Researchers Ke Guan and Florian Kohlbacher from the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou look at trends in consumer sentiment among China’s online community users, and the ensuing business opportunities for marketers who target them properly.
Brand loyalty has long been the Holy Grail for marketers aiming for long-term market share and profit. Building customer community through joint action by marketers and
consumers together is proving to be a new way of getting there, and in China that now usually means WeChat.
The creation of “brand communities” has become the focus of the marketing field and is reflected in many big companies’ marketing strategies. Communities help to enhance consumer buy-in and encourage consumers to gain a a sense of ownership in the growth of the brand. With the speedy development of the Internet, the idea of brands building consumer communities online is an increasingly accepted idea.
The identities, thoughts, emotions, values and beliefs that constitute an individual affect people in terms all aspects, from their appearance to their behavior. Identity in terms of a brand community means the role a consumer plays or the category label that a consumer self-associates with. Many marketers show particular interest in identity because they can better target consumers by studying the components of consumers’ identities. In addition, community engagement increases when consumers construct communal identities, which also indirectly helps a brand to grow. Communal identity, which is defined in terms of brand communities, can be constructed by cognitive, evaluative and emotional components, which mean self-awareness in enrollment within the community, group-self esteem and feelings of emotional involvement.
Online expression of identity shows how people express themselves when they select, organize and present information, conveying their identity to others, which gives an opportunity to learn identity construction. In reality, this is a new era of self-portraiture as blogs and web pages have led to a greater level of self-reflection. Social media such as Facebook, WeChat and Forum are developing fast and play an increasingly pivotal role in promoting products as they provide platforms for users to interact, communicate and participate in creating content to express themselves, thereby also reshaping social relations.
Changes in Social Values
In China, social values are shifting dramatically as a consequence of economic progress. People’s levels of prosperity, individualism and hedonism are on the rise. Materialistic Chinese people increasingly express their feelings towards consumer goods in the social media era and social media continually reshapes Chinese values. Chinese brands have also been developing fast in the past few years. Brand communities, as a new way to create consumer loyalty, is valuable for Chinese marketers. Thus, understanding the identity construction and expression are important. Yet marketers still struggle to understand what identities the Chinese online brand community members have and how they express them.
A Chinese Pioneer
Xiaomi is a brand making effective use of online brand community marketing. Established in April, 2010, Beijing Xiaomi Technology Company Limited has attracted extraordinary attention from the cellphone technology industry not only because of its founder, Lei Jun, but also because of its sales volume that came to 7.1 million sets in 2015, winning first place among domestic cellphone brands, while its revenues amounted to 78 billion RMB, up 5%[??] compared to 2014. In 2016, Xiaomi Company is still developIng steadily with 1.48 million sales in the first quarter. Using a online outlet store-free model with no dedicated shops, Xiaomi has gained the benefit of a new media era.
“Born for enthusiasm” is the brand concept and behind the large sales figures, as the company is very successful in fostering a fans culture. Its fans, self-proclaimed as “MI fans” which sounds like mifen (米粉rice noodle) in Chinese, have become an important force making the Xiaomi brand popular. Regularly holding “MI fans festivals”, bustling MI fans forums and lots of activities indicate that Xiaomi has a large and lively consumer community. Xiaomi stimulates its fans’ participation spirit and satisfies their self-realization needs by constructing a virtual space, MIUI forum.
Using a qualitative Internet research methodology called netnography, we studied behavior on the Xiaomi online community website, analyzing hundreds of popular posts from different sections of the forum. Our findings reveal five different categories of identity and consumer acts of self-expression within the Xiaomi online community. We discuss each of them below.
The “MI fans” identity
By using lots of “we” and “us”, Xiaomi members clearly express their membership, providing an evident identity of themselves as “MI fans”. For example, expressing feelings of love and a willingness to stick with the brand, one community member, Yingerzhaixia~, posts that “Every time I see the symbol “MI” in my hand, I can feel that everybody loves Xiaomi and we always put attention on Xiaomi. We follow Xiaomi all the time. I think it is enough. We are all “MI fans””.
The expert identity
The expert or geek identity, which suggests that participants are professionals, is another identity within the Xiaomi online community. They express their expertise in three ways:, including sharing professional knowledge of the products. As one member, Saineijiaer, said: “In an atmosphere where everyone wishes to talk about technology with passion, it will be a community with many experts”, discussion of achievements when a member called WinKiller posts “Haha, I am so happy that I am one of the testing group. I hope that we can work together to construct a strong MIUI!”, and attitudes of superiority according to a post by Aihenshushu saying that “Hope that I can be the leader of a team in the future”. The reason that this identity is commonly presented in brand communities might be that it satisfies the need for self-esteem and “self-enhancement need” of consumers. In other words, members need to feel unique and feel good about themselves. Being a “MI fan” makes them feel distinctive and constructing an expert identity makes them feel prestigious and confident.
The patriot identity
While Apple and Samsung are popular in China, Xiaomi, as a Chinese brand, takes a leading position in the Chinese handset market. Its brand symbol, a rabbit wearing a Lei Feng cap with a red star and a red scarf, all unique Chinese features, show a People’s Liberation Army look. Moreover, the brand name “Xiaomi” easily triggers a connection in the Chinese mind to a famous strategy known as “Xiaomi adds rifles”, which the communist forces used in the war against Japan which wended in 1945. That represents a spirit of Chinese people working hard to create the future. Inspired by this pioneer spirit, MI fans constructed a Chinese patriot identity. Firstly, they show the proud feeling comparing the Xiaomi to foreign brands. For example, one member indicates “Xiaomi is growing up day after day and becomes the most favorable Chinese cellphone brand or the Chinese Apple!!!! ”. Moreover, members express anxiety about the development of both Xiaomi, the representation of the Chinese brands in his eyes, and China. Additionally, they express a wish that Xiaomi and China can develop better in the future. One typical example is a comment by Student Chen Yueban demonstrating that “Products made in China still cannot get rid of cheap and low quality image. A lot of people are still poking fun at China. When China is mentioned, many laugh with malicious intent. There are people moving to other countries and people who come back as well. That is so similar to Xiaomi! I hope that the brand as well as the country c
an conquer the difficulties and be stronger”.
The life lover identity
A life lover means that the person enjoys life, finds passionate towards life and feels happy living a life. This identity stems from expression of enjoyable feeling in the Xiaomi community experiencing colorful life and activities. Members express joy through their record of every activity of the community, memory towards the community and everyday life posts. Elderly members mention “youth” many times and illustrate the words related to joy feelings such as “passion” “delights” “like” and “dashing” staying in this community. For instance, a member records “I have met with the manager of MIUI university club. They organized the activity with great passion which renders me a feeling of finding back my youth”. Young members write their aspirations and dreams down which show their positive attitude towards life. They think that this community gives them a great opportunity to grow up and stimulates their impulsion to chase dreams when somebody called Xuanxiaodong says “At first, I maybe just love products of Xiaomi. However, now it is more than that. I love Xiaomi brand because it is my dream and orange has become my dream color. I will carry my passion and effort running to the shore of my dream”.
The family and friend identity
This identity is expressed via the willingness to support peers, the grateful attitude towards other members, and the feeling of love. They feel that they are not lonely in the company of friends and family in this community. Members who gain assistance feel touched and have a reliance sense of the group. They think coming to this online community gradually becomes a habit and a part of their life. For instance, a post written by Xuanxiaodong, “I know that I will not be lonely in a place with MI fans. After a week I came to Xi’an, I made friends with Xiaowei, Guanchai and Yuxuan. I feel warm because of their love”, expresses the feeling of touch and love because the writer makes friends with other members. Moreover, as friend and family, members always kindly encourage others “never give up” and help others to solve problems including cellphone breaking down issues, phone using questions and even obstacles faced in real life.
Members can post on the MIUI forum which is separated from different districts including sharing resources district, free chatting district, the club, geek show, “Orange Friday” (a district showing information about updating functions of products) and forum management area. Majorly, the functions of these sections include providing technology advice and solutions, sharing resources and information, informing club activities, talking about members’ daily life or other interesting topics related to electronic products. Members post their daily life feelings and emotions such as “love” “happy” “passion”, preferences such as “high technology”, suggestions, motivations, opinions, hopes, complaints, values, beliefs, attitudes, interests and questions. To express those feelings or comments, members use words, pictures, photographs, videos, punctuation, emoticons and expressive capitalization. By sharing words and images, people can communicate through digital and symbolic stimuli that act to express and represent their identities.
By constructing communal identities, members enhance their sense of membership and engagement. The MI fans identity of the members prompts positive comments to the brand. The expert identity makes them share their knowledge, volunteer to test the products, give advice to the company and help to manage the brand community as showed above. The life lover identity represents that the person love joining all the colorful activities both online and offline including the company’s propaganda and the family and friend identity demonstrates that the person would love to engage their time and energy to keep company with other members and help them. All those willingness and actions show that they want to advertise the brand, contribute knowledge, cooperate and interact with the other members which are reflections of senses of engagement.
Identifying Marketing Opportunities
For marketers, our findings offer help in targeting customers more precisely. They can learn from experience and realize the potential of the new structure of online communities. Moreover, identity construction and how they are constructed as outlined in this article provides marketers with an insight into Chinese brand online communities and the cellphone brand communities in particular. These identities are of more consequence than “true” identities to marketers because of their effect on members’ actions in public. As the new media and the Internet develops, with more marketing approaches, brands play an increasingly essential roles in people’s lives, providing consumers not only with functional needs but also symbolic, emotional and social needs. Our findings indicate that the emotions consumers exhibit in the brand community cover the senses of belonging and self-esteem as well as feelings of joy and love. Marketers can focus on the consumers’ emotional needs in their products differentiation strategies and brand concept construction strategies according to the findings.
Specifically, facing the growing homogenization of products and marketing, modern enterprises can strengthen their unique brand image by satisfying the needs of consumers, providing them with unique services and consumer experiences, offering them with symbolic meaning in their lives and helping them to gain a communal identity and comparative advantages in the fierce business competition of today.
Brands will also expect more engagement and contributions from community members, which are drivers of consumer loyalty and profit. Furthermore, understanding identity expression and its influencing factors helps managers to more fully understand consumer behaviors, which provides pointers to improve their own online communities through designing and modifying the functions, regulations, themes and structure of the forums and websites.
Ke Guan is a graduating student of the BSc Economics program at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou.
Florian Kohlbacher is an associate professor of marketing and innovation at the International Business School Suzhou (IBSS) at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University (XJTLU) in Suzhou. He is an internationally renowned expert on business and consumer trends in Asia.