Creating Fandom: Storytelling Through Experiences

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Article takeaways:

  • What ‘Fandom’ is and how your brand can take steps to manufacture it.
  • Some examples of brands that nail Fandom – Freitag, Salesforce, Refinery 29
  • Even ‘boring’ brands can create amazing fan experiences

Everybody loves a good story. But the narratives that really build fandom, start relationships and make passionate advocates, are epics; they’re worlds in their own right.

Westeros…a Cinematic Universe… The Premier League…an expansive footballing universe with the hopes, dreams, and pain pent up within each and every team (see Netflix documentary Sunderland til’ I die a team in the lower leagues). Each of these worlds can house multiple stories, incidents, and characters. They are where fandom happens.

As brands, we can emulate the level of fandom achieved in sports and entertainment and create our own worlds. We can create ‘brandscapes’ where our products and services form characters in the story, the real output is emotion, and the heroes are customers. If we can capture the imagination of consumers, appeal to their emotions, over time, we stand to gain.

Currently leading this charge are content-rich, ambitious companies with visions way beyond their ‘product’: Apple sells a design lifestyle, Netflix offers a world of video content, Nike represents a goal of self-improvement. And behind each of these is a holistic approach to experience that encompasses customer experience, digital experiences, and live experiences.

Leading brands build a consistent image, through experiences.

World Building

The key to building convincing, engaging brand worlds is giving consumers an emotional experience, over time. Not a fleeting moment of eye-contact across a crowded room, but a true romance. Not a bit of banter in the bar queue, but a lasting friendship.

Storytelling through live experiences offers amazing opportunities to enhance emotions. Nothing fires our neurotransmitters quite like real-life encounters. Oxytocin is released by human interaction and makes us build close bonds and affinity. Dopamine helps us remember –crucial for branding– and it’s released when a good story finds a resolution. 

What kind of experiences?

So, who’s doing it well? Let’s start at home for me, that’s Zurich, Switzerland.

Swiss brand Freitag manufacture accessories from recycled truck tarpaulins. Each bag (or laptop holder, wallet etc.) is unique and bears the marks of wear in its previous incarnation. Freitag makes the most of this heritage, for example, their flagship shop is housed in a 26m tall stack of 17 shipping containers, in the city’s industrial quarter.

Another Freitag store has just opened, offering customers the opportunity to create their own bag, cutting and punching away on machinery. Once they fancy a change, they can ‘SWAP’ it in the company’s ‘Tinder-style bag exchange’ app. So, Freitag customers take on a role in the production and exchange of goods, they invest their own energy in creating something. They become a hero in that Freitag story.

With experiences spanning the digital-physical divide, each adds to the strong brand story of industrial heritage, individual creation, and re-use. This is beyond just adding in-store activations to a brand, it’s about creating always-on experiences that enhance the brand story and connect to customers on a physical, and emotional level.

But does this work on a global scale, for digital-first brands?

Here let’s defer to cloud-software giant Salesforce, who have managed to create a frenetic atmosphere at their annual Dreamforce events. Attending Dreamforce is like reaching the end-of-level boss for Salesforce users, which 170,000 of them do every year.

But their flagship festival is just one pillar in an experience strategy that works all the way down the funnel. Traveling workshops upskill marketers around the world, whilst encouraging uptake of Salesforce products. Account people will befriend you on your journey to becoming a client – before, during and after events.

Salesforce even offers an online suite of marketing courses, available to all. The Trailhead branding entices you with characters and a mountain landscape that evolves with the seasons.  Users get scout-like badges as they progress on a learning expedition. It’s empowering, rewarding, and tells a great story.

Frankly, if a software as dry as a CRM system can tell a great story, then anyone can.

These interactions with the brand don’t feel like one-offs, but part of an ongoing relationship. They build trust and affinity that will result in that rarest of things – dedicated brand advocates.

Other brands go for a less sales-y approach and use events to drive kudos.

Refinery 29 convert their online readership into offline engagement in their ‘29 Rooms’ pop-up. Billed as ‘an immersive world of cause, culture, and creativity’, these events capitalize upon (or contribute to) the trend of pop-up museums (Ice Cream Museum, Pizza Museum). For their youth audience, the opportunity to spend time surrounded by their favorite brand, and share it online, is a dream come true.

Freitag, Salesforce, Refinery 29 – these brands couldn’t be more different apart from two things. One: they’re bloody successful. And two: they begin their marketing strategy from an ‘experience-first’ perspective. They emphasize human interactions, community, and emotion.

When a client approaches us with a brief for a standalone pop-up or party, we say no. But we use the approach as an opportunity to begin a conversation about how we can create a lasting brand platform for them. A story arc with emotion as an output, and consistency as a deliverable, all driven by next-generation experiences.

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