KCI Survey: Swifties, the BeyHive and BravoCon Demonstrate the Power of Superfans

Katie Thomas, who leads the Kearney Consumer Institute, reveals the impact of "superfans," and how brands can cultivate fandom.
Photo credit: vadymstock -

“Brand fans” are definitely loyal customers, but not all loyal customers are brand fans — and for many marketing and brand teams, driving relevance and impact means activating and leveraging those brand fans and superfans. New research from the Kearney Consumer Institute (KCI) indicates that there are clear distinctions between loyal customers and brand superfans, which creates even more opportunity for brands to build and nurture shopper relationships — and influence buying behaviors.

The KCI Q1 2024 Briefing found that while many consumers have habitual connections to brands, that does not necessarily mean they’re part of a fandom, which fosters community and belonging. Katie Thomas, who leads the KCI, looks at it as a pyramid in which consumers can slowly build from a “habit buyer” to a “superfan” based on their unique experiences with a brand.

“Brands need to be more honest about what loyalty really means. A lot of people just buy things out of habit, but I don’t know if they were ever truly loyal,” said Thomas in an interview with Retail TouchPoints. “Say I’m buying detergent and I look for the orange Tide bottle. I may buy it because that’s what I always buy, not because I’m so fiercely loyal to it. This purchase behavior could arguably be disrupted at any time versus when you start to make those steps up the pyramid to be more committed and start to advocate for the brand.”

While various surveys have indicated that consumers are less loyal to brands and retailers than ever, the KCI found that consumers are starving for the community and connection that comes with belonging to a fandom. Especially in the current climate, which is highly polarized, 80% of consumers say connecting with a “fandom,” be it musical, political, religious or cultural, brings them joy and excitement. In fact, 52% of consumers say they enjoy sharing their fandom with others, and 42% say it gives them a sense of belonging.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we’re still really seeking that joy and that community,” said Thomas. “There’s this individual sense of belonging and that you’re just feeling seen and represented. It’s like a customer service transaction, right? You want to feel heard and you just want to fit in; it means a lot to people to feel like they’re represented and share something with someone.”

Consumers even want to feel this level of connection with their fellow brand fans: 62% of consumers said they are part of a brand community or fandom, while 23% report a “complete obsession” with their brand or product of choice. More than half (56%) of respondents even said they have been interested in a brand or product for at least 10 years.

Tips for Cultivating Fandom

Brand superfans can be a valuable asset: 61% of consumers have defended their fandom to other people and 63% said they are unlikely to ever stop supporting it. However, in order to harness the power of this advocacy, brands need to first understand what these consumers really want and expect.

“It’s funny because it sounds relatively obvious, yet a lot of businesses don’t have things set up in a way to truly listen to the consumer and build a two-way conversation,” Thomas said. “That’s something that’s often overlooked.”

Thomas shared the example of brands like Planters that have brought back products based on superfan feedback. “Planters Cheez Balls were discontinued because some consultant probably did a SKU rationalization and cut the product, but people demanded them back,” said Thomas.” Taco Bell took a similar strategic turn after consumers picketed for the return of the QSR’s cheesy fiesta potatoes.

“Brand trust and loyalty are two-way streets,” Thomas said. “Consumers are not giving with nothing in return. Brands have to build better listening mechanisms and figure out ways to engage with the consumer and incorporate their feedback. But it doesn’t have to be these big, complicated tests and focus groups. We’re seeing a return to grassroots marketing and brands really getting back in the weeds with folks.”

Armed with these insights, brands also can identify new ways to spark excitement within their fandom, using tactics such as:

  • Limited-Edition Drops: Like Taylor Swift releasing “her version” of beloved tracks, brands are creating limited product drops to create urgency among superfans. For example, True Religion uses social media and its mobile app to launch items from its archive that are available for sale only in limited quantities.

  • Product Collabs: E.l.f. Cosmetics’ product collabs with unexpected brands like Chipotle and Dunkin Donuts are fun and kitschy vehicles to drive demand and excitement among these collective fanbases.

  • Activities and Services: Brands like Nike and Lululemon have very strong fandoms because of their close connection to activities and sports that consumers are equally passionate about, according to Thomas. These brands have tapped these habits and behaviors to inspire the creation of running clubs, yoga classes and other services that bring like-minded customers together. 

  • Quality: Brands like Stanley and Carhartt have a loyal fan following because of their high-quality products, according to Thomas. These brands have been able to do more than maintain their stellar reputations, however; they also have become more “hip” thanks to the power of social media. (Remember that viral TikTok that showed a mint-condition Stanley cup that survived a terrible car fire?)

Tackling the Dark Side of Fandom

Thomas referred to the cultural impact of fandoms such as Beyoncé’s “BeyHive” and Taylor Swift’s “Swifties,” as well as the influence of niche economies that have been created through conventions like Bravo’s BravoCon and, of course, Comic-Con. While they all cultivate the same sense of belonging, these fandoms can also have a dark side.

The dark side of fandom (what Thomas calls “bad loyalty”) can lead to even more division and alienation, creating an “if you’re not with me, you’re against me” mentality. Some brand “superfans” also can become overly opinionated about what a brand should or should not do. Then, when a brand makes a mistake or misstep, it can create feelings of personal betrayal.

“This is why we look at it like a pyramid, with superfans at the top. Because you don’t want everyone to be a superfan,” Thomas explained. “It’s about cultivating those relationships in a way where there’s a balance. It’s also about figuring out who’s really at your core [fanbase] and what they stand for. We’re facing this challenge where everyone and everything is so polarized. Brands need to figure out that emotional connection and stay true to the brand.”

Although there’s no way to completely avoid the dark side of fandom, there is a way to mitigate it. “I think at the end of the day, these superfans do more good than harm, but you have to keep your ear to the ground of exactly how that fandom is manifesting and, and as a brand show how you’re willing to stand up for what you believe in.”


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