Q&A I Maurice Wheeler of We Are Family on why fandoms are fundamental

We all know at least one Thronie, Whovian or Zephead, but it’s not just adults who become super-fans – kids can be brand devotees, too. Maurice Wheeler, CEO of full-service international insights, creative and marketing agency We Are Family, explains why it’s vital to consider fandoms at every step of the way when building a toy brand.

Just how important are fandoms to toy brands?

Arguably, they’re more important to the toy industry than to a lot of other industries that have fan bases at the heart of everything they do. Understanding your fan base, and being able to nurture and grow it, is invaluable, especially in the light of the Pareto Principle that 80 per cent of a company’s revenue comes from 20 per cent of its customers. Typically, those 20 per cent are going to be your fans, and they’re super-interesting from a revenue perspective. They’re also interesting from a longevity perspective; they’re the ones that will stick with you through thick and thin. They’re your advocates, and they’re out there referring you to their friends and influencing people in a way that you could never achieve through your own channels. They are a huge part of encouraging engagement and “talkability” around the brand and are equally as important in our work in helping our clients tap into and expand their consumer base. We utilise our global network for vital insight to help clients really understand their current fan base, visualise and quantify what that fan base could be, and define a set of strategies and tactics that can help realise that.

What factors should companies consider when it comes to building fandoms?

If a brand comes to We Are Family for help building or growing a fan base, we start off with a “fandom audit”, as it were. We break things down into four quadrants. The first thing we look at is content. What’s the narrative? What are the characters? How immersive is the story? What are the emotional stimulation points that your fans are engaging with? Next, we consider engagement – how often fans are engaging with the content, the media they’re using to consume it, what they’re doing from a sensorial standpoint… Are they reading it or watching it? Living it? Tasting it? We also look at story management, which means how much control a company retains over the narrative. Some brands like to stay in charge of the story, while others are happy to let the fan community help to drive it forward.

Thirdly, we address self-definition. So many people use fandom as a means to define who they are, and our research has shown that it’s something that’s becoming more prevalent. If you ask someone to tell you about themselves, these days they’re less likely to say, “I live in Barking and I’m an engineer”, than they are to say, “I love comic books” or “I’m a huge hip-hop fan”.

Some fans use their fandom as a means to grow, and learn. We see that with fans of golf, or chess, or football; one of the main drivers of these types of fandoms is that people can see themselves getting better at something – it fulfils a psychological need.

Another facet of self-definition is “badging”, whereby fans use their fandom to show the world who they are. By wearing the t-shirt, for example, they’re saying: look, I’m a fan of whatever it may be, if you’re going to judge me you can judge me by this.

Community is the fourth factor we look at. If all your friends, or family members, are fans of the same thing you are, it really strengthens and grows that fandom and makes it much more robust. And of course, if there’s a really nice fandom community that exists in the wider world, that will also help to build and empower that fan base.

Are the approaches different for licensed toys vs companies’ own IPs?

The same basic rules apply whether you’re trying to be the next Barbie or the next LOL Surprise!, or you’re a licensee making Star Wars or Hey Duggee toys. However, the way you implement those rules might be different, and that’s something we help clients to identify and activate, from research through to creative ideation, production and delivery.

If you’re trying to create your own fan base with your own IP from zero, which some people have done very successfully, you need to start by looking at your brand from a content and story perspective and ask yourself, “What’s the narrative that I’m creating? How can I make sure that the characters are super compelling? What are the inherent play patterns?”. Even Nerf guns have a narrative; the guns themselves are characters of sorts and Nerf game play definitely provides that emotional stimulation that’s so crucial to building a fandom. As a toy company building a new fandom you need to start with a compelling story and the tools needed to tell it well.

As a licensee, however, you are joining an already established fandom; you’re servicing an existing fan base, such as kids who love Marvel Super Heroes. Your job is more about enabling and enhancing the fandom and narrative rather than creating one from scratch. For example, Disney looks after the narrative and the characters and the story of Star Wars, but Hasbro has to consider what their lines of Star Wars toys bring to the story. How can they empower the audience to live that story better, and immerse themselves in it in a more meaningful way?

When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the He-Man cartoon series. It was a pretty good TV show, but that was its only content output, so as a fan, watching it was my only mechanism for engaging with the brand. But when my mates and I got hold of the He-Man toys, it was a whole new experience – an active rather than a passive one. It was almost as if we were creating our own parallel universe. We were taking what the content creators had done and were making our own version, and projecting some of our sense of self onto the toys, making the whole engagement more meaningful.

With the He-Man toys, I was creating my own story, and that sense of ownership is important to fans. Harry Potter is a good example – there was a bunch of guys online who made their own version of Quidditch, where they were running around on broomsticks chucking balls at each other. We also see it within the fan fiction world, where the fan community starts creating its own narrative around the brand.

How do adult fandoms differ from kids’ ones? At what age do kids become “fans”?

Around two and a half is when children begin to show preference towards a certain character, so that’s arguably the moment when fandom begins. But ultimately, fandom at this age isn’t massively multidimensional; it will be based primarily around that fact that the child loves the content, and maybe that they get to sit down and watch with their mum or dad. That child might also be thinking, “I see a little bit of me in JJ, so that’s why I love this show.”

When kids hit the age of around six or seven they become much more interested in their peer group, and that’s when they begin to need more devices in order to be able to negotiate friendships and align themselves with certain tribes. It’s when self-definition and badging, and the more social elements of fandom, really begin to kick in. Then, at the age of around seven or eight, all of the elements of fandom really start to blossom. Kids are becoming more confident; they’ll have a group of friends and will be beginning to properly review who they are and the kind of person they want to be. Their fandom helps them do that and maybe define themselves a little bit better.

Do brands need to be active in all four “quadrants” of fandom in order to be successful?

No, not at all. Definitely being active in all four will help a lot, but it’s not always possible. Some brands manage to succeed perfectly well without any content or narrative to speak of. Take the Rubik’s Cube or the Hula Hoop as examples: they both had huge fan bases but they leveraged the “improving skills” part of the self- definition quadrant.

How does the social and community side of fandom work within toys?

In terms of the social side, trading cards are a great example. Typically, you start off playing with your friends, and if you’re all fans, then that builds and reinforces that fan base, and ultimately the product line. And then you can do all that on a larger scale. I remember going to one Topps Match Attax event where there were hundreds of kids in a hall all swapping cards, and even though they didn’t know each other, there was a sense that they were more empowered because they were part of a community.

We Are Family, www.we-are-family.net. This feature appears in the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of ToyNews. Read more here

About Tessa Clayton

A former Chief Sub of Red magazine, Tessa Clayton is the Digital Editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. As a freelance journalist she specialised in writing about parenting and family life, and has contributed to a wide variety of publications and websites including Tesco online, Mother & Baby, Livingetc, Junior, Boots Health & Beauty, Practical Parenting and babycentre.co.uk. Get in touch at tessa.clayton@biz-media.co.uk

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