First announced back in 2016 with a very different creative team, the idea of a film based on Barbie dolls had kept eyebrows raised for years. But what could have become just another cynical cash-in on familiar IP, instead went on to gross over $1.4 billion.
How did it do so – besides a bold script, an engaged director, and a banging soundtrack, of course? By temporarily harnessing fan culture – turning a box office gamble into a monocultural touchstone.
Brands have begun co-opting fan behaviours, even where they have no existing fan communities to tap into, to build engagement and excitement with audiences and drive commercial success. Barbie's marketing both appealed to and fuelled mass fandom: from plug-and-play meme templates and themed merch splashed across social to cinema-goers dressing up for their screenings, people around the world came together in shared (and fleeting) stan culture.
2023 was the summer of fandom. Punctuated by a trio of sold out world tours – Taylor Swift's Eras Tour, Beyonce’s Renaissance Tour, and Harry Styles’ Love On Tour – we are seeing a significant shift in the adoption, sharing and normalisation of what would once have been seen as “extreme” fan behaviours.
Fandom experts like Allegra Rosenberg have called it out: what was formerly dismissed as nerdy and uncool has now been reframed, with the everyday person now embracing the collective human joys inherent in stanning something hard.
This has partly been driven by the sheer cultural power of fandoms. But also, after extended periods of social isolation and with the cost of living rising, people are looking to get the absolute most out of their interests and experiences. Dressing up in homage to their favourite artists, dissecting lyrics, creating fan art, organising fan-driven events, and interpreting hidden messages is all part of this experience – they want to feel part of a brand’s world, then share it online with other fans.
In this Era of Fandoms, the lines between fan and non-fan are increasingly blurred, as we all engage in fan behaviours and immerse ourselves in collective moments again. The internet has transformed how we express our passions, fostering a sense of belonging and community among fans and non-fans alike.
Black TikTokkers are making Harry Potter more inclusive by reimagining the Universe from the perspective of Historically Black colleges and universities (‘HBCUs’) in the US. Riffing off meme culture of the Hogwarts Legacy Video game, the community created HAMU, or Hogwarts Agricultural and Magical University - a take on the fictional wizarding school. There’s the common rooms of various Hogwarts houses, house parties, pep rallies, merchandise, and Greek life of Harry Potter seen through the lens of Black culture, allowing users previously left out by Rowling to position themselves more prominently in the mythical world.
In recent times, post-irony, parody, and nihilism have long characterised online activity. However, there has been a noticeable shift in youth culture towards a more wholesome tone, and a preference for content and creators that facilitate large-scale connections by being both welcoming and easily comprehensible. Concert goers are teaching each other dance moves and choreography to maximise their enjoyment, from arenas to living rooms, while South Korea’s webtoons are globally booming because of how they lend themselves to creative, interactive fan participation.
On TikTok, creators like @artstuffandthings and @walidfatam are reimagining iconic and nostalgic cinema – originally filmed in traditional horizontal format – for the vertical screen. These creators are using AI to fill out images and reformat scenes to take up a whole vertical phone screen – and despite it just being a format tweak with no ‘new’ content made, the response on social has been emotional. “You made me cry again like I was watching it for the first time,” says one user; “I need more vertical movies in my life,” says another. A broad fanbase is following along, requesting adaptations of their own favourite films in this modern format.
Look to adjacent fandoms to build connection. IKEA has been tapping into the global phenomenon and immensely powerful anime fandom to create scale and grow market share. IKEA, as a furniture and homeware brand, wouldn’t necessarily be a brand that you’d think would tap into fandom. But its recent back-to-school spot is done in an anime style, tapping into a cultural space popular with Gen Z to establish a meaningful connection with the next generation and become an integral part of their lives.
Extend fictional fandom into the real world with authentic partnerships. In anticipation of the third season of Ted Lasso, Apple TV gave fans the opportunity to participate in a cult favourite narrative from the show: biscuits with the boss. Each morning, Ted bakes biscuits for the owner of the team he manages. Apple TV partnered with Jeni Splendid Ice Creams to turn a small scoop of Ted Lasso into reality, creating an ice cream flavour inspired by Ted’s buttery biscuits. Similarly, Netflix crime drama series Top Boy, which is set in Hackney, has for two seasons partnered with Hackney Wick football club to sponsor their home and away football kit.
Fuel existing brand fan behaviours. With “Saucemerica”, Heinz set about mobilising both fans and potential converts by inviting Americans to collect 50 special condiment sachets paying homage to each individual state. Backed by an online hub and with cash rewards on offer, the sauces were distributed indiscriminately across restaurants, stadiums, and other public spaces – encouraging both serial sauce hoarders and condiment conservatives to learn more about the brand and take part in the thrill of completing their collection.