Lucy Hart: Fan-Finity and Why Brands That Build Fandoms Will Dominate the Next Decade

Lucy Hart
May 14, 2024

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LONDON - I’m about to reveal my hill to die on. Brands that shift from 'audience' to 'fans' and fully embrace community marketing will be the big winners over the next 10 years. I even have a name for it, the era of Fan-finity, which may or may not take off. Phew, glad that’s off my chest. 

Time To Get Fanatical About Fandom

I’m about to reveal my hill to die on. Brands that shift from 'audience' to 'fans' and fully embrace community marketing will be the big winners over the next 10 years. I even have a name for it, the era of Fan-finity, which may or may not take off. Phew, glad that’s off my chest. 

In March 2024 Reddit went public on the US stock exchange with shares opening 48% higher than its market valuation on its debut trading day. The platform boasts 73 million daily active users spread across 100,000 active 

subreddits. You can find people who share your love for the same TV shows, support the same politics, or even commiserate over similar dating woes. 

Reddit is our community bellwether. They’re the poster child of fan culture and community alongside platforms like Discord, Patreon, and Substack, serving as digital hubs for interest groups. These platforms mark a natural progression from mass social platforms like Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and Pinterest. Allowing users to become active participants, they satisfy their thirst for specific topics, and engage in meaningful dialogue with like-minded individuals without the noise and negging of traditional social media platforms. 

Smart brands, particularly those born in the digital age, have been mimicking fan-led communities for some time. They leverage tools and products tailored to cultivate fan behaviour on social media platforms, carve out genuine roles in online forums, and adjust their CRM strategies to offer fan incentives and opportunities to connect with others who share similar interests. They enlist creators to help spread their message and speak the language of the internet fluently.

It’s compelling to see, and exciting to be involved in as a punter as it’s all about enrichment; taking your money feels like a bi-product of participating in something which matters to you. 

Fandom Marketing in Action 

One brand that does this brilliantly is, and bear with me on this one, CrossFit. You might know CrossFit as the burpee advocating sport. It’s a sport which has values - and behaviour - centred on fostering community and fandom. Some call it a cult, and in the spirit of building fandoms and community for market success, I argue this is not a bad thing! CrossFit has an estimated £3 billion valuation afterall. 

CrossFit started to gain prominence with 2007’s inaugural CrossFit Games. This incidentally was the time period many other community-centric brands were founded - Rapha 2004, Peloton 2012, Gymshark 2012, Glossier 2014 etc. 

It’s fan-centric structure includes a unique language of the sport known and understood by the initiated (say Murph to a CrossFit person, I dare you), a system of shared values and beliefs (community-culture, belonging, mental & physical strength), visual identifiers of belonging (specific brands of apparel), character & icons (major names, emerging talent and creators and now BBC Gladiators stars). It also includes an immersive entertainment culture with podcasts, meme accounts, and documentaries.

A sense of fan tribalism is part of the essence - and enjoyment - of being part of a community. Successful brands know how to cultivate this, see Peloton, Sephora and Rapha as other examples.

These brands recognise that community marketing goes beyond social strategy. It involves fandom affinity, or what I call “multi-channel fan-finity”. This encompasses CRM, PR, social media, events, community messaging apps, rewards programs, creator content, and retail environments.

Agile, newly minted brands do so well at making it happen as it’s much easier for the left hand to speak to the right hand. Getting all marketing departments aligned, let alone sharing the same vision, can be a significant challenge in larger organisations.

One exception is McDonald’s. They have been delivering some of the best fandom and community-related content of anyone in the last few years. It’s long running As Featured In… series has scaled up in the last year to embrace niches and fandom interest categories. For example, a Disney Loki tie in, a couple of big K-Pop collabs and a partnership with anime creators Studio Pierrot treated fans to high quality exclusive content, in-store ltd product & unique IRL experiences, including a Supreme merch store, igniting fan fervour and social conversation overload. 

At the 2023 Cannes Lions 65% of delegates said they intend to invest more in community and you can see why. Much like real life, strong communities equal strong growth. Some two thirds of companies say their community impacts customer retention, and Bain & Company have found that increasing customer retention can increase profits from 25-95%. One interesting reason for this is that loyal customers advocate and bring new customers into the brand. These ‘referred’ customers are not only new buyers but cheaper to support because whoever brought them there acts like a support desk taking the strain off brand run departments. If that's not community at work I don’t know what is. 

So it’s time to go beg your CMO or CEO to rip everything up and start over with a fandom-first approach. Tell them I need some more brave brand success stories so I can get off this hill! 

Fandom Affinity Scale (Fan-finity)

Ready to enter your brand’s ‘multi-channel fan-finity’ era but not sure where to begin?

Start with some analysis using my Fandom Affinity Scale, which I use to start strategically categorising audience behaviours and their levels of fan engagement. 

Start by asking yourself and your teams what cultivates responses from your audiences (not what you want them to latch onto, but what they naturally do!) 

This exercise is a look at what aspects of your brand have low, medium or high fandom affinity (fan-finity). This exercise allows you to take the time to understand what cultivates response from audience (not what you want them to latch onto, but what they naturally do!). Itill identify how that behaviour plays out and what you might do to enhance it based on your brand ecosystem.

What is high affinity may not be what you wish to be the focus of the brand at a given time. But that fandom is worth cultivating and caring for as they are such strong supporters of other aspects of the brand (LEGO is a great example of this with its AFOL community). This exercise will reveal some golden nuggets about where your brand has strengths and weaknesses with community. 

Fan-finity In Action

Here’s an example. Brand X creates amazing ice creams, they have all your regular flavours beautifully produced in a core range but also special IP partners like a Marvel product but also biscuit mash ups, like Oreo. 

Previously the brand had prioritised marketing around the special IPs but this was driving limited growth. Meanwhile, on social there is a constant volume of UGC around fans making their own mix-ups which is interacted with in a limited way. 

The brand recategorised all of its product against fandom affinities decided in which channels and to what extent each would be supported, re-prioritising the core as high affinity, based on the untapped potential of fandom behaviours on social. 

The approach then identified how to activate across these channels.

The brand then enlisted the following fandom creating behaviours: 

● Encouraged the community to post their core range mash ups - CTA delivered via PR, social channels and CRM 

● Turned UGC into digital ads and hosted on owned channels 

● Created stitches on TikTok with creators 

● Hosted pop-up stores make their own sessions, and people provide first-party data to attend. Creators attended

● Generated a digital recipe book with brand & user recipes you could download via data capture 

● Created social voting mechanics to increase engagement and conversation 

● Picked one audience invented recipe to retail in stores per month for 6 months 

● Offered money off coupon via rewards app for anyone buying UGC flavour to use on subsequent purchase 

● One user generated idea was to mix the ice cream with protein for a post-gym audience. This resulted in a gym chain link up and an entirely new audience.

Lucy Hart
Exec. Director of Strategy