Earlier this week an unexpected blog post was penned by American photographer Sara Rosso, explaining why her website, a collection of recipes, stories, and resources about the celebration of ‘World Nutella Day‘, would shortly be shuttering. The culprit: a cease and desist order from Ferrero SpA, the owner of Europe’s favorite breakfast junk food, Nutella.
Now, fans are used to these official-looking documents. They’re sent to music aficionados who remix their favorites, to the writers of fan fiction containing proprietary characters, and sometimes just to people selling hats. I received one myself back in the late 90’s, and the scary letterhead – and expense implied therein – was enough to make me shutter my very first startup faster than you can say “copyright infringement“. (Hopbooks, you’ll be missed).
But this cease and desist order was different. For one thing, International Nutella Day was just so darn silly, and so obviously did more to help than hurt the Nutella brand. Now, it’s true that this excuse is trotted out by brand violators to defend a suspiciously long list of crimes, from file-sharing and console-modding to downright design theft. And it’s also true that, at least in the US, companies are required to pursue every instance of infringement on pain of trademark erosion. But in this situation it really is difficult to imagine what damage might have been done. Full attribution was given, no properties were stolen. It was the most vanilla of crimes, right up there with “assault and makeover” or “breaking and donating“.
But the other reason this cease and desist differs is because Rosso is a superfan. Superfans are the true believers in a fan object, the multipliers, the ambassadors, the evangelists, the advocates, the brand leaders, the “insert business 2.0 term” of commerce. They may be drawn in for any number of reasons (the joys of community membership, a love of fannish activities, or just the status that comes with knowing a lot about something.) But no matter the reason for their their romance, all superfans should be treated like cherished, beautiful, delicate elfin princesses…who also might rip your arms off and eat your brains at any moment .
By the time a Superfan has attain such exalted status they’ve already found followers who care about their opinion. They’ve found an existing platform on which to express it, and they have a deep-seated motivation to keep their fan object true to the ideals they’ve already internalized. And when the leadership at the top of any cultural hierarchy is attacked, the sugary chocolate goop hits the fan. Primal instincts, developed long ago on the savannah for tribal defense, swoop into action: a pack will always rush to the rescue of their alphas. Barely had Russo blogged her note of resignation before a large portion of the breakfast-eating web rushed to tweet their betrayal and outrage. Nutella’s Facebook page overflowed with comments like “Sorry to hear that you value your attorneys so much more than your customers. This is what happens when you take us all for granted, I guess. Would you prefer a worldwide boycott of Nutella until you give your customers what they want?” and also the more direct “Your spread is tasty, but your lawyers are idiots.”
It’s been noted that all fans make a conscious choice to ignore one fact: that their item of worship is a commodity created for moneymaking purposes. But just because they ignore it doesn’t mean they’re not aware of it. Somewhere, deep inside, every fan acknowledges the make-belive aspect of their love: they feel very strongly, but they could also chose not to. Very few Team Edward fans would truly turn down a date with Jacob if the opportunity presented itself, very few Apple owners truly wish to lay down their life and liberty for a war against Microsoft HQ (although you never know). To upset this delicate balance – to forcibly remind a fangroup of the corporate entity behind the curtain – is part of the map that should be crossed off with a huge skull and crossbones and ‘here be dragons‘.
Nutella has quickly backpedelled with a Facebook post of full of thankfulness to their fans and an intention to to drop legal charges, but they may have yet to see the big picture. For one, according to Nutella, the fault lies with a routine lawyer task. Had it been brought to their attention, they say, it would certainly not have happened. This has prompted many fans to question Nutella’s entire fan philosophy – as one fan put it, “Gratitude, but no apology?” For this to be treated as PR mistake instead of as a policy mistake is remarkably tone-deaf; many companies might have reacted by requesting the fan enter into a formal agreement, or have the fan place a disclaimer on their site, or in extreme cases, immediately hiring the perpetrator at a huge salary to head their PR team.
Compare this with Beam Inc’s reaction over fan outcry over their plan to reduce the alcohol content in Makers Mark. I haven’t seen that level of groveling since the last time my puppy got too excited on the carpet.
In any case, thus ends a week in which at least some of Nutella’s fanbase realized that sugar mixed with palm oil isn’t the best way to start the day after all (I kid. Nutella tastes lovely, especially on… everything). But lest we grow too smug in our condemnation, to paraphrase the author Neil Gaiman, “May all your moral decisions be so easy”. There are times, true times, real times, when the business imperatives of an institution really do outright clash with fan demands, and no satisfaction can be brokered even by participants of goodwill. When that day comes, God help you – there will be no solution except to put on a brave face and hope your company will outlast the outrage. Fandom is a small tempest in a teacup, but it’s a tea cup that can easily spill over and swamp the whole breakfast table.