Brands have evolved from signs of property rights to signs of product attributes to signs of consumer attributes. Brands have become an important mode of consumer communication, identifying and distinguishing consumers as social objects within consumer market culture. Virtual communities have evolved from telephonic verbal communication to highly interactive electronic media that provide rich audio-visual sensory detail that gives consumers a sense of being in an environment. As a fundamentally cultural phenomenon, marketing communication reflects shared patterns of consumer thoughts, feelings, emotions and behaviors. Virtual communities are particularly suited for communication in consumer culture because they afford consumers authentic cultural presence. Culture depends on communication. Communication depends on symbols. Symbols constitute electronic environments. E-branding affords consumers the necessary tools to communicate their roles and relationships in virtual consumer culture environments for transfer to actual consumer culture environments. Consumption in actual environments results in brand viability and marketing success.
This chapter discusses brands as critical design elements in virtual communities. All human behavior communicates, including brand consumption, which is so important to consumer culture that any electronic environment without brands will seem unrelated to any actual environment. The increasing use of electronic technology in marketing communication requires that marketers understand the culture of consumption and function of brands as consumer communication. This understanding will enable marketers to create effective electronic environment designs for product and brand trial and to integrate electronic environments with other marketing communication.
This chapter is about the evolution of brands and virtual communities, projecting that evolution into future trends. The chapter begins by discussing the evolution of brands from signs of property rights to signs of consumer properties. The next section discusses the evolution of virtual communities. The following sections discuss culture generally, the system of meanings in consumer culture, culture in virtual communities, communicating culture through products and brands, and branding consumption. The final section discusses future trends, a continuing evolution, in which marketers design virtual communities that include brands to give consumers a sense of being in those communities.