In the wake of this week’s absolutely ridiculous IKEA fandom misstep, I feel moved to get down on screen once and for all how to properly handle a disagreement with your fans. Here it is, folks, what to do when your fans are engaging in activity you’re not sure about. Without looking like a complete idiot.
Lets say you are the owner of a fan object, and your legal department tells you a superfan is using your brand name in a way you can’t control. Maybe you find out your fans have created a “Squishable Trading Post” to swap your after-market plush designs. Or let’s say a fan has started “World Nutella Day“, a celebration of your dessert-turned breakfast chocolate spread. Or perhaps they’ve started a website called “Ikea Hackers” showing the universe how to rework your terrible terrible furniture to be useful. Do you have the right to be concerned? Yes! Its scary to know you’re outsourcing your brand identity. And hey, you employ all those shmancy lawyers (or in Squishable’s case, a dude named Charles who sometimes does lawyer stuff after lunch). You gotta keep them busy somehow.
So how can you disentangle your brand from your fans’ acts of love with finesse? Without looking like that idiot who loves kicking puppies? Puppies who incidentally make you a lot of money? Before you make a move, stop. Just stop. Think for a second. I know it feels exciting and proactive to send that cease-and-desist, but many a brand meltdown could have been avoided by a deep breath and 5 minutes of introspection. Your fans have a vast communication platform at their disposal, potentially a much wider one than you do. The second you react they’ll put the gears into motion spreading the word about your actions. When that happens you’re no longer in control, and throwing good intentions after bad won’t help if you change your mind. You can stop your fans from doing what they’re doing, but you can’t stop them from letting the world know you’ve stopped them from doing what they’re doing.
Put aside the legal ramifications for just a minute. Put aside your corporate policies, not to mention your ego, and think.
1) Is the activity your fans are engaging in actually harmful? Or is it just scary? Is it actively hurting your brand, or are you just nervous it might at some point? What are the benefits you’re receiving from their activity? Is it giving the product free publicity, like World Nutella Day? Giving your brand a new platform, like the webcomic ‘Miss Officer and Mr. Truffles‘ – which came from a simple news photo? Is it providing your brand with a sexy new context, like when hipsters decided to rebrand PBR on their own (“PBR is authentic American that shows solidarity with the working class” beats “It’s cheap” as advertising any day).
If your only answer is free publicity, you might have some ground to stand on. “But we’re giving them free publicity!!” is the excuse used for all sorts of blatantly criminal behavior, from pirating movies to plagiarizing writing. But if your answer starts edging into context creation, you might want to think again. Ikea Hackers isn’t just bringing the joys of awful furniture to a wider audience, it’s showing the existing audience new ways to desire it. That’s the equivalent of discovering that not only are your teddy bears comforting, they’re edible as well! This sort of activity makes the brand itself more valuable. If you move against them they’ll be seen as victims who understand your own brand better than you do, and rightly so.
2) Are the actions you’re about to take consistent with the philosophy your brand claims to embody? The cult TV program Firefly is about a renegade starship crew and their fight for freedom against an uncaring bureaucracy. In 2013, Firefly’s owner Fox began sending out cease-and-desist letters to designers of Firefly hats on the grass-roots crafting website Etsy. What ensued was an uproar which might seem out of proportion to what, with an audience of consumers, might be a straightforward matter of defending copyright. But that neglects the deeper truth: fandom is the result of a tenuous compromise. No matter the level of loyalty to a brand, the true loyalty is, not to the fan object, but to the concepts which it represents. When a gap opens up between the values a fan object claims to embody, and the values of the fan object as commercial entity, this delicate balance is upset.
Are you really ready to force your fans to remember that you’re just a soulless corporate entity? I mean, fans do know it somewhere deep inside, but do you really want to shove it in their faces? If you’re a brand like Abercrombie & Fitch, where warm fuzzies play no part in their brand context, then fire away! But for most of us it’s not that simple.
3) Do your actions respect your fandom’s social hierarchy? Modders who update their XBoxes so that they can play any game they want are considered the creme-de-la-creme of the Xbox gaming community. It’s a tricky skill, one that takes time to learn. So when Microsoft decided to ask the Department of Homeland Security to start arresting XBox modders, the community was rightfully taken aback. As a dog owner, the only metaphor I can think of is the turmoil that ensues when you accidentally feed the Alpha second. Superfans have their peers’ respect, they have a platform, and they have a lot of people who owe them favors. Your general population is going to react negatively if you start insulting their role models, the people they themselves have chosen as leaders. The superfans have their hearts. You only have their money. Guess which one is stronger. (Also, apparently Microsoft controls the Department of Homeland Security? Is anyone else really creeped out by this?)
4) Is this an issue that could be solved through some kind of partnership? Instead of fighting this situation, can you perhaps absorb it? Bringing fan activity in-house is almost always a win. For the fan it gives them the status they deserve. For you, there’s the twin benefits of ready-made context development, and also control over the activity in the future. So many fan kerfuffles could have been solved by partnering with the offending organization, as Nutella eventually, grudgingly, decided to do with World Nutella day. XBox lost a chance to pick the minds of the best modders in the business. Ikea has lost a born organizer and leader in the coveted community of do-it-yourselfers. Don’t fight your fans, hire them! Miley Cyrus did.
5) How about…just asking the fans to add a disclaimer? You remember disclaimers, right? The default method of explaining that a fan’s activity isn’t representative of the official brand? That little snippet of text that used to be the answer to this problem for hundreds of years before lawyers got bored? “This thing is not affiliated with, funded, or in any way associated with that thing”? You know, that really really easy solution that makes everyone happy? Ask them to add a disclaimer. Jeez.
6) If you truly decide that you despise the activity going on, you can ask them to modify content. Not their business practices, not their ownership, the content. That way the fans can continue being fans, you don’t lose the extra context, and neither of you has to, say, go to court. Is a fan-made forum for World of Warcraft suddenly full of racial slurs? Before asking them to shut down their huge platform with thousands of completely innocent users, how about asking them to…stop using racial slurs? Yes, there are many mentally unbalanced folks out there, people with no middle gears, people who love to play at being an outraged martyr every time there’s a suggestion to show just a little respect. But believe me when I say they’re few and far between. And if the choice is between a little modification and complete obliteration, very few will pick the latter.
7) Only once you’ve tried every single one of the above, and tried them truly, in good faith, should you unleash that cease-and-desist. The moment you hit send, be ready for that fan backlash. Start monitoring all your channels, and not just your own but every arena where you know your fans congregate. Get your whole team online and start answering questions. Every single one – every facebook comment, ever tweet, and at least read every blog and tumblr post even though commenting on them might be stalkerish. Do it with compassion. Do it with humility. Do it with embarrassment. Explain you’re only acting this way as a final resort.
It’s no hyperbole to say you are messing with your fangroup’s very core and self image – the way they spend their time – so don’t be a dick about it. Your fans have the right to be outraged, and any hint of high-handedness or disconnection will pour gasoline on the flames. Black Milk recently made itself a laughingstock by igniting a fan-war over a completely trivial post on their facebook page. Instead of explaining themselves, or even asking for fan input, they chose the “no, you’re wrong and incidentally you’re banned for disagreeing with us” approach. It went over great.
Show your fans that you’re there for them, you’re listening to what they have to say, and that you understand how they feel even if it won’t change your mind. Tell them why you had to do it. Tell them how much they still mean to you. Handle this like a breakup where you know its your own fault: It’s not them, its you, and you’re really really sorry. Because if you’re not, believe me…you will be.