Community Engagement Requires More Than a Facebook Status Update

During a forum at Portland State University, a group of creative agency experts discussed community building as a branding strategy but cautioned against inauthentic attempts to seed connections and relationships.

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You have to create engagement instead of “transactions,” said Charlie Brown, CEO of Context Partners.

“Marketing strategies are moving from ‘me’ to ‘we,” said Rob Wees, senior art director at Ziba Design.

Corinne Nakamura-Rybek, vice president of visual communications at the Metropolitan Group, said interest in community design reflects larger trends toward collaboration.

“One of the trends that I’ve seen between foundations, nonprofits and government agencies is a co-creation and collaboration between different types of organizations, and it’s around a shared commitment, or an issue, or a mission,” Nakamura-Rybeck said. “I’m seeing this cross-pollination.”

The first step in the community design process is for an organization to identify its core purpose and values, panelists said.


“As an art director, and as a brand strategist, I need to find those connections that help a company authenticate who they are, and really connect with the greatest relevancy right now — in this mindset, in this time,” said Wees.

Wees cited REIs’ decision in 2015 to pay its employees to take Black Friday off – so they could get outdoors instead of shop. The decision was in sync with the REI brand, Wees said.

Other trends are driving organizations to create opportunities for meaningful social exchange.

“Organizations don’t have power in the way that they used to,” said Brown. Instead, consumers, citizens and employees are driving change in and outside large institutions.

Demographic shifts — younger, more diverse — are also prompting organizations to strive for racial and ethnic inclusion, said Joy Alise, founding partner & principal at Design + Culture Lab.  “For a very long time in this country we’ve worked side-by-side with each other, but we haven’t been coexisting,” Alise said. 

Wees cited “digital fatigue” as a reason why companies need to rethink their social media strategies, which are too often a one-way broadcast to far flung customers.

“There’s this paradox of bringing us closer to people that are far away but somehow more distant from the people that are within our own spheres,” Wees said. He described an example in which a company asked him to create an interaction that would help them not interact with people.

“That’s not really the right answer,” he said. 


 Like the term sustainability, community can be tough to define. Brands also risk a form of “community washing” if they aren’t careful, panelists agreed.

Nevertheless, said Brown, “I don’t think community is a fad,” He referred to a survey of 70-year-old men showing that what made them happy is community and relationships.

The panel discussion was part of the Oregon Business monthly Hot Topics/Cool Talks breakfast series.

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