The phenomenon behind great products and their fierce fanbases
by Man-Ping Wu
I’ve always been a devoted fan of brands like Nike, Nintendo and Disney. It’s an ice breaker that never fails when you meet someone who also happens to be a fan. I used this as a social survival mechanism long before I thought about it as a concept. Then I learned about fandom.
Fandom is essentially subcultures created by fans who share a common interest. After I took my fandom elective course at New York University (NYU), I learned why fandom serves the purpose it does for me, and how brands and companies can leverage the power of fandom for their own purpose. Fans don’t just magically come out of a vacuum. You can stoke the fire of fandom, and the techniques can be used to market yourself, and when building and marketing your own products.
Hi there! My name is Man-Ping and I am the new design intern at HOVS and soon-to-be member of the Semplice family (new portfolio coming soon). I will be helping out with DESK and sharing some food for thought throughout the next three months of my internship.
As a brief introduction, I am an interdisciplinary designer who is currently going to NYU's integrated digital media graduate program. I am doing my thesis on anime fandom, so to start I thought I’d share some fandom knowledge and why you should consider it for your product design toolkit.
Fandom in most people’s minds is nerdy activities like conventions, pilgrimages or protecting your celebrity crush on Twitter. That’s part of it, but fandom goes much deeper as a social and psychological phenomenon. As a fan, you have inside jokes and feel you are part of a tribe, while the outside world just doesn't understand. To appreciate the power of fandom, consider the fact that it’s also a verb, meaning fans going out of their way to do more than just passively appreciate a product or piece of culture. While casual viewers are satisfied just watching Game of Thrones, a fan will plan a trip to where the series was filmed in Northern Ireland and Spain. Their motivation to increase their hierarchy status within the fandom means they are actively promoting their interest and bringing it to life.
Having the first original pair of Air Jordan 1’s is proof of your longevity as a fan and gives you bragging rights. But don’t be confused about spending money and being counted as a fan, because it is easy to be a consumer by spending money. Fandom is not just about loving a product or brand, but aligning our identities and beliefs with it. The difference in buying a cheap Halloween “licensed” costume vs. commissioning a custom handmade cosplay outfit is night and day. Wearing Nike gear means having a champion athlete’s mindset. Using an Apple laptop means being a creative rebel like Steve Jobs.
Disney is a brand with a large fanbase that maximizes their audience’s enthusiasm with a long-term strategy. It keeps up with societal changes, which started with fans collecting VHS tapes and is now a community of Disney+ subscribers, as well as a wide variety of franchises. But beyond Disney's efforts, its fanbase fuels itself. Fans want to be part of the Disney magic beyond just being a regular watcher, so they invent new activities on their own, like Disney bounding, fan-art crossovers and Disney trivia. Fans' enthusiasm and desire for bragging rights keeps them engaging with all things Disney. Collect a limited edition Disney pins or get featured on the Disneyland Instagram and you level up.
In this way, fans become Disney’s best marketing team with their authentic excitement that makes outsiders curious – all while Disney creates new outlets that support its fans' passion. By evangelizing sleeping fans into the fandom, Disney creates more magic around their brand and makes the community stronger.
The viral video-sharing app company, TikTok, is an interesting case study in creating a grassroots fandom. While similar apps like Vine eventually died out, TikTok expanded on the idea by encouraging TikTok sub-communities. They introduced ideas like hacks, jokes and challenges and, importantly, found a way to source the original creator. As a result, TikTok has managed to not only stay alive but build an audience that fuels its growth. It created a platform that allows users to easily consume content and be creative without fear of not being credited.
How to create a fandom around your own brand or product? Start here:
Have a good product and your fanbase will grow naturally - Nintendo initially built games for the arcade, however their gameplay and characters are beloved by the players who become lifelong fans.
Have a clear mission that will resonate with your fans - Apple’s marketing philosophy since 1977 has been based on empathy, focus and presenting its products in a beautiful way that imputed their qualities. By staying true to their mission and infusing that into their products, Apple has successfully associated itself with creativity. If you are a "creative" person, you proudly align yourself with Apple.
Keep up with the societal changes and continue to innovate - It is easy to be satisfied with success and rest on it, becoming immobile and eventually irrelevant. Disney kept innovating their product and marketing with offerings like Disney+ to satisfy their fans’ current lifestyles and interests.
Give your fans some recognition - A retweet, a like or a comment makes a fans’ day, even if it means their cooking gets roasted by Gordan Ramsey.
Learn to see and create connections - For example, fandom-crossovers (read: partnerships) gets fans excited. When two fandoms collided between Michael Jordan and Nike to Air Jordans, it became one of the biggest footwear phenomena.
Build your fandom, but don’t try too hard - When fast-food chains attempt to copy Wendy’s salty tweets, they look lazy and ring false from the fans’ point of view. Watch and see what your audience is naturally doing and do your best to encourage it. Let your fans lead the way.
Allow fans to have an outlet outside of your base - TikTok and Reddit are great examples of platforms that foster fans. Grassroots fandom thrives here as people have a safe space to appreciate their passion without feeling monitored.
Fandom is an incredibly powerful way to build and grow your product, if you know how to harness it. The first step is understanding you don't control fandom. Your fans do. While you create a great product and foster fandom through your marketing, it's your fans that make it real. The beauty of fandom is that fans own it.
Understanding fandom requires understanding people. Fandom provides is like a survival mechanism for fans to feel a sense of belonging from the real world. It is basically human psychology in a fandom petri dish.