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Why community is a brand’s secret weapon

Friend of Glow, Pete Brennan is the co-founder and Head of Brand at non-alcoholic beer company, Heaps Normal. He is also the founder and ECD at independent branding & design studio, Electric And Analog.

Pete has a lot to share about building brands, and with Heaps Normal a key to building brand in its early days was it's community of superfans.

Pete originally wrote this article for Inside Retail - reposted with permission.


Building effective brands is a difficult pastime. As the founder of a branding studio, I’m fascinated by brands. I study them fanatically. And while logos, colour palettes and font pairings make up the frontline of brands, it’s the deeper, more meaningful elements that give them a true point of difference.

The ingredients that create a successful brand can be difficult to discern, because ‘brand’ is often more an emotion you feel towards a business than anything else. Jeff Bezos summed up the fickle nature of controlling this phenomenon perfectly when he said, “Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. A short two years since we launched Heaps Normal, we’re stocked in over 4,000 venues across Australia and New Zealand, we’re on shelves in Singapore and Hong Kong, and our flagship product – the Quiet XPA – has just been named the best non-alcoholic pale ale in the world at the 2022 World Beer Awards.

So how has a brand that is essentially still in nappies achieved so much in such a short period of time? The answer is simple: community. Here are the four key lessons I’ve learned from my time in branding on the role community plays in supporting and driving a brand to success. 

Know your brand’s ‘why’ inside-out

Heaps Normal is a non-alcoholic beer company that makes great tasting beer without the hangover. We make beer for people who really enjoy a good beer, but for one reason or another, want to cut down their alcohol intake. 

We started the business because we were scratching our own itch. I grew up with an abusive alcoholic father, and subsequently never had a good relationship with alcohol myself. I spent my 20s in the creative industry in London having Monday morning meetings in pubs, as you did. I’d often wake up with a banging headache and vague recollections of how I got home the night before. 

Years later, as a happily married father of young children, I didn’t want to do that anymore, but there weren’t many non-alcoholic options for a night out. We knew we wanted to create a brand that spoke to us, but we had to start by asking why: Why should we build a non-alcoholic beer company? Why should people care? What we didn’t realise at the time was how many people felt the same way we did, and how many people would become part of our community.

Instead of telling people what to do, invite them into the conversation

I believe brands need to stand for something. They need to have an opinion and a point of view – and not necessarily one that everyone agrees with. If you try to be everything to everyone, you’ll be nothing to nobody. The Swedish creative agency Snask summarises it perfectly: you have to make enemies to gain fans.

We make non-alcoholic beer but we are very intentional about not preaching sobriety or telling people what measure of alcohol is good or right. Why? Because people hate being told what to do. My son is 4 and if I tell him not to touch the hot plate, he’s 100 per cent touching the hot plate. Adults are the same. The government has been telling people to stop smoking cigarettes for years, yet people still smoke cigarettes. 

Instead, invite people into the conversation. For us, that looks like asking our audience, ‘What’s your normal?’ and ‘What’s too good to be wasted?’ This approach shines through in our brand personality, too. The blurb on the back of every single Heaps Normal can states: “Create your own normal, whilst being respectful of and celebrating the normal of others, who may not think your normal is heaps normal.” In simple terms, this translates to ‘just do you’. For us, recognising the autonomy and intelligence of our consumers is paramount. 

Look to the past for simple yet effective community building

If we can take anything away from the past, it’s that the companies that place a focus on community are the brands that people adore. And brands that have thriving communities are the brands that tend to rise when the tide goes out. During the Great Depression in 1930s America, flour was a staple household item that housewives used to make bread to feed their families. At the time, the flour was delivered to households in large cotton sacks. Flour manufacturers found out that women were turning these flour sacks into dresses, underwear, towels, curtains, quilts, diapers, dish cloths, and other essential items – out of pure desperation. The flour companies started printing patterns onto their flour sacks. Families greatly appreciated this, as times were extremely hard, and they bought more flour from those companies.

By the end of the Great Depression, it’s estimated that flour companies had clothed around 3.5 million women and children in the US. Those flour companies are still around today, nearly 100 years later, and they’re still building communities.

Approach it as you would a relationship

At Heaps Normal, we’ve built a small army of die-hard fanatics who back the brand to the hilt. They tell their friends about Heaps Normal, post about Heaps Normal on their social media channels, constantly communicate with us, and rep the brand out in the wild. This is the ultimate moat for a brand and it relies on seeing community-building as more than a transactional business exercise.

Community is not transactional. This fact often causes resistance among brand owners because you don’t put a dollar in and get $2 back out. Community is a long-term play, and sometimes the benefits are not immediately measurable. And like any relationship, it takes time to build. Community is delayed gratification, but brands that are community-led are typically more resilient and, during difficult times, those communities become a life raft. The businesses that invest in community have the inbuilt loyalty and retention to weather any storm and emerge on the other side with an army of advocates with their own emotional investment in the brand. And that’s a secret weapon worth the investment.

This article first appeared on Inside Retail.  Licensed by Copyright Agency. You must not copy this work without permission.