What is a fan? Sports teams are preoccupied with them. Musicians pander to them. Brands pay blood money for them.
Fans are more than the first to buy your product, your album, ticket or your new jersey. They are emotionally invested in everything you do and stand for. Working in an industry that often values fans as more than “just” consumers; I begin to wonder what this repeated request is actually asking for?
They’re not “just” consumers because they are self-appointed brand ambassadors. They don’t just buy your stuff, they talk about you; they think critically about what you do. Despite all the love, if you do something that doesn’t seem to match their expectations, they’ll be the first and the loudest to complain. They are not “just” consumers because they’ve internalized what you do. Your success is theirs. But they also share in your failure.
Not too long ago, “fan” was derived from “fanatic”. Perhaps in a similar vernacular softening as “carbon dioxide” shortened to “carbon” (as in: “carbon offsetting”), fanatic implied something far more dramatic. It implied an emotional zealousness. Fanatic meant radical. Fanatics cared in extremes. Fanatics were often political. They were militant.
No wonder there seemed to be an unconscious but collective decision to shorten it.
Fanatics poached narrative plot lines from Star Trek, re-writing them to suit their purposes. Then they were taken to court. Fanatics stormed the football pitch in angry demonstration. And then they were arrested.
Perhaps fanaticism has something to do with a tension between identity and ownership? We buy stuff, but when we buy into a brand (and all the ideas, baggage and culture that goes with it), stuff is not just stuff, it’s an articulation of who we think we are. So perhaps more than identity and ownership, fandom is in a constant tension of identity-ownership.
If a brand wants to have fans, it has to prepare to let go of a lot of control over the brand’s meaning. It feels a bit hackneyed to say that brands are owned by their fans… but it’s true. However, most consumers are not fans per-say. They don’t emotionally connect with the stuff they buy; it’s just stuff they buy.
Feeling like a brand (or sports team, band or film) is their own, fans don’t see a piece of work, an ad, a product or a piece of music as the finished final thing. Instead it’s just the opening credits for their own story. Brands just pad out and prop their lives.
Max Brooks (Mel’s son and the director of the forthcoming Brad Pitt film, World War Z) is the creator of the Hollywood Myth Binder. When script number one for any film is finished, Brooks comes in and writes scripts two through to ten. The ultimate fan-boy job; writing the myth binder for a film articulates all the possible stories, myths and narrative trajectories the original film might introduce. The myth binder pads out a film. It creates the effects of having fans… without actually having fans. This I find interesting.
It seems fandom is about authorship as well as ownership and identity. The mistake many brands make when they ask for more fans is the assumption that the brand they’ll be interacting with is some neat, tidy, finished (and totally controllable) thing. On the contrary, fans - in their true fanatical sense - make a brand a messy thing: owned and authored by a lot of people with a lot of different narratives they are trying to tell. But fans rarely kill a brand. They care too much about a share in its success (as a reflection of their own).
Written by Collyn Ahart and illustrated by Lauren Gentry.