stores or offices were open. Some of this group knew each other, and others met for the first time. Everyone was wearing clothes that clearly indicated this group belonged together. Coffee and conversation started.

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In previous eras, this gathering could have been convened by a faith group, neighborhood association, or trade union. But this was the Rapha Cycle Club (RCC), a membership organization grown around Rapha’s cycle apparel business. The RCC has all the hallmarks of traditional community groups: rituals, local organizers, chapters and clubhouses around the world, symbols, shared identity, and social activities. There’s also a code of conduct that creates the conditions for respect and decency between diverse members:

RCC members will uphold good riding etiquette and camaraderie and abide by the Rapha/RCC ride etiquette rules. Members will greet other riders on the road, wait for dropped riders, and help those in need.
— Rapha Cycle Club, Code of Conduct

If you choose to, you can ride with RCC members 20 or more times each week in your city and travel the world for RCC summits and retreats. You can attend art shows, film screenings, expert talks, and local tours. This is not the light “community” that brands often speak of when referring to their customers or social media following–this is real, in-person commitment and engagement. And this is not a sideshow to Rapha’s business. It’s core to its business strategy–its spaces are clubhouses not stores, and people are members not customers.

Why would a for-profit brand put so much work into building belonging? The simple answer is because of the deep brand loyalty it engenders and the commercial opportunities it creates.

The longer answer is: The commercial opportunity exists because we need belonging at a fundamental level . We have a crisis of belonging–and great brands will step into the vacuum created by social isolation.

Connected But Alone

A while ago I heard Sherry Turkle, a social studies professor at MIT, talk of us becoming “connected but alone,” or Alone Together. And then David Brooks’s assertion that social isolation may be “the central challenge of our era” really struck me.

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Really? More than climate change, failing education, broken politics, twinned obesity, and hunger epidemics and all the other things we could consider the central challenge of the era?

So I started looking at social isolation more. Here are things I found:

Tribal Connections

Ironically, technology is playing a role in this disconnection, as we’re replacing deep, emotion-driving in-person relationships with superficial online relationships.

“We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding–tribes.This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.

“Whatever the technological advances of modern society – and they’re nearly miraculous – the individualized lifestyles those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”
– Sebastian Junger, Tribe

But this is not a story all about technology. By some measures, social trust peaked in the late ’60s, and Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone traced the decline in civic and social participation in 1995 ,  long before social media platforms started engineering our attention. Participation in organized religions–traditionally responsible for weaving the social fabric–has consistently declined, especially for younger people.
The impact of this social disconnection is severe. From being able to care for our elderly or our young, to tackling giant challenges like climate change, mental health, or physical health, community health is fundamental.

Sebastian Junger, the war correspondent, identified diminished social bonds and shared purpose as the driving force of increased incidences of PTSD. In his book, Tribe, Junger recounts the work of Charles Fritz, an observer employed by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey to assess the morale of British civilians during and after the Blitz in World War II. What he found was not social chaos, but a “community of sufferers” more tightly bonded than before–“mentally healthy conditions.” “Self interest gets subsumed into group interest,” as Junger puts it.

Reweaving the social fabric is of critical importance, to us individually (we’re much happier when part of something good) and collectively.

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[Photo: Starbucks]

How We Gather

Many nonprofit organizations are stepping into this void–some of which are covered in a report from the Harvard Divinity School’s report called How We Gather. The Dinner Party, for example, connects diverse people around the dinner table to transform our deepest struggles into opportunities for growth.

And some for-profit brands are identifying this opportunity. Thinking beyond “customers,” “fans,” or “followers,” the next frontier for great brands is stepping into the cultural need and market opportunity for deeper, real-world person-to-person connection.

Rapha’s RCC is one example; others actively building tribe (in different ways) include Crossfit, SoulCycle, Sofar Sounds<,OfferUp, Starbucks, and Summit. Apple has made strides in this direction, revising the concept of its stores into "Town Squares,” complete with communal spaces and a host of classes that enable people to gather in different ways, such as Photo Walks where people learn photography techniques together while exploring their city.

Those companies that help us forge meaningful connections will win deep loyalty. And this needs to go beyond premium brands. If belonging can be built around apparel and technology companies, surely it can also be built around learning, parenthood, food, and health.

Companies should not just think about building belonging with customers, but also with employees. In the U.S., 70% of workers are disengaged in their work (not involved, enthusiastic, or committed), and globally the number is even higher: 87%. Nando’s, the global restaurant chain, has five values, the last of which reads “and most of all, family.” To realize this value, employees gather for dinner together on Sundays and holidays, often bringing their “other families” to meet each other.

An Apple “Town Square.” [Photo: Apple]

How Brands Can Build Belonging

Most of the thinking about brand-led community building focuses on what could be described as “fandom”– people loosely aggregated around a brand. The brand is the hero, and people mostly interact with the brand, rather than with each other.

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What’s needed are initiatives that truly combat social isolation with enhanced belonging.

“If you want to make a society work, then you don’t keep underscoring the places where you’re different – you underscore your shared humanity”

—Rachel Yehuda, Mount Sinai Hospital, from Junger’s Tribe

Brené Brown, the acclaimed research professor, focuses on how to combat a “spiritual crisis of disconnection” in her new book, Braving the Wilderness. Her four principles of building belonging are:

  • Make contact with people you disagree with.
  • Share collective joy and pain.
  • Speak up (nicely) when you disagree.
  • Embrace the paradox (those with a strong sense of belonging often demonstrate a mix of traits, such as the courage to stand alone, while also being engaged in a group).

Although there are some examples of highly engaged communities being developed via technology (e.g., Peloton riders), when it comes to belonging, real connection will most likely come from in-person interaction in real life. But having physical space is not enough: Brands should create spaces, experiences, products, and services that deliberately foster the conditions for diverse people coming together in respectful environments for shared experiences.

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About the author

Sebastian is the co-founder of enso.

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