Not many professors can say they coined a phrase that revolutionized their field of study. DePaul University Marketing Professor Al Muñiz can.
Muñiz introduced the concept of "brand community" in an article of the same name that was published in the Journal of Consumer Research in March 2001. Co-written with University of Wisconsin Marketing Professor Thomas C. O'Guinn, the article described the emergence of non-geographically bound groups of people, who, united by their loyalty to a particular brand, feel a responsibility to share brand narratives and offer support and solutions associated with the brand.
Examples of such brand communities include fans of Apple and LEGO products and devotees of Saab and Volkswagen vehicles.
The article changed the way the marketing discipline, industry and even other social sciences thought about brands.
This fall, in recognition of their pioneering work, Muñiz and O'Guinn were chosen to receive The Sheth Foundation/Journal of Consumer Research Long-Term Contribution award. Presented once every three years, the award honors the lasting contribution of an article that has appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research.
"It was the first paper to explicitly acknowledge the social nature of certain consumer brands," explains Muñiz, who began formulating the research as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "Prior to that, the field of consumer research viewed brands rather narrowly as summations of attitudes and conceived brands and their consumers as a simple consumer-brand dyad. Our work called attention to the consumer-to-consumer relationships centered around the brand and showed that these relationships were just as important. It made the social aspect of brands explicit."
The work had an impact even beyond business schools and businesses. "A lot of cultural criticism has lamented the loss of community associated with modernity and the advancement of the marketplace," Muñiz says. "Our work demonstrates that humans, as social beings, find and create community where they will. Sometimes, they will find it around a shared brand. Such a community form is a testament to the durability, resilience and centrality of community to human existence."
The great irony, says coauthor O'Guinn, "is that the very thing that supposedly laid waste to 'real' community — consumer culture, market capitalism, the brand — is at the center of a form of community. You may or may not like that reality, but it is a reality."
The research is widely referenced. Google scholar lists the article as having nearly 3,000 citations, while the Web of Science research index lists 705 citations. In 2007, the article was recognized by Thompson Scientific as one of the most frequently cited articles in the business and economics disciplines. The Philadelphia-based firm tracks research trends in 11,000 academic journals and issues a bi-monthly list of the most cited papers in 22 disciplines.
Muñiz continues to build on the work. He is currently researching brand co-creation in the LEGO brand community.
"Consumers, particularly those ensconced in cohesive brand communities, can be quite proficient in their production of brand-related content," he says. "They are capable of brand innovation, support and promotion, often challenging the marketer in terms of success and effectiveness."
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