Designing Brand Communities of Difference & Friction

Human beings – no matter their race, ethnicity, or religion – are united by a deep seated desire to be a part of a community, to belong. Yet for decades now, loneliness has been on the rise in the United States as Americans of all ages feel increasingly alienated from one another.

Researchers have pointed to the decline of public institutions where people gather and social clubs where people come together as well as our increasingly nomadic lifestyles and excessive screen time as the culprits. Yet, whatever the causes, one thing seems abundantly clear: We are in the midst of a belonging gap.

While you would think that social distancing and stay-at-home orders would add to this pervasive sense of isolation, a recent study published by the American Psychological Association called “The Trajectory of Loneliness in Response to COVID-19” showed that COVID-19 didn’t have much of an impact on survey respondents’ sense of loneliness. Instead, this pandemic may have suggested a salve for our solitude, and it doesn’t rely on institutions or the abolition of social media.

Rather, this might be a time for creative entrepreneurs, business owners, and genuine brands to step up – and to do so genuinely and not as a marketing ploy. 

Fostering Belonging through Brand Communities

Our longing to belong creates a huge opportunity for businesses to put people before profits and thereby transcend sales to cultivate lasting loyalty through brand communities.

According to a special report by Edelman on the impact of the coronavirus on brand trust, people look to brands for the sense of belonging – of acceptance – that is so lacking in our modern, digital culture. In their global survey, 83% of respondents said they expect brands to communicate empathy and support for the struggles their customers face. Meanwhile, 84% want brands to foster a sense of community through their messaging and offer support to people in need.

I’m watching numerous brands operate with integrity to bring different people together. Companies like Vodafone and Apple tapped into this longing early in the pandemic, releasing ads that highlighted their technology’s role in fulfilling our desire for togetherness, creativity, and collaboration even across vast distances. Similarly, the German supermarket chain Penny created an ad that spoke to the worldwide challenges of parenting through quarantine, yet underlined the unique opportunity this Great Pause has provided families to spend more time together.

But to cultivate a genuine sense of community is more than just celebrating shared experiences – it’s about welcoming differences and designing for friction.

Designing for Friction

We often seek belonging by matching like with like. In fact, psychologists call this tendency an affinity bias. Yet this kind of shared affinity and uniformity isn’t the same as true belonging. What could pull some of us together as a community isn’t our similar backgrounds or even a shared belief system. The brands that have successfully navigated this global crisis – and come out stronger for it – have recognized that the key to cultivating strong brand communities has nothing to do with uniformity or fitting in. It has to do with inviting diversity and advancing acceptance. 

Consider the Danish TV 2 station’s All That We Share promotion in January 2017 as attitudes of divisiveness spread around the globe. The voiceover begins,

“It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us and there’s them, the high earners and those just getting by. Those we trust and those we try to avoid. There are those we share something with and those we don’t share anything with.”

Why does this ad make my eyes sweat (as my mother would say) every time I watch it? Three reasons I can articulate:

  1. It gives me hope when a brand takes a thoughtful non-divisive stance – and when it’s delivered in a thoughtful, surprising way.
  2. It taps into my core yearning to connect with people on a real level who might not appear like me and who might have different beliefs, realities, and world views than me.
  3. I always cry when I see two divisive human beings reconcile or when the bad guy appears good. (You know, that Darth Vader moment when he finally connects to his son, Luke? Yeah, these are fundamental things stellar story makers know.)

Is it just me? I don’t think so. As mammals, we need to belong. We need touch.

Maybe your business, brand, or creative endeavor would do well to consider how you facilitate this core hunger to belong amidst differences. Is there an opportunity for your businesses, organization, or creative endeavor to fill the void? And if so, how do we design for belonging in brand communities?

As Airbnb’s head of design Steve Selzer suggests in his 99U talk, we design for friction. 

It seems counterintuitive but if you design services and products only for ease and convenience, then you perpetuate a culture of no friction. Of all ease. No challenge. No growth. No quest. 

Think of the sedate yet dystopian future portrayed in the film Wall-E, where humans jet about in sofa chairs eating junk food and watching TV all day. As Sebastian Junger – author of the book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging – puts it, “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.”

On the other hand, when you design for friction, you design to bring people with different points of view together and to help them work through those differences.

And when you design for friction and when you or your brand take bold stances that contribute meaning to our culture, it’s vital you not go it alone. It’s vital you find peers doing likewise who can support you, question you for the better, and give you perspective.

So, the ultimate question: How do you find belonging?

Workplace: Could you seek out someone who is not an obvious “like” and have a face-to-face lunch break conversation?

Collaborate: If you have friction at times with someone on your team, how can you regard those differences as valuable and complementary and work through them genuinely?

Creative Packs:  How can you gather a few people who are on a similar mission or working on their own big ideas and projects? How could you form your own Creative Pack to run together, bounce off ideas, and keep howling for one another? Best to find people who don’t think exactly like you.

In short, foster wonder in the space between us. If we’re going to thrive as a human species that still operates within these business systems, then let’s take these times as an opportunity to reimagine our roles – even if it’s building communities of true belonging.

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