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The new fandom economy

New and innovative creative partnerships is what fandom is all about now. Yves Béhar's new book, Designing Ideas, which he signed for event attendees after the panel at SXSW, highlights this concept. (All photos courtesy of Tomas Segura)
New and innovative creative partnerships is what fandom is all about now. Yves Béhar's new book, Designing Ideas, which he signed for event attendees after the panel at SXSW, highlights this concept. (All photos courtesy of Tomas Segura)

Once native to the fringes of digital culture, fan communities have recently found new meaning in the mainstream. Between the rise of the creator economy and the utopian (if fragile) promise of decentralization hailed in by web3, fandom is on the brink of a new era. Where does this leave brands? This South by Southwest panel, presented by Plus Company, drills deep into this evolving relationship.


- Yves Béhar, founder, fuseproject, a Plus Company; world renowned designer and author of Designing Ideas
- Dani Calogera, VP of brand and digital marketing, Showtime

- Shawn Francis, head of creative, We Are Social US, a Plus Company
- Brett Marchand, CEO, Plus Company
- Lore Oxford, global head of cultural insights, We Are Social, a Plus Company

- Moderator: Steve Madden, GM, Haymarket Media Business Media Group 

“A product truly only has ultimate meaning if others [fans] talk about how good it is,” observes Brett Marchand, CEO of Plus Company, at the outset of this special SXSW gathering, entitled “The New Fandom Economy.”

“Everyone's launching products these days,” he continues, “so how do you differentiate them in an incredibly complex world where there are so many choices?”

Marchand’s words take on extra resonance inasmuch as the organization he leads has just undergone a rebranding in which a main goal is to achieve the differentiation of which he speaks.

Enter world renowned designer Yves Béhar. The design and integration firm he founded, fuseproject, spearheaded efforts to create a new identity and name for Marchand’s organization – a holding company created to be a new model of intra-agency teamwork – that would resonate with key audiences. 

“The notion of plus means that every member of the team, every agency, every acquisition we make is additive,” explains Béhar. “It’s another discipline, another perspective, another level of diversity and thinking that contributes to make the work better.”

For him, the rebrand was a “manifestation of intent,” the lens through which he views all design. “I see design not as something aesthetic or functional, but as something intentional,” he shares. “It’s what you want to accomplish, how you want to show up in the world.”

Calling out that point of difference gives Plus Company its meaning. 

“You know the saying ‘Advertising is the price you pay for being unoriginal?’ When a product doesn't have meaning in people's lives, people are not advertising it on their own. Today everybody's a fan and that’s the best PR,” offers Béhar.

Panel speakers (l-r) were Francis, Calogera and Oxford

Newfound freedom

Harnessing the power of a fan base is a critical component of any marketer’s strategy. As the panel commenced, the first area of focus was the manner in which the explosion and evolution of digital platforms and intense channel segmentation have affected what it means to be a fan.

“Fandom is freedom,” explains Shawn Francis, head of creative at We Are Social US. “A brand used to drive the journey. Now fans can be a passenger on that journey or start driving the car themselves. Instead of just buying a team’s cap, a fan can start making merch that plays on something that happened during a game. The incident goes viral and one fan decides to monetize the moment. Suddenly they’ve got a business.”

Francis cites Arsenal’s LGBTQ fan base as an example of how a niche community can create a new conversation. 

“They've created this entire community within a community, Gay Gooners," he notes. "There are 1,000 different places you can talk about Arsenal online or offline. Fans can get together and communicate and collaborate in a way they couldn’t before and create a world that coexists within the larger scene of what they are into. That applies to music, sports or any brand.”

New media has enabled creativity to become open source for fans. In the music space, for example, social media enables fans to stay in contact with a band in new ways. 

“Bands are putting out individual tracks, called stems [basslines, vocals or drums] of a song and giving them to fans,” continues Francis. “Then fans take those pieces and power up GarageBand to make their own version of the song. So fans can now contribute and become a part of the story of whatever they are into.”

"I see design not as something aesthetic or functional, but as something intentional," says Béhar. "It’s what you want to accomplish, how you want to show up in the world."

Empowering platforms 

Wattpad, the online social reading platform that launched Fifty Shades of Grey fanfiction, is an example of allowing fans to piggyback on franchises to create their own original content.

“So much Twilight fan fiction lives on Wattpad,” reports Lore Oxford, global head of cultural insights at We Are Social. “Fandom isn't just people loving fan fiction. It's generating original content and having an impact on the wider culture.”

“It's to our benefit that fans want to imagine different scenarios,” adds Dani Calogera, Showtime’s VP of brand and digital marketing. She believes the pandemic intensified consumers’ desire to take a deep dive into their passions. 

“We've had this return to fewer, bigger, better, deeper relationships and experiences,” she says. “People are investing in communities where they can go deeper into their interests.” 

Calogera cites Discord as a platform where consumers are having hyper-specific conversations with people that share their passion. 

“Even mass platforms such as Twitter Spaces have become more intimate,” she explains. “It's been interesting to see that convergence of online and offline behavior where we're interested in more intimate connections and how that's manifested in the places and the ways that fans are engaging.”

In opening the panel, Plus Company CEO Brett Marchand notes, “A product truly only has ultimate meaning if others [fans] talk about how good it is.”

New age of intimacy

A We Are Social study conducted at the beginning of the pandemic indicated a shift in the way influencers were engaging with followers. 

“A lot of them were struggling because they were dealing with requests for intimacy,” notes Oxford. “Fan communities in the pandemic were an incredible source of connection and community.” Platforms such as Cameo that deliver that intimacy and individualization might just be the next era of fandom, she suggests. 

In turn, brands are finding new ways to connect more intimately with fans. Citing the success of the Community platform for fans of the hit show Shameless, Calogera highlights a Gallagher family group chat that, complete with Chicago area code, Showtime launched for the franchise.

“Every family has a dysfunctional group chat, so we invited fans into this intimate experience where they feel like they're texting with this family that they love,” she notes. “Fans feel like they have a seat at the table to something really special based on their passion around this IP.” 

The pandemic changed fandom for creators, as well. 

“We're starting to see a shift towards more direct access,” reports Oxford. “OnlyFans has around 30 million users. A big part of that is about the maturing of the digital landscape. We've realized that [content] is worth paying for.” 

Creating: A different relationship

As the internet evolves, so does the relationship between fans and creators. 

“When fandom gets so intense, people take it to that next level and become a creator,” observes Francis. With so many ways for people to become creative, the challenge is for brands to find ways to give those people a stake in creative decision-making.

“Renumerating people who are contributing to culture is where fandom is going,” suggests Oxford. “Fans are willing to pay the people they love to make sure those people can keep producing. The next phase is going to be fans wanting to be stakeholders and have equity in the things that they love.”

Similarly, Francis sees more brands “deputizing the evangelists, giving them the tools to keep doing what they do.” He cautions brands, though, to take a light touch with fans. 

“You want to make it easier for them to keep talking about your products,” he advises. “Give them a little help, but don't interfere if they're doing a great job.” 

Francis describes how his firm is harnessing fans to help a client, Major League Soccer, cross over into pop culture. 

“We started doing interesting things with creators that have a genuine interest in a team or in the sport,” he says. “We’re throwing them the keys and urging them to create something that would make them stand up and pay attention to this league.” 

In this evolving age, maintaining brand integrity in the face of intense interactivity with your fans can be a delicate balancing act. The panelists offer the example of The New York Times removing its brand from a food community the publication launched on Facebook after political discussions on it could not be moderated effectively. 

“The great thing about social media is that anybody can have a voice. The bad thing about social media is that anybody can have a voice,” says Francis. “We're not always going to hit everything out of the park. It's not always good. But if it’s genuine, people tend to be supportive.” 

“At the core, people want to find community and express themselves,” concludes Oxford. “Fans will continue to be fans. They'll just find new places and ways to express themselves as the world around us evolves.” 

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