Would You Join a Toothpaste Community?

Courtesy: CARTOON TOOTHPASTE TOOTHBRUSH Thi© Madartists | Dreamstime.com

This post was co-authored by Bill Fanning and Aaron Strout.

A conversation I have somewhat regularly with our sales guys is the concept of whether or not a company can build an online community around a non-passion product or brand. The example that inevitably comes up is whether someone would join a community that focused on toothpaste? My guess is that 999 out of 1,000 people (dentists excepted) wouldn’t be that interested in signing up. After all, even though most of us use toothpaste two or three times a day, it’s not something we are passionate about. The same can be true around similar products such as banking,  food manufacturing or feminine products.

As my colleague, Bill Fanning, likes to remind me, building a community online is not a dramatic departure from how communities are built offline. For example, Bill belongs to a group in Texas called the Guadalupe River Trout Unlimited (GRTU). As you can imagine, the community serves those who love fly fishing for trout. To that end, the GRTU sponsors a variety of events for members to congregate, stay informed on a variety of topics, share ideas and lie a little about the GIANT fish they’ve landed while no one was around to witness.

This offline community is quite successful in that is has a lot members who are highly engaged and purchase products and services from GRTU and affiliated service providers. You’ll note that in the case of GRTU, this offline community isn’t built around fishing poles, flies or tackle boxes. It’s around the concept of fly fishing which is a passion for many folks who comprise its membership base.

Similarly, successful online communities often share some of the same traits as a offline community like GRTU:

  • First, instead of focusing on a product (e.g tackle boxes), an engaging online community might focus on a topic that people are passionate about (e.g. fly fishing).
  • Second, an online community should give value to the community by educating them on topics of interest (fly tying courses, fly casting lessons etc.)
  • Third, good online communities often provide a variety of ways for the community to connect — either through discussion forums, ratings and reviews, blogs or even in different channels like conference calls or webinars.

That brings us back to our original question of whether or not a successful online community can be built around a non-passion brand or product. In addition to toothpaste, the three examples I gave of products that weren’t known for their ability to inspire were financial services, breakfast cereal and feminine products. Amazingly, there are examples of successful communities that have been built around each of these products:

  • Banking – Bank of America wisely realized that small business owners had a lot of spending power AND shared similar needs for things like accountants, tax preparation, office supplies and credit. Their online community gives these small bus owners the chance to share ideas and best practices with BofA as the “party giver.”
  • Food manufacturing – Rather than trying to talk about breakfast cereal, bread or frozen lima beans, General Mills has instead chosen to broaden their focus toward a healthy diet with their Eat Better America community.
  • Feminine products – P&G has garnered significant coverage for its clever Being Girl site. Rather than talking about periods and other feminine hygiene topics, this online space for teens and pre-teens coversa areas of interest like dating, music and makeup with only a subtle “we’re here if you need us” plug by Tampax.
  • Does that mean you could build an online community around toothpaste? Likely not if it just focused on a particularly brand of toothpaste. It might work if it centered around oral health. Even then, it might only interest dentists and hygienists but at the end of they day, they are an important constituent of the toothpaste companies.

    Rather than ask you the traditional, “what do yout think?” question, I’m going to issue you a challenge instead. In the comments, feel free to offer up any product, service or brand and I’ll brainstorm with the Powered team to come up with a relevant online community. Are you game?

    NOTE: Thanks to Peter Kim for providing examples via his excellent (and now famous) list of companies engaging in social media.


    50 Responses

    1. Right, it’s not about the products, it’s about the lifestyle. Even the most mundane consumer products are used for *something* so let’s think B2B. How about ball bearings?

      • Peter, here’s your community on ball bearings: http://www.bearingtrends.com/forum

        (I am only reminded of Aaron’s blog post when someone asked me about why people would be interested in talking on a community about accounting. It reminded me of the more eclectic toothpaste.)

        • Wow – good on ya for keeping this thread alive Ari. I have to admit, out of the hundreds of posts I’ve ever written this one (combined with the ensuing conversation in the comments) is one of my favorites.

    2. Very interesting topic, Aaron. Sticking with your toothpaste theme, there was a reasonably successful Facebook campaign about a year ago for Colgate smiles. At its peak I think they had over 5000 fans who were focused on the smiles, rather than the product. Of course, Facebook fan pages are not communities, but it is interesting that a toothpaste (product) campaign could attract people passionate about their smiles (topic).

      I guess any consumer packaged good could raise a challenge to develop a successful community. Where is the razor blade community or the one for Draino?

      And so as not to slight the B2B side, any strong communities for Enterprise IT desktop configuration or anti-virus management tools?

    3. Good thoughts, here. Peter has it exactly right in comment #1 — it’s about the lifestyle of the people *using* the product. Or, as I often like to remind myself, nobody ever bought any thing unless it solved some need for them. The emphasis is on *them*, not *thing*.

      In the case of toothpaste, two ideas:

      1. A community for moms trying to teach their kids good hygiene habits. This would be a natural, since the biggest toothpaste makers also make soap, shampoo, etc. And moms can make a *very* vocal online group, as anyone who’s taken a glance at, say, Derfwad Manor could tell you. You make it about healthy families, and about overcoming some kids’ resistance to hygiene — an issue and a set of problems, not a set of products.

      2. Tie the community to some broader purpose that relates to the brand. E.g., maybe Crest sponsors mobile dental clinics in poor regions of the world, or maybe there’s a program for outreach in schools to make sure *all* kids in the U.S. have access to good basic dental care. Whatever it is, again it’s about a cause and the community.
      (Okay, so that’s a “what do you think?” answer . . . )

      I have some ideas for ball bearings and enterprise IT desktop configuration tools, too, but I’ll wait to read your thoughts. 😉

    4. When I saw that picture of the tooth-like toothpaste and the toothbrush, I had a flashback to the late-1980s and the “Captain Condom” campaign. I remember walking around Provincetown in 1987 and seeing an entire store of Captain Condom t-shirts. OK, it was P-Town, but it was clever marketing.

      I love challenges, but to compete with ball bearings and Draino?

      I’m thinking social networks, such as one that pairs pint glass collectors with breweries and others whose logos are on the glasses. One of my good friends has a collection of about 50 pint glasses from all over the world. That could be a useful network, for him to liaise with similar collectors; and with the companies.

      Or a community of textbook publishers?

      Though… you’re looking for toothpaste comparisons, not a place for Colgate users.

      For a comparable scale as toothpaste, how about soy-based candles, fur coats, or water pistols?

    5. Hi Aaron,
      Do you know of any cases where a business missed the points you are talking about and tried to build a community around a brand or product and it failed? Clearly, this can work if the brand or topic is meaningful to people, represents a way of life and they are passionate about it. For example, Harley Davidson, Apple, iPod, etc. I think where some companies make a mistake is when they think they can build a community around a brand or product that isn’t meaningful and people aren’t already passionate about it in an attempt to make them feel that way. The passion and meaning need to come first.

      I love your challenge. So, here are two for you:

      B2B – Mail sorting machines and/or postage meters
      B2C – Men’s underwear


    6. Thought provoking post, Aaron. Following on Peter’s comment, it’s a good reminder that looking at your market segments and the corresponding lifestyles of the participants is a great starting point for developing your strategy. Certainly for a non-passion product, the chances of developing a vibrant community are going to be much better than if you just focus on product features/benefits.

      @Warren – I spent a good part of my career in enterprise systems management and I can tell you that there are some very successful (and interesting) communities that have developed. One of the newer ones is SpiceWorks’ community site (they’re a desktop management company). Very smart approach to developing a community. Heavy focus on lifestyle, career development, etc.

      Hmmm…how about farm equipment?

    7. Does it go without saying that we are working on the assumption that the community must include consumers of the product or service? It’s relatively easy to envision all the constituents in the value chain on the producer side participating in a community. Manufacturer, distributor, shipper, and retailer.

      How about office cleaning services? How might they use an online community? Would the limited English of many members of the staff of such firms pose a challenge?

    8. I’m game for help wherever I can get it. I started a FB page and a LinkedIn group for a client, Restaurants To You, and sent the word out to over 4000 clients and partners, and roughly 200 of my friends on FB. 40 friends on FB signed on to “We Use Restaurants To You” almost immediately. Four people joined the LinkedIn group. We received one testimonial on the LI group and a few comments from a discussion question on the FB group. One FB member expressed an interest in becoming a client. Other questions and discussion topic suggestions have grown old without response.

      I suspect we need to go off promoting the core service (restaurant delivery in Eastern MA and Northern RI) and engage in other ways. Contests? Coupons?

      Open and receptive to any and all suggestions.

    9. Jay, Alan Wolk describes those top brands you mentioned as Prom King Brands, http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/community/columns/other-columns/e3ibd29ae66455c7a706f59fe59993cf6b7 These brands have such a strong identity that the brand/product has become the lifestyle: the Apple fanboys, and Harley riding accountants. Unfortunately, there aren’t many of those Prom King brands, so how do you find and focus on the compelling lifestyle attributes for users of ball-bearings, draino, and men’s underwear?

    10. Gents – awesome additions to the post. I will be getting back with thoughts/homework (reco’s for ball bearing, Draino, etc. community ideas).

    11. This came up during my presentation at Jeff Pulver’s Social Media Jungle (#smj08), and I’d have to agree that yes, people will rally around any object, character, person or company if it can be made engaging enough. There were several audience members who used toothpaste as their example of choice in asking the question, and while I personally prefer to connect with a person representing a company or a character, there are many out there who would rally around their choice of toothpaste (because in the end what they rally around is a defense of their choice/brand loyalty, not the toothpaste itself).

    12. Great post, Aaron. My take: it’s about shared pain.

      A big reason why GRTU exists is that its members love to fly fish for trout, yet Texas water is too hot for trout to survive naturally. So the organization formed to help support planting in the river and manage the environment for the fish. The community sprang organically from that shared goal. And it flourishes because fly fishing in Texas is a real challenge, and members always have new problems and ideas to share.

      Another example, also based in Austin, is NaturallyCurly.com. Again, common problems– the site was formed by two curly-haired journalists from the Statesman who were tired to complaining about humidity and curly hair and launched a forum. Then the site grew from there. Product promotion is obviously a big focus, but the site serves as an unbiased resource for their members.

      From what I’ve seen, some of the best communities form when people have a common problem to solve and a site aims to facilitate the interaction in an authentic way.

    13. […] Aaron Strout and Bill Fanning: Would You Join a Toothpaste Community? […]

    14. […] our last post my colleagues Aaron and Bill touched on how to connect with a passion point to drive community – but what if everyone out there is trying to connect with that same audience, and as a result […]

    15. Great conversation here, Aaron and Bill.

      I agree that you don’t build a community around the brand or even the product. You build it around what brings the people together. Yes, what we (the community members) have in common is that we all brush our teeth, but what brings us together is an interest in oral health.

      Lisa Hoffmann and I have been batting this one around. Except in those rare cases where the brand IS the passion, if you try to build a community around your brand, you’ll fail. A better approach is to throw a party and let the brand be a guest at the party.

      What else do toothpaste users have in common besides an interest in oral health? Well, many of them are parents. Explore that angle. Many also HATE going to the dentist. Anything there?

    16. Checking in here a bit late, but I like where the comments are taking the post. When it’s pain or passion, people will likely engage. Product-based community can (and will) happen, but one of those two need to be present. I’d guess Comcast had both of those with a large group of their customers, but Frank E and team have done a good job of turning the tide.

      So, as to your challenge… how about life insurance?

    17. @geechee_girl good to know Bill and I aren’t the only ones using the toothpaste analogy!

      @jeb512 thank you for the color commentary on GRTU & for adding the http://naturallycurly.com example. I’ll have to check that out.

      @twalk @dougwick great add’l posts – commented on each with my thoughts.

      @scotthepburn as a parent of three, I think you’re onto something. How do I do a better job of teaching my kids to brush their teeth and to floss?

      @jstorerj thanks for jumping in. And I agree, Frank E has done a nice job creating passion around Comcast even though they really aren’t a passion brand (maybe a third example when neither the product or the lifestyle is a passion but rather when the customer service becomes a company’s rallying cry). Love the challenge of life insurance. Will be trying to tackle that and the other items in a post today.

    18. Instead of advertising their products, Pedigree, a dog-food company, will spend their advertising dollars during the Superbowl pushing pet adoption: http://tinyurl.com/7qv9da

      They may have hit it right on the nose!

    19. Aaron and Bill – great post. At a recent marketing conference, a speaker gave a great analogy on social marketing. Picture riding on a train with a bunch of people. If you confront someone and say “buy this,” chances of success are low. If you stand next to someone and make an observation about something relevant, without overtly promoting a product, you have a higher chance of establishing a connection. Communities are the same way – they need to be relevant but don’t have to be “in your face” about a product.

      One area I’ve been working in lately is healthcare – challenges that medical device manufacturers have in marketing is that patients don’t choose a brand when they go to a hospital for surgery. How do you think those companies would be able to leverage communities?

      Very thought provoking topic – thanks guys!

    20. Adam:
      The community for med. device manufacturers isn’t patients – it is hospital purchasing agents. And, the doctors that influence those decisions. How could you get them talking to each other (without violating HIPPA) and create benefit for all of them in the context of helping them do their jobs better?

      Aaron: Let’s start a toothpaste social network and see who squeezes in. We can get a fresh start every day, while whitening and cleaning our breath!

    21. Great question and post!

      I’m working on letting the world know about the best kept secret in the electronics industry. The company is a niche electronic component distributor. Our primary target customer is engineers and purchasers for contract manufacturers and OEMs. What would a winning social networking community look like? @jesseluna on Twitter.

    22. Thanks Howard – I agree on community for med. device companies being purchasing agents and doctors. However on the patients side I think there still is a play in healthcare on building a community to grow awareness of a condition/procedure. In many cases there are only 2 or 3 device manufacturers out there, so would a play be to build community in order to grow the market (not just market share)?

    23. Adam,
      Having been in the hospital this year, I could have cared less what medical devices they used, as long as they worked well.
      I had no input into what they did for me in the operating room.

      I’m not sure where I would have had input.

      Could you clarify?

    24. So, keeping track of all these awesome suggestions, here’s the list I have so far:

      Ball bearing (thx to Peter Kim)
      * Razor blades, Draino, enterprise IT desktop configuration or anti-virus management tools (thx to Warren Sukernek)
      * Textbook publishers, soy-based candles, fur coats, or water pistols
      * Farm equipment (thx to Paul May)
      * Office cleaning services (thx to Mike Langford)
      * Life insurance (thx to Jim Storer)
      * Dogfood (thx to KyNam Doan)
      * Niche electronic component distributor geared toward engineers and purchasers for contract manufacturers and OEMs (thx to @jesseluna)
      * Medical devices (thx to Adam Cohen and Howard Greenstein who don’t seem to be able to agree on target audience)

      By the way, it looks like I’m off the hook for figuring out whether or not you could build a toothpaste community (thanks to Tim Walker, Scott Hepburn and Howard G).

    25. […] and I put together a post that talked about the fact that not many people would want to join a community that focused on toothpaste. Our point was that in most cases, many people are much more passionate about lifestyle topics like […]

    26. “That brings us back to our original question of whether or not a successful online community can be built around a non-passion brand or product. In addition to toothpaste, the three examples I gave of products that weren’t known for their ability to inspire were financial services, breakfast cereal and feminine products.”

      You are obviously a man. There are fewer things more intimate in a woman’s life than her choice of “feminine products”.

      Just sayin’. 😛

      “Non-passion brands”? Like Santa Claus, I don’t think they exist. In order to be a “brand”, someone has to be passionate about it.

    27. Türkiye’den selam ve sevgiler…

    28. […] Your Brand: The Bridge to Community January 19, 2009 Posted by Doug Wick in Engagement Marketing, Social Branding, Social Marketing. Tags: branding, social marketing strategy trackback My colleagues Aaron Strout and Bill Fanning have gotten a great conversation started around the difficulty of connecting community with a brand that seems not quite as “community ready,” starting with a recent post titled “Would you join a Toothpaste Community?“ […]

    29. […] My colleagues Aaron Strout and Bill Fanning have gotten a great conversation started around the difficulty of connecting community with a brand that seems not quite as “community ready,” starting with a recent post titled “Would you join a Toothpaste Community?“ […]

    30. Aaron, I couldn’t resist throwing in my 2 cents. What a great topic! At Communispace, we’ve launched and managed about 325 communities for major brands, and our experience is that no one will join a toothpaste community and stay for an extended period of time. Having said that, we run successful communities for makers of everything from toothpaste to deodorant to paint to life insurance. The key to success for low-involvement products is creating what we call “social glue”: for those communities, you need to have members that have many things in common other than the product itself. One of our most vibrant and longstanding communities is for Axe Deodorant, but the members are all young guys, and, well, let’s just say that they have a lot to talk about other than whether they sweat.

    31. Diane – it’s an honor to have you commenting on this post. As someone that has been in the space for longer than most, I like your perspective on how brands should think about creating community for their customers. The concept of “social glue” is a good one and one that many folks tend to forget about. Instead, they get caught up on which tools to use.

      Aaron | @aaronstrout

    32. […] pm · Filed under community I’ve been thinking about this for a while.  Aaron Strout’s toothpaste post made me think about it but Mark Wallace’s blog post prompted me to write it […]

    33. I’m glad to see this conversation started again! I couldn’t agree with Aaron more, too often we are caught up with the technology and forget the big picture- why will people find this compelling. That being said, too many marketers assume that just have a a compelling subject is enough and don’t think about how to build participation. If we accomplish anything this year, let it be killing off the “Field of Dreams” attitude people have when it comes to online communities. “If you build it, they will come” does not apply. If you go through the effort to build an online community, know that there will have to be a considerable marketing effort to back it up.

    34. Thanks Sam. We couldn’t agree more!


    35. […] you passionately discuss cereal with your friends?  Or, would you join a toothpaste community, as Aaron Strout recently […]

    36. […] is something we’ve addressed a lot in this blog, particularly with Aaron’s popular “Would you Join a Toothpaste Community?” post, along with follow-up posts where Aaron tackled a few challenging products from a […]

    37. mm. really like it.

    38. […] do just that, see their efforts falter.Along these same lines, Aaron recently had a post asking if you would join a toothpaste community. This is another area where many companies fail. They want to 'create' a community because they […]

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    40. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I have really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I¡¦ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

    41. […] Austin et pris le poste de CMO à Powered. C’est à ce moment, où tu as pris connaissance de la communauté “toothpaste” qui part de l’idée qu’on est tous passionné de quelque chose et qu’il s’agit de trouver […]

    42. […] Austin et pris le poste de CMO à Powered. C’est à ce moment, où tu as pris connaissance de la communauté “toothpaste” qui part de l’idée qu’on est tous passionné de quelque chose et qu’il s’agit de trouver […]

    43. I’m glad to see this conversation started again! I couldn’t agree with Aaron more, too often we are caught up with the technology and forget the big picture- why will people find this compelling

    44. Your article let me understand this world more and more, it has the abundant knowledge, I always check your website any time

    45. I’ve been browsing online more than 2 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all website owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the internet will be much more useful than ever before.

    46. […] most brands are not worth talking about and should not use social media for that purpose (not a new notion but worth repeating) – by the way, I’m not so sure that Apple is still one of those […]

    47. The whole idea of fusion is that one element does not dominate, but that they all combine to provide interesting decor
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