Brand Communities and Personal Identities: Negotiations in Cyberspace

Hope Jensen Schau, Temple University
Albert M. Muniz Jr., DePaul University
ABSTRACT - This study investigates the tension between self-presentation in computer-mediated environments and consumer participation in brand communities. Specifically, we explore the diversity with which members of five different brand communities (Apple computers, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Saab automobiles, singer Tom Petty, and the Xena, Warrior Princess television show) incorporate the brand community into their displayed identity. We examine a corpus of eighty-eight different personal websites, representing approximately 1300 pages of content. This data set reveals four distinct relationships between individual identity and community membership: 1) subsumed identity, 2) super member, 3) community membership as identity component, and 4) multiple memberships.
[ to cite ]:
Hope Jensen Schau and Albert M. Muniz Jr. (2002) ,"Brand Communities and Personal Identities: Negotiations in Cyberspace", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, eds. Susan M. Broniarczyk and Kent Nakamoto, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 344-349.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 29, 2002     Pages 344-349

BRAND COMMUNITIES AND PERSONAL IDENTITIES: NEGOTIATIONS IN CYBERSPACE

Hope Jensen Schau, Temple University

Albert M. Muniz Jr., DePaul University

ABSTRACT -

This study investigates the tension between self-presentation in computer-mediated environments and consumer participation in brand communities. Specifically, we explore the diversity with which members of five different brand communities (Apple computers, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Saab automobiles, singer Tom Petty, and the Xena, Warrior Princess television show) incorporate the brand community into their displayed identity. We examine a corpus of eighty-eight different personal websites, representing approximately 1300 pages of content. This data set reveals four distinct relationships between individual identity and community membership: 1) subsumed identity, 2) super member, 3) community membership as identity component, and 4) multiple memberships.

No longer the domain of affluent, white consumers, the Internet is beginning to live up to its potential as a heterogeneous web of interlocking communities. American web surfers look "increasingly like the folks who cruise your local Wal-Mart" (Weiss 2001, p. 54). These new web users are also becoming web authors, owning and creating personal websites with content as far and wide as the limits of human imagination. These personal sites are self-expressive tools intended to communicate complex meaning across time and space (Schau and Gilly 2001). Not surprisingly, many of these website authors assert their identity in relation to commercial entities and icons. One such entity is the brand community (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). Indeed, consumers actively depict participation in brand communities as essential self-authenticating acts (Arnould and Price 2001). In a space that need not allude to the organic self or the material realm, website authors do rely on the conventional constructs of self and community (Schau and Gilly 2001).

This paper investigates the tension between the presentation of self in computer-mediated environments and participation in brand communities. It seeks to define the interaction of self and community in these websites, and the strategies consumers use to negotiate, preserve and communicate individual and group level identity. This study explores the diversity with which members of five different brand communities incorpoate the brand community into their displayed identity. Essentially, the researchers examined consumer web pages that are, in some measure, devoted to the following brands: Apple computers, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Saab automobiles, singer Tom Petty, and the Xena, Warrior Princess television show.

A number of patterns and findings emerge. First, great variability is present in the degree to which consumers embrace and adopt the brand and community. This variability does not fluctuate on a continuum, but instead exists in a multidimensional space. Consumers demonstrate varying levels of commitment to: the brand, their own identity as users of the brand, the brand community, their identity as member of the brand community, and their involvement in other online and offline communities. Second, website authors vie for legitimacy and authority within these communities to gain both power within the community and validation of their individual identity. Third, consumers use personal narratives as powerful tools to create and situate their identities within these brand communities. Specifically this data set reveals four distinct relationships between individual identity and community membership: 1) subsumed identity, 2) super member, 3) community membership as identity component, and 4) multiple memberships.

THEORETICAL FOUNDATION

A considerable amount of scholarship in consumer research examines the role of consumption in identity (Arnould and Wilk 1984; Belk 1988, 1992; McCracken 1986, 1988). The relationship implicit in the above statement is that identity directly translates into consumption, and that consumption is capable of revealing identity. Essentially, consumers are what they consume (Belk 1988), and conversely consumers consume what they are. Belk (1988) shows that possessions assist in self-perception and actually become, usually figuratively or symbolically, part of the consumer body. He illustrates that material items act as extensions of the self and communicate personal and group level identity. Arnould and Price (2001) demonstrate how the enactment of certain consumption processes is an important component of identity formation, both individual and communal, and is integral to the communication of self to others.

Consumers’ relationships with brands can take a multitude of shapes. For example, Fournier (1998) examines consumer brand loyalty from the perspective of interpersonal relationships and finds that framework to be valid for describing and explaining many aspects of the consumer-brand relationship. Schouten and McAlexander (1995) detail a set of consumers and their relationships to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. They show that consumers form brand relationships through interaction with other consumers, as well as the brand, forming subcultures of consumption (Schouten and McAlexander 1995). Essentially, consumers develop relationships with brands and these consumer-brand relationships can be a significant part of consumer-to-consumer relationships.

One form of consumer brand relationship that is receiving increasing attention is brand communities (McAlexander and Schouten 1998; Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). A brand community is "a specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand" (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001, p4). Brand communities can be complex entities with their own cultures, rituals, traditions and codes of behavior. Muniz and O’Guinn (2001) examine the brand communities centered on Ford Bronco trucks, Macintosh computers and Saab automobies and demonstrate that members of these communities derive an important part of the brand consumption experience from membership in these communities. Moreover, members appear to derive an aspect of personal identity from their membership and participation in these communities. McAlexander and Schouten (1998) reveal similar tendencies among Jeep drivers.

One place where consumers create their identities is in computer-mediated environments (CMEs). One popular CME outlet for such displays is the personal webpage. There are a variety of web-authoring tools (FrontPage, Trelix, 1-2-3 Publish), varying in their level of complexity and creative possibilities that consumers can use to create their personal web pages. Once completed, these consumers can then choose from a variety of websites, both free and subscription-based, on which they can post their creations. Consequently, consumers have a multitude of creative and placement options available.

Consumers have access to an expansive array of semiotic devices in CMEs with which to construct and express themselves (Appadurai 1996, Marakes and Robey 1996). Consumers can now digitize more aspects of their identities (text, images, audio and video) and display them to many more people (webpages transcend geography) than were previously possible. This provides them a particularly rich and powerful canvas on which to create. One set of symbols available for consumers to use in constructing and communicating notions of self are brands (Schau and Gilly 2001). Consumers can post an assortment of brand-related material on their websites, including logos, histories, and stories.

To date, no one has looked at the tensions between individual identity and membership in a brand community. While some work exists on the transformation of self through such consumption collectives (Celsi, Rose and Leigh 1993; Schouten and McAlexander 1995), little attention has been directed toward the legions of possible adaptations. That is, no one has explored the variability with which consumers adopt the personae of the group, the friction between maintaining an individual identity and enacting the identity of the community, or any of the processes with which consumers negotiate this identity constructing process. This is the focus of the present study. Recognizing that individual identity has three loci of self-definition: individual, interpersonal and collective (Brewer and Gardner 1996; Brickson 2000), this paper demonstrates the variability among all three. Of interest, is the degree to which these different orientations exist, as well as, the self-disclosure and self-revelation present on personally created web pages devoted to the following brands: Apple computers, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Saab automobiles, singer Tom Petty, and the Xena, Warrior Princess television show. Here, we are broadly construing the brand as "an offering from a known source" (Kotler 2000, p. 11).

METHOD

Data Collection

The data collection for this research is observational and unobtrusive (Adler and Adler 1994; Gold 1958; Hammersley and Atkinson 1983). The content of consumer-generated documents (Hodder 1994; Lincoln and Guba 1985) posted to the public realm of the World Wide Web were downloaded and analyzed. Web ages selected for this analysis were limited to pages created by individual users and clubs (i.e., no commercial brand sites), though (representing the blurring of such distinctions) some of the individuals did sell items on their pages that they had created and may be in some monetarily insignificant way compensated by the brand (access to free advance information, etc.). Because these sites represent consumer-to-consumer commerce and are not under the corporate control of the brand, such pages are considered separate from pages created by dealerships or resellers.

To ensure the appropriate level of variety, these pages were identified in multiple ways. First, brand community keyword searches were performed on sites that allowed consumers to create personal web pages such as, geocities, tripod and anglefire. Similar keyword searches on .edu domains were also conducted using search engines such as Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) and HotBot (www.hotbot.com) to find personal pages housed on academic servers. Keywords used included the brand (Tom Petty, Harley Davidson, Saab) and related concepts (e.g., the Heartbreakers, HOG, 9000). Second, eligible sites were identified through links contained on downloaded pages (i.e., members of the Xena community would have links to pages created by the Xena friends). Finally, webrings, loosely organized clusters of these communities, were followed. Members of a webring are hyperlinked to one another. Such clusters allow surfers to jump from the current webring member page to another randomly chosen member. This option was used to introduce some variability into the process. This produced a corpus of eighty-eight different personal websites, representing approximately 1300 pages of content.

The collection of the data was divided in half. The two authors independently downloaded one half of the data. The authors maintained contact during this time to ensure that they were using consistent processes and guidelines for the identification and inclusion of data. A similar approach was then taken with the analysis and interpretation of the websites. After setting some initial parameters concerning the research domain, the two authors worked independently on the coding, categorizing and abstraction of the web pages. Once again, contact was maintained to insure consistency and clarify uncertainties. Each author kept a journal to keep track of the procedure they followed, as well as their emerging interpretations. The findings and interpretations were then compared. The consistency between the authors was quite high. Differences were resolved by re-examination of the content in question. This approach was taken to overcome limitations inherent in such data and allow us to decrease the likelihood of misinterpretations (Adler and Adler 1994).

Analysis and Interpretation

The analysis and interpretation was multifaceted. The authors coded on two main dimensions: presence of community identity and presence of self-identity. On the community side, the authors focused on three main markers of community. First, they coded evidence of consciousness of kind (Gusfield 1978). Consciousness of kind is an intrinsic connection or bond that members of the community feel toward one another. Members know that there is something that separates them from non-members. This includes the use of words such as "us" and "we" on the web sites. Second, the authors noted evidence of the rituals, traditions and history that serve to perpetuate the community’s culture and consciousness (Douglas and Ishwerwood 1979). These are represented by the web author’s retelling of brand histories, the use of community jargon nd the relating of personal brand experiences. Finally, the authors catalogued evidence of community responsibility or duty (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001). This refers to a sense of obligation to help other members of the community, particularly in their consumption of the brand. This is represented by providing help in solving problems with the brand or by providing access to or direction in using information and resources that are important to the community.

The authors coded on eight dimensions of individual identity encompassing both corporeal and virtual incarnations. First, they coded for references to the web author’s organic self. This includes mention of the web author’s name, physical address, picture or genealogy. Second, the researchers noted references to real life (RL) professional activity, such as resume, education, accomplishments, and marketable skills. Third, they catalogued web content pertaining to RL social affiliations, such as organizations, pictures of family and friends, friend and family contact information, and social histories. Fourth, the researchers traced RL brand references or web content that demonstrated brands in relationship to the web author’s organic self. This includes pictures of the web author using or displaying brands, or recounting brand experiences. Fifth, researchers coded the inclusion of virtual or electronic identities by the web author, such as gaming aliases, e-accomplishments, e-identities in other online communities, and other websites constructed by the author. Next, researchers took inventory of content devoted to virtual or e-professional accomplishments (both compensated and volunteer), such as online administrative roles like web master and listserv monitor. Then they coded content related to virtual, or e-social affiliations, such as online community involvement, and participation in web rings. Lastly, the researchers noted all references to the web authors’ virtual brand relationships, or those brand associations that did not necessarily rely on RL product use or ownership. In addition to the originally authored page content, "other authored material" including hyperlinks to commercial content was considered.

FINDINGS

These personal web pages range in detail and complexity. Some are only one to five pages, while others have over thirty pages of content. All of the pages contain both references to individual identity and brand community. All three markers of brand communities (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001) are evident. Consciousness of kind is the most evident, with pages including brand content for other member-users to find. Rituals and traditions are also evident, although their presence tends to vary with the age of the brand. Thus, Saab and Harley Davidson sites tend to have more ritual, history and tradition than newer brands like Xena. Community responsibility is also evident as most of these sites provide content to help the user in their consumption of the brand.

Treating the corporeal and the virtual forms of individual identity equally, the researchers find that these fan sites are replete with all eight declarations of self-identity. Most commonly in this sample are assertions of self as brand experts, both in the flesh and in cyberspace. For example, consumers make frequent references to their experience where the web author is recognized in RL as a brand expert (concert, convention, rally participation stories). Community members also assert their expert status in terms of their website being the "king of," "premier," or "best ever," for brand information. Man web authors include identity dimensions that contextualized themselves outside the brand community. For example, they incorporate their RL name ("Dina Shear’s Xena Paradise"), profession ("accountant 9-5, biker in my soul"), family relationships (pictures of "my wife as Gabrielle"), and friendships (images of "my buddies Stinky and Bass"). Similarly, the web authors make explicit references to e-identities ("you may know me as 'Deek’ in the Pale Room," or "'Skuishy’ on IRC"), other e-affiliations ("visit my friends on the web"), e-accomplishments ("when I moderated the listserv") and involvement in online communities other than those studied here ("check out my other fan sites"). Of course, far more interesting is the interplay between individual and community themes.

There is great variation in the degree to which these web authors embrace the brand and the surrounding community. Furthermore, this variability does not fluctuate along a unidimensional continuum (commitment to the featured brand community), but rather varies in a multidimensional space that includes other sources of meaning and identity such as membership in other online and offline communities. This data set reveals four distinct relationships between individual identity and community membership: 1) subsumed identity, 2) super member, 3) community membership as identity component, and 4) multiple memberships.

Subsumed Identity

Some people totally subsume their identity in the community, while others only tangentially reference it. For some site authors, the brand and its community appear to be the most important source of online identity. For example, one personal webpage that is strongly rooted in the Apple brand community focuses on Apple advertisements. Entitled simply, "AppleAds," this page is a collection of descriptions of numerous Apple advertisements and links to those ads on the official Apple website, as well as a couple of Apple-related polls and other "pro-Mac" material. What is noteworthy about this site, is that it is almost completely devoid of reference to the individual creating it, other than to assert himself or herself as a dedicated Mac connoisseur. Most of the page deals with recent Apple activities. The identity of the site (the web page as an entity) and the Apple corporation are much more prominent than the identity of the individual who authors the site. One of two indications that the site is an individual effort can be found on the "About this site" section of the document, and even then the individual does not loom large. Consider an illustrative passage from this section of the site

At the beginning of 1999, the "Apple TV Advertisements/Commercials" site was born. Its mission was to provide Apple’s loyal customers with television advertisements and other miscellaneous promotional material. Many well-known Mac sites kindly linked to this site and provided it with thousands of hits...

To the disappointment of numerous Apple fans, on May 28, 1999, the owner of this site received a request from Apple Computer’s legal department demanding that all Apple "copyrighted video footage" and "Apple logo and Mac OS logos" be removed from the site. Their request was obeyed with a heavy heart. All commercials and Apple owned items were removed from this site.

Even here, the term "this site" and references to the Apple community appear much more frequently and prominently than any personal pronouns or any other individual references. This is a personal web page completely devoted to the author’s favorite brand.

Similarly, a personal web page that was strongly rooted in the Xena Warrior Princess brand community depicts the plot synopses of the television series along with studied commentary by the web author. This running commentary includes notes on inconsistent details throughout the series and a show-by-show interpretation of an alleged lesbian subtext (the love story between Xena and her omnipresent companion Gabrielle). The web author is constructing an individual identity as a Xena expert and commentator without reference to any other dimensions of self. Nowhere on the site is the web author identified other than an email contact. Similar sites in which the author subsumes their individual identity within the community are also found for Saab, Harley-Davidson and Tom Petty. Such pages suggest that membership in these brand communities can be all-defining for some consumers.

Super Member

Super membership is evidenced by legitimacy and authority and an active and visible author identity. Web authors vie for legitimacy and authority within these communities. Legitimacy means that the consumer "understood" the brand and used it for the "right reasons" (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001). They are true fans. Authority refers to the amount of expertise, experience and knowledge that is attributed to the author. Within most of the communities studied, appreciating the brand is the lowest form of involvement. It also carries the least amount of status. Therefore, increasing your involvement raises your status. For example, within the Harley-Davidson community, appreciating the bikes is the lowest form of involvement, driving the bike brings you up in status, participation in rallies brings increasing prestige, displaying the logo tattoo still more status, culminating in the total immersion into the Harley lifestyle and devotion to the brand above all things. In the Saab and Macintosh brand community, similar increases in status can come from doing your own repair work.

To demonstrate legitimacy and authority, web authors often refer to mastery of the brand through customization procedures or "clever fixes" to problems relating to brand performance. Many of the Saab, Macintosh and Harley-Davidson sites feature in-depth information on repairs and enhancements. For example, one of the Saab sites includes a section entitled "Shadetree Mechanic Procedures." This section of the page provides a detailed description of allthe work the author has performed and is currently performing on his car. He provides descriptions, of the procedures, clever things he did while completing them, and an explanation of the performance benefits these provide. Similarly, a site entitled, "Mike’s 1999 Harley-Davidson Sportster Custom," details the modifications Mike made to his bike. He demonstrates mechanical finesse and ingenuity in customizing his bike and in the process also produces a bike that is at once a Harley and simultaneously his own creation.

Another source of legitimacy and authority is knowledge of the brand and the history surrounding it. Web authors in all five brand communities communicate their knowledge of the brand through detailed brand histories and mythology. For example, Tom Petty fan sites contain annotated timelines of the artist’s life and mythology surrounding Petty’s self-destructive response to a dispute with his label (shattering his hand by hitting a recording studio wall). Harley-Davidson sites chronicle the brand’s entrance into the marketplace and the evolution of the models. Xena sites trace the plot lines of the show since it aired and many provide an account of the mythological (non-corporate confirmed) lesbian subtext. Macintosh and Saab sites feature lengthy histories of these brands, focusing on the innovations these brands have produced. These recitations of brands history and mythology show another form of brand mastery and are demonstrative of a member’s legitimacy in the community. The more detailed and complex the histories, the more authority the members can claim within the community.

Partaking in brand related rituals is another mechanism consumers use to navigate this multidimensional identity space and demonstrate legitimacy and authority. Personal stories are defined here as "tales of the self," including those that reference the brand and those that do not. These narratives are used to situate the individual’s identity within the broader context of their community identity (Creed and Scully 2000). Deployed properly, they demonstrate the prominence of the brand and the brand community in the consumer’s online identity. Web authors recount their participation in rituals and recognize an escalating involvement with the brand. For example, within the Harley-Davidson community, websites contain considerable content on the bike models, pictures and stories from the rallies, and the physical incorporation of the logo on the consumer’s body. The most legitimate authorities on the brand devoted their site content to images of the Harley tattoos. Similar themes were evident in the Saab pages, with users citing the number of models they had owned and their participation in organized Saab community events. Both of these brands have fairly lengthy and eventful histories from which to draw. Less dramatic are examples from Tom Petty and Xena web pages containing a documentation of the web author’s participation in brand rituals, such as concerts and conventions. One Petty fan claims he has gone to "over 100 Petty concerts," and "scored backstage passes to hang with Petty" more than 20 times. These experiences are significant badges of the web author’s personal identity and markers of community involvement and authenticity/legitimacy. The more rituals the web author has participated in, the more legitimacy he/she demonstrates and the more credible all content becomes within the context of the community.

Some stories are about rituals and are almost rote repetitions. Other stories recount a given consumer’s involvement within the brand community, and some are deeply personal, unique experiences with the brands as they relate to multiple facets of a given consumer’s life. Stories of first brand encounters are common in all five communities. Several sites referencing the Saab brand include stories of how the individual was introduced to the brand. Consider the following, taken from a self-anointed Saab "Superfan"

I’ve loved Saabs ever since I was a little kid, for several reasons. First of all, I love fighter aircraft. Before my eyes decided to go blurry on me, I wanted to be a pilot. Saab is the only major auto manufacturer (Saab Scania) who also is a major aerospace manufacturer (Saab Aerospace). Second, my dad drove a Saab (still does), and so obviously I was convinced this was the best car in the world.

My faithful Saab, J├Ěrgen, is that same Saab of my dad’s that originally introduced me to this world of fine Swedish automotive engineering.

Apparently, for this consumer a large part of the brand is the connection to his father. Such stories serve to establish the consumer as a solid member of the community and give them a unique set of brand-related experiences with which to differentiate their member identity from other members. Similarly in the Tom Petty fan community, first encounters are often recited, i.e. the first time a fan heard Tom Petty’s music, bought his recordings, or saw him live in concert.

Web authors also relate more complex stories of how the brand intersects with the personal/physical identity of the web author. One website relates a story of a guy obsessed with Xena, whose girlfriend disapproved of the time he devoted to the Xena community and was then "kicked to the curb" in favor of the virtual and physical community of Xena fans, "If she can’t cope, than forgetabouther." Such devotion to the Xena brand could be seen as pushing individual identity toward total immersion into the community.

These stories vary considerably in detail and brand immersion. For example, a personal account of a Xena fan meeting the star of the series, Lucy Lawless, at a Xena sponsored convention represents a critical moment in the site author’s life. During the encounter, the web author allegedly disclosed her belief in the Xena lesbian subtext to Lawless. Importantly, Lawless agreed that the controversial interpretation is legitimate. Furthermore, the web author confided in Lawless that the subtext was important to her as a lesbian woman, to which Lawless is said to have replied, "I am proud of the show and of its impact on fans." The impact of this encounter is significant to the site author for two reasons. First, the encounter reinforces the author’s understanding of Lawless as sympathetic to the issues of lesbians and recognizing the importance of depicting lesbian love stories in the media. This acceptance by the show’s star is critical to the site author’s self-esteem and in her eyes validates her existence as "more than marginal." Hence, this encounter between the author and Lawless solidifies the commitment and loyalty of the site author to the show and serves to bind the Xena brand to the larger lesbian community. Second, by relating this story, the site author is allowed to claim another important aspect of her identity within the context of the community (Creed and Scully 2000).

Another example is a site which reveals the site author’s strong association between Tom Petty’s music and his first love affair. The author fondly recalls the wooing of the woman he refers to as "my first romantic obsession" using the mutualappreciation of Tom Petty’s music and the "aphrodisiac influence" of Petty’s voice on the young woman. The experience is more than a retelling of a brand encounter, but the life changing event of first love as it was situated within the fold of the Tom Petty fan base.

Community Membership as Identity Component

In other cases, the identity of the individual overshadows membership in the community. One of the pages referencing Macintosh, titled simply "Mark’s Mac," is a great example. The title of this page is in itself revealing, implying ownership over membership. The site includes frequent usage of personal pronouns and the author’s name. Most of the content is in the form of links to other sites, as well as brand symbols and icons. Notably, the only original content on the site are essays that Mark has written about some of the best aspects of Macintoshes. In a similar way, a site entitled "Dustin’s Unofficial Tom Petty Page," the web author’s physical and professional identities are called upon as intersecting with the Tom Petty fan community. There are concert photographs of the site owner and his brushes with the object of his brand obsession, as well as pictures of the site author’s workspace containing some Tom Petty memorabilia and pieces of original artwork inspired by Tom Petty. The web author is at once a Petty fan and a professional graphic artist. One Xena fan claims to be a "mild-mannered civil servant by day, warrior princess by night." Echoing the Xena fan, a Harley enthusiast declares he is an "accountant 9-5, but a biker in my soul," demonstrating that his biker identity may be a core component of his self, but it is not all-consuming. Such sites are not uncommon and were present for all of the brands studied.

Multiple Memberships

In still other cases, consumers have multiple community identities that merge into a physical self. Many sites feature references to multiple brand communities. One Xena Warrior Princess site, demonstrates a web author who evokes community membership in the Xena community, but also asserts membership in other sci-fi/fantasy communities, such as, Star Trek and X-Files (Kozinets 1997). The author posts his picture at various conventions and relates brand related stories regarding several brand communities. The site, which entered the data pool on the basis of its Xena focus, is multi-brand in nature and the self-expression of the site author is contingent upon membership in these brand communities both online and in the physical world. Such multiple community membership is not uncommon. On "Alf’s Harley-Davidson Homepage," Alf’s primary identity construction efforts center on his bike and involvement in the online and offline Harley-Davidson communities, but he also asserts membership in TattooLand, an online tattoo parlor where he posts pictures of his handiwork as a tattoo artist. The latter membership is closely interwoven with his RL livelihood, as people impressed with his postings in TattooLand visit his RL parlor.

Sometimes the different communities are related, sometimes the connections btween communities are less obvious. Consider an example that entered the data pool from membership in the Saab brand community. It features a moderate amount of Saab content, including a set of links entitled "where Saab geeks go." Such a term indicates a strong feeling consciousness of kind (Muniz and O’Guinn 2001). However, the site author also appears to be a member of a Lego brand community, to which he devotes much more content, including a Lego certificate that allows him to claim he is "licensed to PLAY." Furthermore, the site author stakes membership in the Marklin model railroading community. The sections devoted to both of these other brands include much author-original content, including his history with both brands.

Such complex, multi-community pages are not uncommon; examples of them are found for Apple, Tom Petty, and Xena Warrior Princess as well. Moreover, such pages are not entirely surprising as consumers are attempting to communicate multiple, seemingly inconsistent "postmodern" selves (Anderson 1997). In an effort to mitigate the absence of the organic being and many physical cues, consumers in CMEs are increasingly using brand affiliations as shorthand to communicate individual identities (Schau and Gilly 2001). References to one brand are used to signify certain components of identity, while other brand associations are meant to signify still other attributes of self.

DISCUSSION AND IMPLICATIONS

This paper explores consumer web pages that are, in some measure, devoted to the following brands: Apple computers, Harley Davidson motorcycles, Saab automobiles, singer Tom Petty, and the Xena, Warrior Princess television show. Investigating the interaction of self and community in these web sites, the researchers document the strategies consumers use to negotiate, preserve and communicate individual and group level identity. Several findings and patterns are evident. First, there is great variability in the degree to which consumers embrace and adopt the brand and community. Furthermore, this variability does not fluctuate on a continuum, but instead exists in a multidimensional space. Consumers demonstrate varying levels of commitment to: the brand, their own identity as users of the brand, the brand community, their identity as member of the brand community, and their involvement in other online and offline communities. Second, web authors vie for legitimacy and authority within these communities to gain both power within the community and to achieve validation of their individual identity. Third, consumers use personal narratives as powerful tools to create and situate their identities within these brand communities. Four distinct relationships between individual identity and community membership are evident: 1) subsumed identity, 2) super member, 3) community membership as identity component, and 4) multiple memberships.

This paper provides insight into some of the ways in which consumers negotiate membership and participation in brand communities. In so doing, it demonstrates some of the variety in which consumers affiliate themselves with these communities and the complex identity negotiation processes in which they engage. Moreover, they demonstrate consumer agency. Consumers do not merely appropriate the community as a source of identity. Instead, they actively draw on specific parts and weave in their own history and experiences. This complex interaction enables the web authors to communicate more complicated identities and makes for a richer brand experience. These findings also underscores the active and dynamic natur of brand communities. Once again, it becomes apparent that these are not static, marketer controlled alliances, but rather dynamic, consumer-driven and contested.

Future research could also look at group processes to enforce community identity. For example, do members of these communities reject non-brand community aspects of identity as revealed on these pages? Do they take issue with someone who stresses too little or too much individuality? Are these transgressions even acknowledged? Looking at the response of other community members could be valuable as it could provide insight into the legitimacy and authority accorded to such a website author by other brand community members. Another consideration, is the tendency to stress the self identity at all related to how similar/dissimilar the person is to the group mean? For example, do members of the brand community who are markedly dissimilar from the typical member strategically deploy elements of that dissimilar identity (Creed and Scully 2000)? Such questions will require surveys and interviews of the people composing these pages.

In summary, consumers negotiate the boundaries of self-identity and brand community membership in various way that utilize their creative and expressive skills. The relationships these consumers enact with brands are vital components of their identities and daily lives. This study exemplifies the productive nature of consumption.

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