How fans have influenced culture and commerce, and how understanding the rising phenomenon of super fandom can change the future of many businesses
An entire episode of popular television series The Big Bang Theory centres on the main character, Sheldon, obsessing over a vintage 1975 Mego Star Trek Transporter toy. With 50 years and just under 550 combined hours of television and film, Star Trek practically created the template for fandom and the nerd culture of today. All the four male heroes in Big Bang are science geniuses, as well as Trekkies, as Star Trek fans are called, fluent in Klingon and often play Boggle in the language. They are also major superhero fans, and their usual idea of weekend fun is an evening at the local comic bookstore—their big getaways are always Star Trek conventions and Comic Cons. Fandom has swelled with the rise of modern consumerism, technological advances and the spread of infotainment. Fans today go well beyond geeks. Some 40,000 people attended Berkshire Hathway’s (Warren Buffet’s company) annual general meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2014. Look at the top 10 movies worldwide any year—most of them, if not all, are based on sci-fi/fantasy/children classics that are evergreen, with huge franchises and fan bases. This year’s surprise top hits were women-centric—Wonder Woman and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. And then there are the fans of football or baseball clubs and musicians.
Consumers care for a product; fans care for what the product stands for. ‘Fandom’ is a verb. Connected to pieces of culture that inspire loyalty and, more importantly, activity, fans create, engage, share and contribute. The key to fandom lies in the primal human nature to form communities. Super fans go a step further; they are “those dedicated and serious members of a fandom who… commit real time, energy, and attention to assisting and improving the fandom they love”. In Super Fandom, Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron M Glazer explore how fans have influenced culture and commerce, and how understanding the rising phenomenon of super fandom can change the future of many businesses. The authors should know, they co-founded the crowdsourced toy company, Squishable, in 2007, and use fan inputs to develop new products. We are, the authors argue, entering an age of fandom convergence—one in which fan activities and communities become intrinsic to the brand experience, and the line blurs between the user and the creator—and digital and social media are playing a huge part in that.
Super Fandom works as an essential handy guide to this tech- and fan-fuelled new world. Fan subcultures provide “a fast way to quickly build trust, gain acceptance, pass on important information, and learn new skills in a safe environment”. Furthermore, “for a lot of people, finding their fandom is a life altering event”. Finding something to fan about helps them find themselves and belong, feel like a better person, and even fight anxiety and depression. Indeed, becoming a fan can be a transformative experience, a brand new way of life, often leading to activism and ‘making-a-difference’ activities. Each time Justin Bieber launches a new CD, his fans organise a “buyout” to help propel the album to the top of the charts. The Harry Potter Alliance (a non-profit organisation run primarily by Harry Potter fans) got Warner Bros to get all their chocolates Fair Trade-certified. The multi-billion-dollar entertainment behemoth felt it’d be a small price to pay to keep their fans engaged with the long list of their monetisation activities.
At the core of fandom, however, is a commercial activity designed to make money. Though fandom is “externally-generated branding”, fans can’t save a company, like they couldn’t save Polaroid. Yet fandom “is an important part of identity building”. Fan experiences and feelings of identity and membership are very real. One of the main purposes of fandom is to provide positive emotional associations for products that we might not look at twice. That the same associations are sometimes the result of well-planned business deals have little impact on the way fans feel. So how can super fans potentially disrupt or grow a business, especially at a time when marketers lament that brand loyalty is dying? The book abounds with case studies of how fans have brought back or relived brands (James Bond, Surge), made dead or dormant ones resurgent (Polaroid), created or preserved a myth/legend (DeLorean, Sherlock Holmes) and created backlash for companies (Nutella, Maker’s Mark, Ikea).
So how can CEOs and CMOs be successful in deciding what we will love or cherish next year? Does the book elaborate on nurturing the symbiotic relationship that exists between brands and fans, the collective compulsion, the exclusivity or the sentimental memories of what the brand evokes in the community? Not really. We have a generation today that’s more playful, social, creative and risk-taking. They are also in a period of great economic volatility and political uncertainty. They have strong opinions and aren’t fearful of expressing them. They are happy to hold on to, or occasionally return to their childhood memories, loyalties and fads. The authors explain the nature and the many complex facets of the phenomenon, but not how to avoid fans getting it wrong. And they often do, unlike customers. Marketers need to tread a fine line, playing in “the experience economy” and managing fan expectations.
Giving fans a platform and diverse ways to participate helps a fan group (and, therefore, the fan object) become self-sustaining, resilient to change and a robust community. Coke, Disney, Harry Potter, etc, are great examples of this. Super fandom is still not a third-world phenomenon, but the Internet will ensure it gets there soon. The book is peppered with fascinating case studies and real-life examples that contribute to its readability. Written with humour and sensitivity, it’s a book that marketers would do well to read through quickly. The Internet has allowed them to reach out directly to their fans, with great advantages, but it’s also a community they can underplay only at their own peril.
Paromita Shastri is a freelancer