Downtown San Diego. More than 130,000 people convened in one area over a weekend. Shields, light sabers, elf ears, capes and masks.
No, it’s not Halloween — it’s the San Diego Comic Convention (SDCC), better known as Comic-Con.
For the uninitiated, Comic-Con is the premier event of its kind, a meeting place for superfans and geeks, many of whom come in costume, to bask in their love for comic books, TV shows and movies.
Since 1970, this annual convention has brought together hundreds of thousands of lovers of popular arts. If this kind of fandom, and how powerful it can be, is foreign to you, this piece is for you.
In this article, we examine the roots and power of fandom, and how producing limited-release clothing patches can be a great way to create collectibles and expand the reach of your brand.
Fandom is Family
So, what exactly is “fandom?”
Meredith Morrison at The Odyssey Online calls it “a subculture that celebrates a mutual bond formed between people over a book series, TV show, movie, band, or other form of pop culture.” Often, large fandoms self-identify by creating a group name: the “Potterheads” for fans of the Harry Potter series, “Trekkies” for fans of Star Trek and “Swifties” for fans of musician Taylor Swift.
Beyond popular culture and popular art, the term “fandom” can also be applied to sports fandoms. Think of the die-hard fans of the Lakers or the Patriots. They display most of the same qualities and behaviors as fans of popular culture:
- An unwavering love for the source material (their team)
- Following every instalment of the series (games, instead of tv episodes)
- An emotional attachment to what happens within the fandom community
Essentially, fandom is a community of people with shared interests, bound by a love for something that is seemingly inexplicable to others.
The Power of Fandom
The ubiquity of the internet has added to the rise of fandom, making it easier for people around the world to connect with others who share the same love for a band, TV show, book series or sports team as they do. Social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr have become gathering grounds for fans to have discussions and stay updated on their favorite fandoms.
Cultural anthropologist Susan Kresnicka sees fandom as something that meets our human needs. “It helps us meet core human needs surrounding self-care, social connection, and identity,” she writes
Fandom has also infiltrated our economy.
According to Nerdist, a digital media company dedicated to all things fandom, Comic-Con attendance has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception in 1970. Comic-Con 2013 saw over 130,000 attendees, compared to approximately 30,000 in 1993 and 70,000 in 2003. This rise in attendance has correspondingly had a positive effect on the San Diego economy.
Today, Comic-Con has an estimated economic impact of $180 million on the city of San Diego and boasts commercialized booths selling all sorts of merchandise and collectibles for fans. Its popularity has led to the creation of other similar events in America and around the world.
The last 10 years have also seen the growing success of licensed merchandising companies such as Funko, Hasbro and Monogram International. Fans have the buying power and burning desire to collect merchandise related to their favorite movie franchise, book or TV show — and these companies know how to tap into that power.
For instance, while The Forces Awakens made more than $517 million worldwide during its opening weekend, the real money was in merchandise sales. According to Natalie Robehmed at Forbes, predicted Star Wars merch sales were $3 billion for just the film’s release year.
Kresnicka has an explanation for how powerful fans can be: “When we define ourselves as fans, we do more — we watch more, share more, buy more, evangelize more, participate more, help more.”
Even so, Brian Mariotti, CEO of Funko, thinks that the power of fandom is not fully understood or tapped into. “People understand being a sports fan and buying jerseys or coffee mugs of their favorite team,” he says. “This is no different. Instead these are fans of a video game or TV show. This is their passion.”
And passion leads to big bucks. In 2016, Funko earned $425 million in revenue.
The question to ask, then, is: What makes something a collectible?
The term “collectible” is often used in conjunction with antiques. Pamela Wiggins at The Spruce defines a collectible as “an item that someone takes the time to collect,” which means that the item could be something of high value or “simple things that may hold only nominal value to the person who gathered them into a collection.”
In the context of fandom, the same definition applies. Fandom collectibles can take many forms: posters, T-shirts, figurines, keychains, comic books, pins, bags, patches, and the list goes on.
For fans, collecting merchandise can be a pricey endeavor. According to the Back to the Movies blog, Star Wars fans spend an average of £800 ($1,040) on movie merchandise. As fandom grows, so does the demand for merchandise.
Limited-Release Patches As Collectibles
The economics of fandom collectibles are the same as other products: Create something that people want, and they will pay for it. Release limited quantities of the item, and chances are the demand for it will outstrip the supply.
As a clothing brand, how can you find your way into the fandom market? Tapping into fans’ passions and designing limited edition patches can be a fantastic way to celebrate fandom and bring in a whole new customer base to your brand.
Clothing patches date back to the 1800s, when they were used to patch up clothes. Then, during the American Civil War, patches were used to identify soldiers by rank. Over time, they have became part of fashion; a quick walk through an H&M or Forever 21 will show you racks of clothes with decorative patches on them.
In fact, Highsnobiety reports that patches have become a hot fashion trend, with high-end designers such as Gucci and Ovadia & Sons using them in their collections. Highsnobiety attributes the current “it” status of patches to “the ability to play off current cultural themes … [and] tapping into that popularity and adding a clever twist.”
The options are nearly endless as you’ll find lots of items like custom made woven patches, personalized embroidered patches, unique rubber patches, or made of other materials such as suede and leather patches. Regardless of what they are made of, they add personality and individuality to one’s style. It is thus a perfect item for fans to display their love for their favorite characters, shows or books.
The wonderful thing is that patches are relatively inexpensive for brands to produce, and also for consumers to purchase. Patches can be added to different items ranging from bags to T-shirts to jackets to caps. It’s possible to add a patch to any item of clothing, and this widens your potential customer base.
Creating Clothing Patches That Appeal To Fans
With so much fan merchandise available on the market, how can you stand out with fandom-based patches?
Find the Right Fandom
The key is choosing a fandom that resonates with your brand and customers. Think about your core audience: who they are, what they like, what fandoms they could be interested in. The connection between your brand and the fandom you choose to celebrate can make or break the success of your clothing patches.
For instance, a brand that has a strong, independent woman as its buyer persona would benefit from connecting with the Wonder Woman fandom due to the convergence in values. This would resonate with your existing target audience, and also attract Wonder Woman fans who were not initially aware of your brand.
Andrew Nodell notes how brands, both mass market and high-end, are producing clothing items inspired by Wonder Woman. As consultant Kim Vernon tells Nodell, “People buying Wonder Woman merchandise are buying into the ideology of the strength of women.”
Keep Up With Trends
Tapping into the fandom market requires you to have your hand on the pulse of what’s currently resonating with fans. This means doing research into which characters are fan favorites, which movie moments got the most Twitter discussion, or what new releases fans are most looking forward to. If you’re able to tap into what’s hot with fans, and then create limited-release patches that match their interests, you’ve got a winning product.
Jeremy Goldman points to clothing brands like Welovefine, TeeFury and Her Universe as companies to look to when it comes to creating clothing that fans want to buy. Built by fans for fans, these companies use “obscure fan references and occasional crossing-over of multiple fandoms” to appeal to fans.
Go For Evergreen Fandoms
Pop culture comes in waves, but there are fandoms that are more evergreen in nature. Years after the last book in the series was released, the Harry Potter fandom is still going strong. Star Wars fans have only multiplied since A New Hope was released in 1977. The Marvel and DC fandoms have seen exponential growth since they introduced movies and a shared cinematic universe for fans to delve into.
Such fandoms that have developed a solid fanbase are excellent choices for brands to align themselves with. The strength of their fanbases mean that demand will always be there. Once a fan, always a fan.
One company that has done extremely well by appealing to fans is Black Milk Clothing, based in Australia. Samuel Hun credits their strategy of producing apparel based on popular movies, comics and TV shows as a key factor of their success. Whether it’s Star Wars-inspired swimwear or Marvel Comics leggings, Black Milk has successfully (and stylishly!) combined fandom and fashion. Their limited edition collections tend to sell out very quickly, showing that the demand for such products are high.
Nostalgia is another strong selling point. Popular bands, movies and TV series from years past evoke warm memories of good times and create a strong emotional pull. As Lauren Friedman puts it, “Aligning marketing strategies with emotion has already proven to be successful, but tapping into fond memories can be an invaluable tactic, especially for engaging millennials.”
Combining fandom and nostalgia can be a winning combination. Simply look at the rebooting of old cartoons or movie franchises such as the Power Rangers movie or the new Ghostbusters to see how Hollywood is leveraging on nostalgia to bring in dollars. When creating fandom-based patches, this could be a good approach to follow.
What it boils down to is congruence between your brand, the fandom you choose to celebrate, and your target audience. If all are in alignment, developing limited-release clothing patches could be a successful new venture for your company. You could even end up creating a new fandom for your patches!