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Samantha Aloysius

Published on

June 18, 2024


brand strategy, Consumer Behaviour

Fandoms – passionate communities built around shared interests have become a defining feature of pop culture. From the electric atmosphere of a football stadium to the intricate fan art dedicated to K-pop bands, the intensity of fandom devotion can be both captivating, mystifying and, at times, worrying.

A few months ago, I found myself in a two-hour-long virtual queue for Fred Again tickets. I had five tabs opened on my laptop, all in hopes of scoring tickets to see him play at a surprise concert.

I wasn’t the only one.

Nearly half the office was ‘in line’ as we eagerly awaited our fate. It didn’t go down very well when only two of us were eventually lucky enough to score tickets.

Yet that was nowhere near as intense as the stories I’ve heard about people trying to get tickets to Taylor Swift, or the lengths ‘Swifties’ would go to see Taylor Swift up close and personal. Last year, hardcore fans in Argentina camped outside the stadium where Taylor Swift would be playing, five months in advance, just so they could secure a spot at the most desired location to experience the concert.

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So, what compels us to become such ardent fans (or just downright fanatics)?

#1 The need to belong: Finding our tribe 

At its core, fandom is about a fundamental human need – the desire to belong. According to Dr. Michael Bond, author of “Fans: A Journey Into The Psychology Of Belonging,fandoms offer a sense of community and shared identity. Fans find solace and validation in connecting with others who share their passion for a particular artist, athlete, or cause. Social media has also further amplified this aspect of fandom, fostering online spaces where fans can connect, discuss, and celebrate their shared interests.

Take, for instance, the fervent following of Taylor Swift. Her “Swifties” are known for their meticulous analysis of her lyrics, deciphering hidden messages and crafting elaborate online theories. This not only deepens their connection to her music but also fosters a sense of community, where fans can share their interpretations and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

Similarly, the global phenomenon of K-Pop bands like BTS thrives on a meticulously cultivated online fandom experience. Fan clubs organise elaborate online projects, raise funds for charity in the band’s name, and create a vibrant sense of community that transcends geographical boundaries.

#2 Beyond belonging: Identity, escapism, and shared purpose

Fandoms can also shape identity. Fans often identify closely with their idols, their favourite teams, or causes they champion. A study by researchers at the Western Michigan University, found that fans often incorporate their fandom into their self-concept, deriving a sense of pride and purpose from their association. For instance, a die-hard fan of a sports team might see their own identity intertwined with the team’s success. Similarly, a passionate advocate for a political figure might feel a sense of purpose in supporting their campaign.

Furthermore, fandoms offer a form of escapism. Immersing in the world of a favourite artist or fictional universe can provide a much-needed respite from the harsh realities of life. Consider Netflix’s Bling Empire, or the Real Housewives. The lives of the rich and famous, documented in meticulous detail on reality TV, can offer fans a glimpse into a world of glamour and luxury, providing a temporary escape from their mundane routines.

#3 The dopamine rush

But fandom isn’t just about connection; it’s also an emotional rollercoaster. The anticipation of a new album release by your favourite artist, the thrill of attending a concert, or in my case, the heart sinking moment when the ticket confirmation page for Fred Again appeared on my laptop screen, triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This creates a positive reinforcement loop, encouraging further engagement with the object of fandom. The Kardashians, for instance, expertly leverage this by strategically releasing snippets of their lives through their social media channels, keeping drama loving fans like me engaged and eagerly awaiting the next cheating scandal.

Image of kardashians

Or, going back to Taylor Swift (because she’s clearly made all the right moves to become a billionaire), she’s known for her cryptic social media posts that hint at upcoming projects or hidden messages within her music videos. Fans eagerly decipher these clues, analysing every detail and sharing theories online. This active participation creates a sense of anticipation and accomplishment when they successfully “crack the code”, further deepening their emotional investment in her music.

#4 The parasocial bond: When fans ‘feel’ a connection

A particularly intriguing aspect of fandom is the parasocial bond, a one-sided emotional connection fans feel towards celebrities or public figures. Research by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl suggests that fans develop a sense of familiarity with these figures through constant media exposure, leading to feelings of friendship and even intimacy.

Social media further blurs the lines, with celebrities offering fans seemingly personal glimpses into their lives. On one hand, it’s their way of being authentic and wanting to connect with their fans. On the other hand, it further deepens the parasocial bond that fans feel, and in some instances to the point of being creepy.

Last month, K-pop idol Karina called it quits with actor-boyfriend Lee Jae Wook due to fierce backlash that they received from fans after their relationship was exposed by South Korean tabloids. Some fanatical admirers went to the extent of sending a ‘protest truck’ to Karina’s agency with an electronic billboard that displayed the words, “Is love given to you by your fans not enough?”

When passion turns toxic

Which brings us to this. While fandom offers many benefits, it’s not without its pitfalls. The intense emotions associated with fandom can sometimes morph into hostility towards perceived threats to their idols. This can lead to online harassment, “cancel culture”, and even violence.

The intense partisanship of Donald Trump supporters, for example, has been linked to a strong in-group identity and a tendency to view out-groups with hostility. This can create an atmosphere of “us vs. them” that can escalate into violence, as seen in the January 6th Capitol riots. Understanding these potential downsides is crucial for fostering healthy fandom spaces.

How can brands channel the power of fandom?

At the heart of fan behaviour, it’s really about forming connections. Whether it’s with their idols or amongst other fans, a relationship is what drives that ongoing behaviour. For brands, this can be very useful if they can leverage the same psychological principles to connect with consumers on a deeper level.

By creating a sense of community, fostering emotional connections through storytelling, and rewarding brand loyalty, brands can cultivate a passionate following and strengthen customer loyalty.

For instance, Patagonia fosters a strong community among outdoor enthusiasts by sharing stories about environmental activism and offering opportunities for customer engagement in conservation efforts. Or think of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, which inspires consumers to push their limits and aligns with a shared value of perseverance.

image of mountains

With the rise of social media as a means of communicating with consumers, brands can also leverage that platform to cultivate online communities where customers can connect and share their passion for the brand. Consider the success of sports teams in building passionate fan bases through dedicated social media channels and fan clubs.

The enduring power of fandom

Fandom, far from being a frivolous obsession, is a complex phenomenon rooted in fundamental human needs. In its essence, it’s a celebration of shared passion. By understanding the psychological drivers of fandom, brands can build more authentic relationships with their customers, fostering a sense of community, identity, and shared passion. In the end, it’s about creating a tribe where people feel valued, understood, and excited to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

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