‘If you get involved in a fandom, it has to be long term’: Why commitment is important for brands tapping into Australia’s $4.3bn fan industry

Brands have an opportunity to tap into an estimated $4.3bn fan industry in Australia, but in doing so they need to satisfy three core elements to prove their worth to fans.

According to a study conducted by Fifty Five 5 and Nine’s marketing solutions division Powered, fans expect brands to exhibit participation, investment and dedication in a fandom, as well as alignment of the core values between the two entities.

The exploration, presented as part of Nine’s The Big Ideas Store, into the fan industry discovered 28% of Australians consider themselves fans of something and spend an average $909 per year on their particular fandom. The research saw 1400 people surveyed across 35 different fandoms, with the key factors including an emotional connection to the values of their chosen fandom and the importance that brands learn and abide by the rules of the group.

Simon Rutherford, partner and CEO of Slingshot Media says brands need to decide if they’re trying to latch on to an existing fandom or begin their own, but that the latter is a tough path and not possible for everyone. He gives Apple, Nike and Lego as examples of the rare brands that have been able to build their own fandoms.

“There are three steps [for brands looking to leverage on a fandom]. You’ve got to listen, delve into it, and understand why a fan connects to that property. You’ve got to understand it on a really deep level, because you can get it really wrong and there are plenty of examples of brands getting it wrong,” he says.

McDonald’s is a prime example of a brand that got it wrong, says Rutherford. In 2017, the fast-food outlet tried to align itself to animated comedy Rick and Morty by releasing Szechuan sauce, a gag from within the show. This backfired, resulting in riots when not enough sauce was made available, and then backfired again six months later when the sauce was returned to the menu in bigger quantities and deemed ‘disappointing’ by fans.

“You need to understand the size and the scale [of the fandom], and then also make sure that you give as a brand. Whether that’s giving control or making sure that whatever you’re doing around that fandom it has to increase the love and the joy that the fan gets out of that experience. If you’re asking yourself the question ‘am I creating a better experience by being involved’ and the answer is no, don’t get involved. You’ll get found out.”

Hannah Krijnen, director of Fifty5Five, said Lego is one of the best examples of a brand interacting with a fandom because it does it in two ways.

“They have leveraged fandoms and when we talk to fans of Harry Potter, for instance, they love how Lego has gone out to fans to get the right colours, Lego has listened, there’s a true understanding of the fandom, the source material and dedication to it. Lego has also in the process created their own fandom,” said Krijnen.

“As one company to be able to see case studies of both ways of interacting with fans is incredible. To me, they’re the epitome of brands and fandom.”

Krijnen also gave the example of the cosmetic industry and its ability to leverage fandoms that wouldn’t necessarily be associated with makeup, including the connection between MAC and Star Trek.

Brands can pick between mainstream or challenger fandoms, but need to know both have their own rules and status quo to follow. While challenger fandoms are less popular and socially accepted they make up a sizeable cohort of the Australian fan base, with one in three classed as challenger fans.

Rutherford said brands who want to align with challenger fans would still need to follow the rules set out for mainstream brands and fandoms. He said there is an opportunity for brands who want to align with challenger fandoms and then go into battle for them should the opportunity arise.

“If you’re a mainstream brand the likelihood is you’re probably going attach yourself to a mainstream fandom, but if you’re a smaller brand and you’ve got quite a discrete audience, and you can find a fandom that is also discrete, I don’t think there’s a problem. It’s all in the planning. If the connection happens and people start poking fun at the fact you’ve engaged with that fandom, have a point of view to protect your fandom,” he said.

Krijnen’s final tip was that brands cannot be fairweather supporters of a fandom, and if they’re going to try and reap the benefits of being aligned with a group they need to be there through thick and thin.

“It’s about that genuine shared value, what’s our purpose and where do we align with a fandom that taps into those values. The other side of that it commitment. In sports, it’s really easy to say you’re there when the team loses but you also have to find a way through when there are scandals or there’s negative press. Brands who come and go will never genuinely be seen as a true fan, whereas Nike’s way of sticking through with Colin Kaepernick is a really good example where they’ve gone longterm and showed they do believe in this.”


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