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The Fan Lab Podcast With Avi Santo, Exploring the Intersection of Fandom, Identity and Merchandise


In this episode, host Jonathan Hanson talks with Avi Santo, a professor and department chair for communications at UNC Chapel Hill.  We dive into the fascinating world of fandom, identity, and fan entrepreneurship. Through his research and expertise in media studies, Santo sheds light on the intersection of consumer culture, fan communities, and the creation of fan-made merchandise. We also discuss the importance of research in consumer marketing inorder to understand fandom and effectively engage with fans. Avi points out that brands often overlook the psychological needs and narratives that fans connect with, instead focusing on surface-level demographics and interests. There is a significant opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of fandom and tap into its value.

The Power of Fandom and Identity:

Santo emphasizes the significance of fandom in shaping individual identity. He highlights how fandom allows individuals to both conform and rebel simultaneously, providing a sense of belonging to a community while expressing personal tastes and interests. Fandom offers a unique space where fans can establish their own identity through the acquisition of branded merchandise, creating a connection to their favorite media properties.

They also highlight that fandom is a communal experience which connects back to their identity, and it is crucial for brands to consider how their interactions with individual fans can contribute to a broader community. They criticize situations where brand owners pit fans against each other, such as through competitions, and stress the significance of fostering a sense of community within fandom.

The Rise of Fan Entrepreneurship:

One intriguing aspect of fandom that we explore is the emergence of fan entrepreneurship. With the advent of platforms like Etsy and Redbubble, fans now have the opportunity to create and sell their own fan-made merchandise. This allows for a more personalized and unique fan experience, as fans can acquire items that may not be available through mainstream retailers. Fan entrepreneurs often tap into niche markets, filling gaps in licensed merchandise or offering alternative interpretations of beloved characters.

The Role of Authenticity In Fan Entrepreneurship:

Authenticity plays a crucial role in fan culture and the creation of fan-made merchandise. Santo highlights the importance of supporting fan businesses and the desire for fans to connect with creators who share their passion for a particular fandom. By commissioning custom-made items from fellow fans, individuals can establish a sense of authenticity within their fan community. This personal touch adds value to the merchandise and fosters a deeper connection between fans and their chosen fandom.

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The Need for Research and Understanding Fandom Dynamics 

The two also explore the value of immersive work and observation at conventions and events as a means of gaining valuable insights into the practices and experiences of a community. Avi encourages this type of immersive work, stating that it can provide a deep understanding of what people do and how certain practices become central to the community’s experience. By observing and participating in spaces where fan communities exist, such as comic cons or memorabilia conventions, brand consultants and researchers can gain a comprehensive understanding of fan practices and the experiential components that drive their activities.

Furthermore, he emphasizes the importance of meaningful listening to consumers. They suggest that there is more value in understanding how to listen to consumers within their own practices, rather than solely relying on feedback channels. The speaker notes that while many brands claim to listen, it remains unclear what that truly entails. They highlight the need for ethnographic research and participant observation to genuinely engage with and understand the community. In short, they discuss that immersive work, observation, and meaningful listening are key to gaining insights into the practices and experiences of a community.

The Pitfalls of Brand Partnerships: 

Santo also discusses the common mistakes that brands make when attempting to connect with fan communities. One such mistake is focusing solely on individual consumers rather than recognizing the communal nature of fandom. Brands that pit fans against each other or create competition within the community may undermine the sense of unity and shared experience that fans seek. Authenticity and community-building should be at the forefront of brand partnerships to ensure a positive and meaningful connection with fans.

They also discuss the  importance of allowing consumers to tell their own stories through the brand. They advocate for brands to create products or experiences that provide space for consumers to express themselves and align their own stories with the brand. This is in contrast to creating a fictional consumer that instantly aligns with the brand. To achieve this, brands need to conduct grounded sociological work to truly understand what consumers want and need.

This episode with Avi Santo provides valuable insights into the complex relationship between fans, brands, and the creation of fan-made merchandise. By understanding the importance of authenticity, community, and individuality within fandom, brands can better engage with fan communities and create meaningful connections. As fan culture continues to evolve, the role of fan entrepreneurs and their unique contributions to the fandom experience will undoubtedly shape the future of fan culture.

If you are not sure where to start when building fandom for your brand, we can help you and your team with:

  • A one day Fandom Essentials Workshop which provides your team with inspiration and an action plan to start building fandom or your brand.
  • Insights that unlock the emotional codes for fandom, from individual to culture.
  • Creative campaigns that spark a fandom’s energy to launch your next product or service.
  • Content-led stories and experiences that enrich fans’ worlds.

Set up a time with someone from our team to learn more.