There are brands and then there are affinity brands.
The difference? Community.
You don’t just experience an affinity brand. Your identity is enmeshed with it. You are a proud member of the club.
“Cult Brands aren’t just companies with products or services to sell,” says BJ Bueno, co-author of The Power of Cult Branding: How 9 Magnetic Brands Turned Customers into Loyal Followers. “To many of their followers, they are a living, breathing surrogate family filled with like-minded individuals.”
Few brands exemplify affinity branding as well as Patagonia.
Patagonia makes outdoor apparel for climbing, surfing, skiing, and other low-impact sports. Its clothes are renown for their durability and performance.
But at Patagonia, it’s not about the clothes — which is characteristic of affinity brands. Selling apparel at Patagonia is practically an afterthought. Or so it seems.
Instead, affinity brands build a community of diehard evangelists around a common cause or set of values.
Patagonia’s cause began with its founder, Yvon Chouinard.
Chouinard, a rock climber and surfer, got his start making tools for climbers. Around 1970, he became aware that steel pitons were causing significant damage to rock-climbing surfaces. Inspired, he developed new alternatives and introduced a style of climbing called “clean climbing.” The result: his innovations revolutionized climbing, despite destroying the sales of pitons which accounted for 70% of his income.
Planet first. Company second.
“What is it that we all so love about the experience of being in raw nature?” Chouinard asks. “And having known raw nature, don’t we have an obligation to protect it?”
At Patagonia, protecting it is the priority.
In 1986, Chouinard committed the company to environmental activism and paid employees to work on local community projects. In 1994, Patagonia switched to using pesticide-free (organically-grown) cotton as well as recycled polyester in its clothing. Always planet first.
Today, the scale of Patagonia’s commitment is impressive. The environmentalism page of its web site lists its numerous initiatives, including Conservacion Patagonica, working toward the creation of Patagonia National Park; The Conservation Alliance, encouraging companies in the outdoor industry to support environmental organizations; 1% For The Planet encouraging all businesses to donate at least 1% of their annual net revenues to the environment, and more.
Through its Common Threads Recycling Program, Patagonia uses a fiber-to-fiber system to make new garments from old.
“For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them.”
How do brands create affinity?
“Brand communities exhibit three traditional markers of community,” according to Thomas O’Guinn and Albert Muniz in “Brand Community,” a 2001 article published in the Journal of Consumer Research. “Shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility.”
All are present within the Patagonia community.
Company “ambassadors” share knowledge and experiences from the field on its blog The Cleanest Line, its own video channel The Tin Shed, and its YouTube channel. Outdoor enthusiasts and preservationists connect on Facebook and Twitter.
True, there’s a big difference between summiting Everest and wearing a Patagonia hoody to the park. But an affinity brand allows one to participate in the common cause. As Patagonia says, “Reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature.”
Which other brands inspire community?