When a political scientist Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined communities,” he set out to explain the sources of modern nationalism. An imagined community is bound together by a deep horizontal comradeship between people who haven’t met and don’t know each other, but have similar affinities, beliefs, interests and attitudes.
Today, we are going through the imagined community renaissance. Modern brands stepped in as the social constructs of belonging, and as the links between culture and psychology left vacant by traditional institutions of social cohesion. Just as the newly roused national communities of the 18th and 19th centuries were ready to go to war in the name of their nation, today’s modern brand fans are quick to cancel the opponents or go to war with the brand competitors.
Fan is short for fanatic, and some of the modern fans truly are. But, as a media scholar Henry Jenkins noted in “Textual Poachers,” his ethnographic account of fandom, it is also a source of creativity and expression “for massive numbers of people who would otherwise be excluded from the commercial sector.”
If Jenkins heralded participatory culture built by fans, modern brands herald participatory economy, where under the guise of fandom, fans do the (free) work for brands — or for each other. “More and more individuals are launching their own membership communities, aiming to bring people together around a shared interest,” writes Harvard Business Review. “Build your business one person at a time. Just focus on 100 people. If they love you, they will market the product for you and tell everyone else,” said Brian Chesky, the founder of Airbnb. Today’s brand fans give feedback on product designs, create content, wear and advocate brand products, and are featured in advertising materials. Nowhere is the psycho-cultural-economic dynamic of brand fandom more apparent than in streetwear, which like any hobby — comic books, running or underground music — requires a true devotion. Fervor for sneakers is simultaneously a source of one’s social standing within their peer group and an investment asset (exactly how big is indicated by the size of the resale streetwear market in North America, projected to reach $6 billion by 2025).
Most successful brands today are fanmade, created by imagined communities of fans that do not necessary know each other but share tastes, aesthetics, and interests. Thanks to social media, everyone is (or can be) a tastemaker and content creator, endowed with a proverbial soapbox, as Glossier’s founder Emily Weiss put it. An indeed, as the allure of influencers fades and brands start to recognize the growing influence that comes from ordinary people, creating a community has become a go-to brand building strategy.
Tracksmith is a running apparel brand for amateur runners, aimed at celebrating the style, heritage, and the culture of the sport. Rather than starting from social media and search ads, Tracksmith opted for growing slowly and steadily, often organizing races and events in its Boston store in order to forge a direct, human connection with its runners. High-end cycling brand Rapha created its cycling clubs to a similar end of community-creation and enforcing their mission of making the world a better place through cycling. Doen is a fashion brand of “thoughtfully designed clothing by women, for women,” with a strong emphasis on community and its members. Outdoor Voices’ fans think that movement is fun and love #doingthings, usually together. The Italian Vanity Fair’s editor claims that she is not doing a magazine, but building a network.
Brands with vibrant communities are perceived as more culturally credible than those without them, and more and more brands from fashion, beauty, sports, travel, media, and even CPG ask us to join their imagined communities. They figured out that using a direct contact with consumers to establish a strong base to build atop of is the surest way for a quick growth. And while a lot of them often do tap into an existing passion or hobby or interest of their fanbase, like Patagonia or Tracksmith or Harley Davidson, there are also those that are using it as a marketing shortcut. Emboldened by the success of its brand Off-White, the newly acquired holding company New Guards Group plans to conceive, produce, launch, and distribute modern streetwear brands. “In the early 90’s, we were all rooted in some sort of subculture. For example, skateboarding, or graffiti, or punk rock. Versus brands today, they are not really rooted in any sort of subculture. They just sort of appeared out of nowhere.” says Erik Brunetti, the designer behind the label FUCT.
In the famous members-only eating clubs of San Sebastian, Spain, everyone contributes, and the quality of the contribution (read: a cooked meal) defines one’s social standing within a club. Free labor in the name of belonging is fine as long as everyone’s better off because of it. But too many modern brands are using their products to hastily replace symbols, images, and stereotypes that used to bind our imagined communities together, and that should give us a pause.