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How Brands Create Fans

In today’s fragmented media environment, the scarcest commodity for any marketing or PR pro is customer attention. That’s why engaging users and relationship marketing is so fascinating – and so elusive.

Too many brands have outsourced their customer relationships to influencers like celebrities for hire. Influencers are effective, but how much more powerful are real, authentic fans?

I started thinking about fanship recently while representing my agency at the 2019 PROI Global Summit, where celebrated marketing strategist David Meerman Scott delivered a keynote address on how fans are made and maintained.

 

“The pendulum has swung too far in the direction of superficial online communications at a time when people are hungry for true human connection.” – David Meerman Scott

We’re not talking about a casual Facebook ‘like’ or a comment upvote. Scott has dug into the phenomenon of true, passionate fanship – or “fanocracy,” as he calls it. That’s the title of the book he’s co-authored with daughter Reiko Scott, which offers a unique intergenerational twist. When Scott talks about being a true fan, he knows what he’s talking about. The man has been attending live Grateful Dead concerts (and those by the reconstituted band) since he was 17 years old, and he’s expert at translating the ways the iconic group “broke the rules” of traditional marketing wisdom. Scott also took us through a current case history by classic car insurer Hagerty, which has built an impressive fanship by creating online forums, special experiences, and generally tapping into the passion of car collectors.

But an insurer for people with the leisure time and wealth to collect vintage Maseratis has a special opportunity. What about more mundane brands and businesses? Scott’s presentation sent me down a road of exploration of true fanship. Turns out it’s not just for rock and roll legends or car collectors. Here’s how a variety of brands have created or tapped into their natural fan base.

Let it go

You must give in order to get. Possibly even your intellectual property. David Meerman Scott makes this point brilliantly when describing how his favorite band allowed its fans to record their shows – in fact, they encouraged it. Today, “co-creation” is a strong trend among those who market to millennials, because the younger cohort is all about creating, curating, and adapting images and content. As a latter-day example, marketing software company Hubspot does a great job showing the power of free stuff, especially content. It serves up free templates, content idea generators, marketing advice and inspiration, and a dizzying variety of high-quality resources that cost businesses nothing. All are designed to help customers and prospects reach their inbound marketing goals.

Forget landing pages that require an email. Forget freewalls or paywalls or data capture. Don’t worry if users adapt your product. Don’t try to legislate fanship, either. Chevrolet learned this the hard way when it tried to require employees and customers to use the full product name rather than the nickname “Chevy.” The backlash that ensued was a great example of a brand learning to get out of its own way.

Treat fans like celebrities

Sparkling water brand LaCroix built a deep pool of fans by wooing users on social media and rewarding them with free product and swag. Most importantly, it gave LinkedIn, Twitter, and especially Instagram fans what they craved most – social media attention. LaCroix shares posts by users, regardless of the size of their following, so each fan can get its 15 minutes. What’s more, that fierce fan base came in handy when negative PR bubbled up after LaCroix was accused of misleading labeling information. How many brands can issue a defensive press release on behalf of its fans?

Be entertaining

You don’t need to be a rock band to offer entertainment for fans. Just look at Merriam Webster. It’s hardly a brand with sex appeal, yet it’s been entertaining us with witty definitions, tweeted dryly to millions of followers. It’s a brand that doesn’t take itself seriously, yet its brand character, which is captured in its tagline, “Words Matter,” elevates its mission. A smart brand will look at its own apps, social content, events, gamification, and experiences to connect fans with one another and above all, entertain them, even if its goals are substantive and serious.

Find your tribe

As popularized by marketing experts like Seth Godin and others, tribalism differs from simple brand loyalty or brand fanship in one key way. The relationship is about a shared passion, not loyalty to a brand. Fellow members of a group or tribe are bonded through communal storytelling, exchange of knowledge, and – most of all – a shared identity. The emotion in this case is about having a healthy lifestyle, building a fantastic business culture, or whatever. Which leads to another, even more essential ingredient of pure fandom, below, because even an inspiring brand needs to connect to something higher.

Stand for something

Well, duh, you might say. But this is often a brand’s greatest challenge. It’s not enough to own the obvious product attributes. For Starbucks, it isn’t about that great cup of coffee – although the quality and variety has to be there. Starbucks’ unique attribute is its status as a “third place” – where you can hang out, enjoy community, or simply keep your own company without being rushed. For Tim Horton’s, a very different coffee brand, it started with the legendary Canadian hockey defenseman known for his strength and durability – undersung and quintessentially Canadian values. Nike sells lots of shoes and clothing, but what it really offers is performance. The greatest brands create fans by making a deeper-than-average connection because they’re selling us more than a product or service.

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