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How Brands Should Approach Online Fandoms

1 November 2017
Stranger Things screenshot | How Brands Should Approach Online Fandoms | Neon

Marketing to any group is difficult. Finding the right thing to say and the right way to say it requires a clear understanding that many brands fail to grasp.

This challenge is made even greater when the group is bound together by a shared passion for something and has formed certain unspoken rules, regulations and ways of conversing that marketers are unfamiliar with, making it difficult to adapt to. These groups are now most commonly known as fandoms and the internet has helped them grow in size and become hugely important to marketers.

In this article, Neon explores what fandoms are and the difficulties and benefits brands can experience in marketing to them.

What is a fandom?

As the name suggests, a fandom is a group of people who are fans of the same thing. So, fans of One Direction are part of the One Direction fandom, and fans of DC Comics are part of the DC fandom. Simple, right? Well, not really. While all fandoms have fans, not all fans are part of a fandom. Firstly, fandom is something that’s emerged in the internet age, and largely around pop culture. We wouldn’t say, for example, that Arsenal fans are part of the Arsenal fandom, or those who enjoy the works of Beethoven are part of the Beethoven fandom. It’s just not appropriate for what fandom really is.

Fandom is a particular kind of being a fan, one defined by ravenous passion, a sense of camaraderie, a dedication to expertise and a certain level of creativity. Most fandoms focus on pop culture properties (films, TV shows, musicians) and have a special name given to them (usually by those in the fandom). Beyonce fans are known as the BeyHive, followers of the actor Chris Pine dub themselves Pine-Nuts and Glee viewers call themselves Gleeks. There are even subsets. Older male fans of My Little Ponies are known Bronies, while female fans of Nicki Minaj are called Barbz. The list is endless and always growing.

Such names aren’t a new phenomenon – Beatles fans were called Beatlemaniacs, while Star Trek fans are Trekkies (or Trekkers if you wanna be picky about it) – but they have taken on extra meaning and intensity now thanks to the internet, where it’s easier than ever for fandoms to share amongst themselves and grow. For brands looking to engage with these fandoms, or those who have managed to gain a fandom around them, it’s critical to create the right kind of messaging and campaigns. Understanding what “the right kind” is, however, is no easy task.

Group of cosplayers at Yorkshire Cosplay Convention| How Brands Should Approach Online Fandoms | Neon

Understanding fandoms

As we noted in our piece Integrating Esports: A Marketing Agency’s Journey, when we first entered the esports industry, we had to go on a journey to discover the ins and outs of gaming fandom. This wasn’t an easy process, and it’s one that we’re still going through because fandoms are like miniature societies – they never stop evolving. However, it’s been important for us to undertake it, and we’d strongly encourage any brand or marketing team looking to engage with fandoms to do the same. Fandoms are just another demographic, albeit one defined by a passion for a single thing.

The first thing brands should do is go where fandoms congregate. Forums, subreddits, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – almost any online platform that encourages social interaction, even – maybe especially – if it’s specific to one particular fandom (Twitch, for example, is a critical one for gamers). Don’t just gloss over these platforms and don’t treat them all the same (Reddit, for example, is dramatically different from Twitter, and each subreddit within it has unique rules and ways of interacting). Analyse these spaces and seek to understand where fans are congregating, what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

That last point is particularly important for marketers because all good marketing is communication and that’s difficult in some fandoms, who develop acronyms and other forms of shorthand to communicate. It’s an entirely different language, aimed to some extent to alienate outsiders and generate a sense of exclusivity. Brands don’t necessarily need to understand it inside and out, but they do need to put in the effort and, most of all, respect it.


It’s very easy to dismiss fandoms. The obsessive love, the acronyms, and the cosplay that goes hand in hand with these fandoms make it very easy to mock them. But fandoms are sincere and while sincerity is easy to laugh at, brands would do so at their peril. Those involved in a fandom are smart; likely much smarter than you. They know their fellow fans better than you and they probably understand digital technology better than you too. These are the people who create the memes, make the GIFs, put together the videos that you see filling up Buzzfeed on a daily basis. They’re the grassroots of the internet, and if you, as a marketer, have ever derived a piece of messaging from some piece of content that’s gone viral, you’ve already stolen from someone in a fandom.

Not respecting that level of creativity is a fatal mistake, and it’ll only lead to disaster. But so will trying to mimic it to the letter. Fandoms demand authenticity and if you’re not engaging a fandom authentically you’ll be chewed up and spat out. We’ve written at some length about the need for authenticity in online marketing, be that in Corporate Social Responsibility or imagery, but when it comes to fandoms, who see themselves as the real deal and experts on a level that few other people will be able to match, that authenticity is of life and death significance. Brands need to realise that fandoms hold the things they’re passionate about closely, and if you’re not showing the necessary respect, you’re likely to be punished.

Trouble and Toxicity

When it comes, that punishment can be swift, brutal and deeply unpleasant. The problem with online fandoms is that there can be a sense of entitlement and arrogance that emerges from the passion, and that in turn can lead to a toxicity that’s damaging for the fans themselves and any brands involved. This was clearly witnessed recently when fans of the Adult Swim animated series Rick and Morty descended on McDonald’s restaurants in the hope of securing one of the limited edition Szechuan Sauce packets that the brand released in honour of a reference the show made to it in the first episode of its third season.

The sauce, which was first released in 1998 as part of McDonald’s partnership with Disney for the film Mulan, automatically became big news again and inspired a huge spike in searches. Spying an opportunity, McDonald’s got involved (notably without the involvement of the show’s creators) and over the weekend of the 7th and 8th October, re-released limited quantities of the sauce for expectant Rick and Morty fans to dunk their nuggs in to. Predictably, things didn’t go accordingly to plan, and McDonald’s restaurants around the United States were met with a demand they simply couldn’t meet.

Fans left disappointed and empty-handed, leading to angry Tweets, police presences, and abuse towards staff. McDonald’s quickly responded with a Tweet, but the damage was done. The marketing department had grossly underestimated the popularity of the show and power of the fandom, and the fans responded with a toxic backlash that’s reflected poorly on them and McDonald’s alike. A further statement promising an extended return for the sauce appeared shortly after the initial statement, but the attempts to speak the show’s language seemed inauthentic. An insincere brand and angry fans combined to create a deeply toxic environment.

Friends don’t lie

If McDonalds and Rick and Morty fans created a toxic environment, the one generated by Netflix and Stranger Things fans is the polar opposite. Riffing on the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, the supernatural show became one of the surprise hits of 2016 when it hit Netflix last summer. Since then, the streaming service has been working hard to cultivate an online fandom – no easy task in a culture where original entertainment properties struggle to gain traction and even established franchises can fail at the box office.

Netflix has succeeded with some aplomb though, and its success offers a blueprint in how to deal with online fandoms. Their first port of call was Twitter, which represents the most obvious channel on which to build a conversational and informal relationship with fans. The Stranger Things Twitter feed does more than simply push out show-based information; it openly and creatively engages with fans, replying to their tweets, teasing them with cryptic messages and allowing them to ‘Upside Down’ themselves. In other words, the show itself has become a part of its fandom.

Content marketing has also been a major part of the Stranger Things mix, and this too has played into the nature of fandoms. A series of posters influenced by the show’s key reference points tapped into fans’ nostalgia, the cultivation of fan art has allowed fans to put together their own posters and show off their creativity, and a newly released mobile game touches on the current trend for retro gaming. Tapping into the kind of experiential marketing we discussed in relation to It, Netflix also dressed people up as one of the characters and sent them around New York on their bikes during the recent New York Comic Con.

Most impressively, a potential legal minefield was successfully navigated when Netflix issued a Stranger Things-themed pop-up bar with a cease-and-desist order earlier this year. Rather than engaging in the legal mumbo-jumbo and veiled threats such notices typically include, Netflix got creative, laying down the law, but doing so with a humourous, fan-pleasing letter that went viral. “Unless I’m living in the Upside Down, I don’t think we did a deal with you for this pop-up,the note read. “You’re obviously creative types, so I’m sure you can appreciate that it’s important to us to have a say in how our fans encounter the worlds we build.”

Throughout all its marketing, Netflix has talked to its fans in their own language, engaged their creativity, and ultimately understood them and what they love about the show. By doing so, the company has effortlessly achieved what McDonald’s couldn’t. It defused any toxicity, generated authenticity, and treated the audience like what they are: not just consumers, but part of the family.

Jaws and Stranger Things posters | How Brands Should Approach Online Fandoms | Neon

Beyond the Upside Down

Entertainment brands aren’t the only ones who can form and engage with online fandoms. Missguided has created a form of online fandom by calling its customers ‘babes’ and positioning its products as Official Babe Uniform. Fans are able to share photos and purchases through the hashtag #babesofmissguided and the marketing as a whole aims to break the rules, take risks and speak to the target audience in their language, excluding anyone who doesn’t get what they’re about. “A lot of retailers were playing it quite safe so we decided to be a bit more real in the way we spoke to our customers,chief executive Nitin Passi told The Guardian. “We focus on the customer, not the competition.

Plenty say such things, but Missguided genuinely means it, and if other brands want to engage with online fandoms, they need to mean it too. In the world of fandom, there are no half measures: you either succeed like Netflix or fail like McDonald’s. Authenticity and understanding are key, and as we found with esports, it’s vitally important to research to get those things. It’s a long journey, but an important and rewarding one. Ultimately, the entry qualification for a fandom is both incredibly simple and annoyingly difficult at the same time: you just need to be a fan.

What do you think of online fandoms? Have you any experience marketing to them? Let us know on @createdbyneon.

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