The c-word

21 July 2022
Authors Matt Hay

Is your brand guilty of community-washing?

4 min read
4 min read

Some entrepreneurs have a problem describing what their companies do. WeWork founder Adam Neumann rented out desk space and claimed his mission was to ‘elevate the world’s consciousness’. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says his platform is less about selling ads and more about ‘bringing the world closer together’. AirBnb’s founder Brian Cheskey wants to create a world where ‘anyone can belong anywhere’. Seaside town residents priced out by holiday homes might baulk at this. 

There’s a theme here. Many companies are guilty of exaggerating how much they do for society, or how deeply they care about community when the real priority is growth or turning a profit. At Bulbshare, we call this ‘community-washing’. 

Communities are customers - but much more

A company that resonates with an interconnected community, rather than a nebulous set of customers is an attractive prospect when you’re building a brand. The nuances are important. 

The term ‘customer’ implies a transactional relationship. It’s impersonal and there might not intuitively be anything to knit together those who buy the same toothpaste, newspaper or smartphone. 

When brand managers start talking up ‘community’, one thinks about companies that stir up a deep level of fervour. Brands like Rapha, which makes cycling apparel, streetwear brand Supreme, or Apple in the late noughties. 

Brands that authentically make a claim to have a captive community always start with niche and minor interest tribes. These then broaden out into wider appeal. Communities make commercial sense too – brands like the above tend to have a more loyal (and lucrative) following. 

Crucially, communities share more than just a love of the brand or activity that’s associated with it - deeper associations run into ideals, beliefs, and behaviours. 

Collaboration makes communities

Just like greenwashing, community-washing is about obscuring your company’s more rapacious tendencies by emphasising the community-centric stuff you do on the surface. But there are ways to avoid it and ensure that your company actually serves communities, strengthens ties between people and transcends transactional relationships with customers. 

A great example of this in recent years is peer-to-peer social commerce company Depop. While the business model is designed to be mutually beneficial to sellers and the owners of the platform, the way it markets through the community is smart and authentic. For Black History Month in 2020, it started an ongoing effort to genuinely champion black users of the platform and members of staff. Rather than letting the initiative lose steam, it made Black on Depop an ongoing component of the brand. Here’s the take-out: create a tangible benefit to peoples’ lives, and the community you crave will follow organically. 

Create an ownable brand

Depop shows that the most effective way for brands to put communities where it matters is to involve them. Especially where the big decisions are concerned. Crowdcube, for instance, is a funding platform that helps growth-stage companies to turn customers into investors. It’s done this for brands including banking app Monzo and car dealer CarWow. This is a savvy way to generate fandom by giving early sign-ups a chance to take a sliver of the brand’s value. 

According to Bulbshare’s own global community, this is in line with what customers want – 88% told us they want to be included in the decisions brands make, 76% said they enjoy helping product development processes, and 86% said that products developed using consumer collaboration were better. 

Selflessness sells

Brands can demonstrate loyalty to communities (and their own notions of it), by alleviating stress when times are hard. While the cost-of-living crisis rages on, researchers fear that in the months to come, some might not be able to afford essential healthcare items in the face of spiralling costs. UK retailer Boots has come up with a refreshingly simple response – locking in prices of toiletries and dental care until the end of the year. With costs spiralling upwards, shielding your community from inflation might be the kindest thing you can do for them right now. 

Bulbshare data:

1,000 participants: UK sample, non-representative 

22% 16-25 year olds

61% 26-50 year olds

16% 51+. 

2% NonBinary

35% Male

63% Female  

Survey conducted 18.05.2022 - 17.06.2022. 

Multi-media survey questions including multiple-choice, AB, and open text.

Matt Hay
Founder and CEO at Bulbshare