Why are we fans of particular brands? What makes us not just buy its products, but actually enter a mental state in which we embrace myths, symbols and the power that comes from a whole community of like-minded fans? How does the phenomenon begin?
We become confident of a brand through incremental positive experiences with the brand’s performance. We develop favourable attitudes towards the brand as it gradually becomes a part of our daily routine. We find ourselves looking out for our favourite brands, buying them over and over again, and recommending them to our friends. While most consumers have a handful of brands they like or are loyal to, some have moved on to a higher level of involvement with their favourite brands. This often entails expressions of more extreme emotions bordering on fanaticism.
A case in point would be fans of football teams. They spend hours watching, analysing and betting on games. The fortunes of their teams affect their moods and the teams’ schedule dictates their social engagements. Occasionally they lose control; they trash property and endanger public life with their over-the-top displays of aggression and fan fervour. But although these are extreme instances of fan aggression that do pose a threat to others, most manifestations of fan fervour are less menacing and are, in fact, an important part of human existence, experience and expression.
Most fans are normal human beings who love their brands because they reinforce their sense of self. This is especially so for highly symbolic brands (such as cars and luxury fashion brands) that play a role in crafting one’s identity and extended self. There are also many fans that are willing to be a part of a larger community of fans, that is, a brand community.
From Individual To Community
Brand communities are built on a shared commitment and common devotion to a brand entity, which could be anything from an inanimate object (such as a car or a gadget) to a living, breathing human being (such as an athlete or a movie star).
These communities are unique to the brand entity, not bound by geography, and are based on a structured set of social relationships among admirers of a brand.
In addition to identifying with the brand on a personal level, people through their consumption identify with others who also consume the brand. Examples of vibrant brand communities include those built on iconic brands such as Apple, Harley-Davidson and Mini Cooper. Others are based on sporting franchises such as football teams in the English Premier League, and the North American professional leagues of baseball, basketball, hockey and American football. Fan clubs also provide fertile ground for the germination of brand communities that centre on celebrities, musical genres, television shows, and other forms of popular culture.
For consumers, brand communities are social networks that provide a sense of belonging and communal affiliation. As a participant in such a community, one can expect help and support from those who use the brand.
There are brand communities (such as Apple’s and numerous online car forums in Singapore) made up of fervent fans who pride themselves on their product knowledge and their willingness to share it with like-minded followers. A brand community represents a collective voice and action, which makes it empowering for those who belong to it.
The attraction of brand communities lies in the way they offer consumers the kind of social connection that seems to have disappeared with the times. In an increasingly alienated world where people are wary even of their neighbours, fandom provides a much needed avenue where people can have something in common with one another. Fandom provides common ground for debate, discussion, and for making connections to people across time and space. Interestingly, fandom also allows individuals to experience the full spectrum of emotions, including some distressing ones (anger, despair, and envy), in a relatively safe manner. In other words, fandom provides a safety valve — for overwrought consumers to let off steam at a common enemy, whether it is a rival team or the referee.
Riding On The Power Of Fandom
Given that fanaticism is an acceptable part of consumption behaviour, how can marketers harness the potential of fandom and brand communities? For fans to adore and worship a brand, they are looking for something beyond consistent and superior quality and performance. The key lies in the use of brand myths that appeal to the innermost desires of consumers. Myths (used here in the anthropological sense) refer to stories containing symbolic elements that express the shared emotions and ideals of a culture. Successful brands are able to use brand myths that incorporate what is important to their fans. For example, Star Trek fans are searching for the Utopian ideals of social harmony and the acceptance of diversity, and find these ideals in their Trek universe.
For some brand communities, fans believe in the myth of power, that they can shape reality. For instance, sports fans believe they have the power to influence the outcome of a game. Their show of support creates the hallowed home ground or home-court advantage; many travels to support their teams on away games braving the jeers and taunts of rival sports teams. In some cases such as reality TV talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent and American Idol, and the local equivalent of Project Superstar and Singapore Idol, the votes of fans actually make or break the dreams of the contestants.
Herein lies the magnetism of such shows where fans have been galvanised to greater degrees of engagement and involvement than ever before. The ‘fan vote’ phenomenon has changed the face of fandom, and it remains to be seen what will be the next level to which fan power is elevated.
Established brands that have had a long history are able to delve into their traditions to source for myths that could engage their fans. For example, BMW has crafted an entire marketing campaign that revolves around the concept of Joy. The focus is not on the car itself but on the emotion of Joy which one experiences from owning and driving a BMW.
Creating Brand Myths
For brands that are relatively young or newly minted, it is still possible to create brand myths. Local brands without the cache of tradition that foreign brands have can take heart in this. A strong brand community can be nurtured using shared rituals and traditions, which are centred on shared consumption experiences with the brand. For instance, Jeep has launched numerous brandfests featuring jamborees (regional rallies with a focus on off-road trail driving) and Camp Jeep (a national rally offering lifestyle and product-related activities). These brandfests provide opportunities to accentuate the social bonds of brand communities in terms of the company getting to know their fans, and for consumers to enjoy the camaraderie of fandom.
While marketers may hope to tap the vast potential of fans, fans do resist overt attempts by marketers to cash in on their devotion or to popularise the brand at the expense of some long-standing brand beliefs and traditions.