Fandom and Iconic Branding

Fandom will develop around brands that can be seen as iconic. After all, even though just about everyone drinks milk, very few will call themselves a true fan of milk. Milk cosplay won’t be very common, and convention about milk won’t sell many tickets.

An iconic brand is one that has a profound impact on culture and the ability to inform and shape the identity of a customer by providing identity value, transforming him or her from regular customer into a fan. These brands have a profound effect on not just customers, but also society. Just consider Star Wars or Coca Cola. Society as we know it would be different without these, and many other such iconic brands.

Our lives are quests of self discovery, and in every moment of history, there will be collective anxieties in our societies. These anxieties will profoundly affect various groups, subcultures and even entire societies, and challenge our sense of self and our own identities. Political upheavals and challenges to our identies, our sense of self or our place in society, are examples of such anxieties.

An iconic brand then, addresses these issues through strategic communication, marketing or even pure coincidence. People see cultural heroes or symbols in certain brands, and take comfort. They see that they are not alone in their struggles

In 1977, Star Wars was released to an America fatigued by the constant talk of war and political misery. The Vietnam War, having recently ended with the deaths of thousands of American troops on the other side of the world, had created a deep distrust of the political establishment. The Cold War was in full swing, and president Nixon hadn’t exactly helped the situation either.

George Lucas, who had worked with hos long time friend, mentor and at times rival, Francis Ford Coppola, on the script for Apocalypse Now (1979), wanted to show people a more optimistic view of the world. Fed up by what he viewed as constand negativity and pessimism dominating society, his inspiration for Star Wars came from his childhood, growing up with Saturday science fiction serials like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.

Whether intentional or not (George Lucas is always vague on the subject) Star Wars also became a not so subtle jab at the political establishment of the time, and a protest against the Vietnam War. A central theme in the original Star Wars trilogy was that a band of poorly equipped freedom fighters could go on to win agains a superior force. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to realize that this could be reflected in the struggles between invading US forces and Vietcong guerillas, where the Vietcong were now portrayed as the “good guys”.

In this way, many Americans at the time, especially those who had been opposed by the war in Vietnam, and those who felt the political system was mired down by corruption and scandal, felt that Star Wars addressed many of the cultural challenges at the time. It gave them a way to project these anxieties through the lens of storytelling and identity myths, easing the tension by providing cultural relief and hope for a better future.

Iconic brands like Star Wars provide such identity myths with the purpose of addressing and correcting cultural challenges and anxieties. These myths are alternatives to the issues at hand, addressing the zeitgeist, and gives us breathing space. They are stories, allegories, examples and symbols we can press to our hearts and use as a rallying cry when things become too difficult.

The Star Wars saga centers around the stories of Luke Skywalker and his father, Anakin Skywalker, who became the evil Darth Vader. It is inspired by the universal narrative themes of the hero’s journey, as popularized by author Joseph Campbell, who was a great inspiration and mentor to George Lucas. It is easy for most of us to see something of ourselves in Luke Skywalker, which can also be said about many such narrative archetypes. On this journey we are given lessons and challenges about our relationships with our parents, growing up, leaving home and becoming independet. It is a story that is easy to identify with, as it addresses the very real struggles and challenges we all face in our lives.

We are attraced to iconic brands, then, as they strengthen our affiliation to the provided identity myth. This is especially important in fandom, where fan objects and rituals take on a near-religious meaning for many. Rituals, like the collection of fan objects and fan texts, attending social gatherings like conventions, are important elements of being part of a fandom.

Identity myths play out in a metaphorical populist world. This is not to be confused with political populism, but as as author Douglas Holt describes it, such populist worlds are places where the public assumes that people’s actions are motivated by belief instead of interest. They are source material for myths that exists wherever populism takes its most authentic form. Populism thrives wherever people are thought to act according to their own belief rather than have their actions shaped by society’s institutions.

It is here we find the values, ideas and principles that is the building blocks for the iconic brand. Authenticity is important to fans, and understanding the core values of the populist world in which the brand lives, so to speak, is critical to maintaing fan loyalty.

George Lucas has always considered himself as a filmmaker on the outside of the established Hollywood studio system, and he often critized the studio executives for being unable to understand true film making. For Lucas, Star Wars is first and foremost a space adventure, but in it we find strong lessons and deeper messages that go above and beyond its medium, and makes it iconic.