Building Fandom

For the next three months, B-Sides will take a look at the evolution of the brand in a three-part series. In April and May editions, look for discussions on building a legion of brand fans and what to do with them.


In the beginning, there was the product. This can be a service like car repair, an item like a cell-phone case, or a mission like ending hunger. Your business is built on offering a product that is innovative, unique or absent in the marketplace, thus desired by your customers or donors.

While some products are so stellar they practically sell themselves, even those products need marketing. There was a time when using marketing and advertising to simply say what your product did exceptionally well was enough. That time is long gone. For decades, associations have been made with things outside of the product – lifestyle, sexuality, self image – to build brand loyalty. That, too, is changing.

Brand loyalty is trusting the value of the product enough to purchase it exclusively over comparable products. Some people only buy Viva paper towels, some are Coke loyalists, and some only buy Ford. These people have had positive experiences with the products offered by these brands, so they continue to patronize them. This has long been the goal of marketing these brands.

Today, however, something more is expected: fandom. Upon first glance, brand fandom looks a lot like rabid loyalty. In part, it is. But there truly is something more. Think of bands or sports teams and their fans. These folks wear t-shirts, they put stickers on their cars, and they proselytize the brand to those they know. Countless arguments have been had about the talent of one band over another, the championship chances of one team over a competitor. Sure, these fans are loyal, but their brand allegiance extends far deeper than the way people are loyal to Viva over Brawny. Have you ever seen someone wearing a t-shirt for either?

People don’t wear t-shirts associated with paper towels because those brands don’t build any of the qualities into their brand that inspires fandom. And really, they don’t have to and probably would be wisely advised against it. They are utilitarian, everyday purchases that we feel we have to make. Their audience is the entire population, and they only need to differentiate themselves from others offering pretty much the same thing on the shelf.

While there are countless attributes that can inspire fandom, we recognize three majors:

  • Values To get people to wear your brand on a t-shirt, they must identify with your values. And for them to identify with your values, you must express them. Do not confuse this with politics; companies that take political stances run the risk of raising stronger ire than admiration. A good example of a local company with values would be New Belgium Brewing Co. Wearing a Fat Tire shirt not only says you like the beer – after all, you must also have a great product; you’re not the Chicago Cubs – but it also says you support sustainability, employee ownership, bikes, and community stewardship. Even if only a portion of your customers identify with your stated values, that portion will do so with such fervor that they will advertise for you, which is invaluable.
  • Authenticity Just as Holden Caulfield in JD Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye detested phonies, so do many of today’s consumers. The easy answer to “What makes a brand phony?” is not living up to its purported values. Google presents itself as a progressive company with the goal of not being evil. So, when Google was allowing itself to be censored by China, many Google advocates became detractors. Recently, following a state-supported cyber attack, Google pulled out of China, losing access to the largest consumer base in the world. As a result, countless Chinese have a rabid fandom of Google, seeing them take a stand in a way they can’t, and people worldwide that don’t support China’s human rights issues likely feel similar. They took a major step towards authenticity by taking a business risk to take a stand. But you are not Google; you are not taking on China. Instead, be real and stay true to your stated values.
  • Connection There is a certain intangible in this quality that inspires fandom. For sports, it can be geographical. Or maybe your grandpa was a Pirates fan, so you are as well. For bands, you can perhaps identify with the style of clothes, the image, the lyrics, the sorrow – something. By being truly authentic, the brand will have a genuine personality with attributes folks will identify with. But this can’t really be manufactured, or it will appear inauthentic.


Next month, B-Sides will attack all the ways you can build fandom once you’ve set your brand identity to include these qualities.