A Special Brand of Wisdom

Thomas O'Guinn, Professor of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business
Thomas O'Guinn, Professor of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business

When Thomas O’Guinn, professor of marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, and his co-author Albert Muñiz, professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago, published their paper “Brand Communities” in 2001, several companies called to share their enthusiasm for the ideas they put forth. The first one was Apple.

“At the time, Apple’s marketing was in direct opposition to Microsoft and Intel, who were trying to capture the corporate market,” says O’Guinn. “Their slogan was ‘a computer for the rest of us,’ and they evoked icons of radical thought like John Lennon and Albert Einstein. They were trying to create a world around their products so that their consumers didn’t just own something, they believed in something.”

Using O’Guinn’s and Muñiz’s insights as a springboard, Apple created a tight-knit brand community that has forever changed the way marketing professionals understand the relationship between consumers and brands.

People don’t think about brands in isolation. They think about brands in relationship to their friends, their families, and their communities.

— Thomas O’Guinn Professor of Marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business

A pivotal point in marketing history

“Brand Communities” was published at a time when the marketing industry did business very differently. Marketers dictated the particulars of a brand—they brainstormed and conceived a message, determined a product’s market position, and then delivered it to consumers using a variety of tactics and channels. The Internet was just beginning to change these entrenched dynamics of the brand-consumer relationship by giving consumers a voice in the brand conversation.

“We were writing at the dawn of social media,” says O’Guinn. “Everyone was using the word social to describe the way brands and consumers talk to each other, and we decided to explore not only the conversations between brands and individual consumers, but also the conversations consumers had with each other and their implications.”

O’Guinn and Muñiz articulated for the first time the importance of social acceptance to the purchasers of certain branded merchandise. The first example cited in their paper was the Harley-Davidson brand community. Research had found that Harley consumers were so passionate about the product that their devotion had created a subculture—a community complete with values, rituals, and a shared personal philosophy of being an “outsider.”

This community was not taking cues or marching orders from Harley-Davidson’s corporate headquarters; it was born out of the shared interests and social interactions of like-minded consumers.

The implications of this research heralded a permanent shift in the way companies involve consumers in the co-creation of brands.

One of the
most-cited articles
in the fields of economics and business worldwide

Thought-leading, forward-thinking research

Last fall, O’Guinn and Muñiz received a major industry honor—the Long-Term Contribution Award from the Journal of Consumer Research, which recognized the impact their ideas have had on the marketplace over the last 13 years.

“The paper was recognized not so much for the idea of brand community, but for what was underneath it,” O’Guinn says. “It was one of the first papers to come out and say that we have had a constrained view of what brands are. Prior to that, the academic field and industry studied the relationships between the brand and a single consumer, which doesn’t really exist. People don’t think about brands in isolation—they live in a social universe. They think about brands in relationship to their friends, their families, and their communities.”

Of the hundreds of articles published in the Journal of Consumer Research over the past 40 years, only five—including O’Guinn’s—have received the revered Long-Term Contribution Award. His research article is one of the 20 most-cited articles in the fields of economics and business worldwide, with more than 3,000 Google Scholar citations to date.

Delving deeper into the world of brands

The “Brand Communities” paper introduced the possibility that together, brands and consumers could create an alternate reality associated with a brand—an idealized version of reality built on the brand values and brought to life by consumers.

This idea of creating alternate realities that augment the brand experience—the idea that got key players at Apple so excited in 2001— is the idea that O’Guinn is exploring in-depth in his latest research, under the working title “BrandsWorld(s).” With a new co-author, Meredith Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate in marketing at the Wisconsin School of Business, he is attempting to uncover how the world’s biggest brands are able to change the way consumers see the world.

“Take Coca-Cola,” says O’Guinn. “You know what Coke means because their appeal has always been communal. For the past 30 to 40 years, their brand has been about community, and their ads are about creating a space where people get together and have a Coke. They’ve created a world around them that’s different than reality, but not too different. Just better. It’s all about social context, all about harmony.”

Does this mean that every brand needs to create an alternate reality to launch a successful marketing campaign? Nothing that elaborate, according to O’Guinn.

“Just think about how your brand is woven into the lives of your consumers,” O’Guinn says. “Think about how they use your product to negotiate their lives and find meaning in what they do. Maybe it’s just familiarity, constancy. The more ties you can find to your consumer’s life, the better your brand is.”

Read Professor O’Guinn’s paper, “Brand Communities,” on the Journal of Consumer Research website.

Brand Communities

Class Notes

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