Three years ago, I blogged about the first time I attended the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, then in its second year. This fan culture event was overwhelming, and it was difficult to know where to begin talking about the experience. On April 26, I experienced C2E2 from a more personal perspective: my 12-year-old daughter Marion was among the throng of attendees who dress up as their favorite fictional characters ranging from Princess Mononoke to Dr. Who. Marion was adorned in a trench coat and black wings to honor Castiel, an angel in the CW Network series Supernatural. As I noted on a LinkedIn blog post, being with Marion helped me appreciate first-hand a superfan loyalty that is rooted in self-expression and spontaneous community.
C2E2 has quickly become a premier destination for fans and companies to gather and celebrate each other over the course of one weekend. C2E2 attracted 53,000 attendees in 2013, up from 40,000 the year before, and the event has taken up more space in the Chicago McCormick Place convention center to accommodate the growing number of merchants and entertainment properties participating.
If you opt into the C2E2 email newsletter, your experience begins well in advance of the actual event. The pedestrian-looking newsletter and website serve up a steady stream of announcements about the show, such as autograph signings (for a fee) by comic book legends such as Stan Lee, a panel with Game of Thrones cast members, or the unveiling of an interactive booth for online game League of Legends.
But you really don’t begin to understand C2E2 until you walk into McCormick Place on the day of the show and take stock of your surroundings. Even before you enter the formal C2E2 convention area, you encounter the superfans expressing their passions. One moment, Wolverine of X-Men casually strolls past Daenerys Targaryen (with one of her dragons) from Game of Thrones. Then Iron Man pauses to have his photo taken with a wedding party that has stumbled on to C2E2. A Star Wars Imperial Stormtrooper changes his son’s diaper in the men’s room while Han Solo and Chewbacca wander the hallways.
Once you get inside the actual convention space, you are engulfed by more characters, displays for comic book brands such as Marvel, and a sea of vendors selling merchandise such as well-crafted Star Trek-themed bathrobes. In Artist Alley, you meet the men and women who create the art for graphic novels such as Rainbow in the Dark. You can also meet Tony Moore — the artist who helped launch The Walking Dead graphic novel series. This is not a place to buy cheaply made pens.
Marion told me later that she dressed up as Castiel partly because “I am really getting into fandoms, and I wanted to see what people’s reactions would be.”
She found out quickly.
As we wandered through the mass of humanity April 26, Marion was stopped often by Supernatural fans who recognized the character she was portraying and complimented her on her outfit. Several times, attendees took her photo. People dressed in costume were especially supportive, with their knowing looks, nods of their heads, and smiles saying, We are like each other.
Following Marion around, I learned that superfans have their own code words for their shared passions. When Marion encountered two girls dressed as Doctor Who and Sherlock, the three greeted each other like lifelong friends and quickly began taking selfies. Afterward, Marion explained that she had just experienced “SuperWhoLock” — or what happens when you combine elements of Supernatural, Dr. Who, and Sherlock (type #SuperWhoLock on Instagram or Twitter, and you’ll start to understand).
I also noticed some fans stopped, did a double take, and then shared a moment of joyous recognition when they figured out the character Marion was playing. Castiel is not as well known as Spider Man. He is an ensemble character on a TV show with a cult following. So dressing up as Castiel turned Marion into a walking trivia quiz (Think you know your TV shows? Guess who I am). Portraying a lesser-known character added a deeper dimension to those spontaneous conversations erupting across the convention floor, such as the moment when Marion bonded with the relatively obscure character of Cecil, who narrates the podcast series Welcome to Night Vale. Everyone knows who Batman is. But when you recognize Cecil walking past you at a convention, you’re passed a test that makes you a true fanboy or fangirl.
I wondered what would happen when Marion encountered another Castiel. Would there be an awkwardness akin to two high schoolers wearing the same prom dress? But when the moment arrived, the other Castiels expressed excitement and interest in each other’s costumes, comparing their angel wings and talking about their love of Supernatural.
“Oh, you look great!” a woman dressed as Castiel gushed to Marion. “Not everyone wears the wings as well as you do!” Marion beamed with pride, like a Little Leaguer hitting a home run.
“It felt really nice to be part of a community of people who understand what I was dressed up as,” Marion said.
At C2E2, the visiting celebrities charge you for their time. The superfans don’t. And yet many of the superfans carry themselves with the grace and poise of celebrities accustomed to being the center of attention. Hawkwoman, Poison Ivy, and Hellboy willingly stop what they are doing as they stroll about the floor, striking poses and mugging for the camera at will. They know they are the stars. And they love it.
They also embrace role playing. A superfan dressed up as a Walking Dead zombie didn’t stop for autographs. Never breaking character, he lurched about the convention floor like the slow-shuffling zombies depicted in the popular AMC television series, pausing to indulge in a photograph but never saying a word. (Fortunately, he stopped short of trying to eat people.)
Later, I posted a video and photo of him on Instagram, and he responded to my post with a brief but enthusiastic note of thanks — a nice moment of fan-to-fan appreciation spilling into the digital world. (His name is Steven Lindblom, @sasquatch on Instagram).
I believe C2E2 imparts some strong lessons for creating brand love, such as:
- Real fandom is not about you. It’s about them. So you should meet your fans on their own terms. For instance, Nike time and again turns the spotlight of its marketing machine on its fans. Its #MaketheRules social media campaign celebrated women athletes. Nike continuously honors its fans on Instagram, too, and even gives its fans a chance to participate in product design. The very ethos of Nike — “Just Do It” — is a challenge for fans to achieve.
- Give your fans a special place to celebrate. For decades, brands have honored superfans by creating fan clubs. Great brands like Disney and Harley-Davidson take fandom a step further by giving fans physical spaces to geek out. For instance, Harley-Davidson uses events for H-D lovers to celebrate each other (and to give back to their communities, an example being the Harley-Davidson MDA Women’s Ride). Interestingly, Disney did not launch an official fan club until 2009, but Disney has made up for lost time with a vengeance. The Disney D23 club seeks to build love with fans “by putting them in the middle of the magic” through experiences ranging from a website to events. The centerpiece of D23 is the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, where Disney loyalists get a sneak peak at Disney movies, dress up like their favorite Disney characters, and celebrate their own community.
- Empower fans to tell visual stories: We live in an age when visual storytelling reigns as our chief form of expression. Savvy organizations encourage fans to tell visual stories, as we’ve seen often with musicians and sports teams. For instance, the Oakland Raiders of the NFL honor the many fans of Raider Nation who express their love, especially visually. On its website, the Raiders devote space for Raiders fans and their pets to upload photos of themselves adorned in Raider gear. On its social spaces and website, the Raiders also encourage fans to upload photos of in “Raiders Rides,” or motorbikes, boats, and other forms of transportation decorated in the visually striking Raiders Silver and Black colors.
Disney, Harley-Davidson, Nike, and the Oakland Raiders have figured out how to capitalize on a very basic but powerful human behavior: self-expression. Superfans are willing to express themselves without the encouragement of the brand. The CW Television network did not ask my daughter to dress up as Castiel. Marion became Castiel because she wanted to express her passion for the character and to share an important element of her identity: the fangirl.
Good brands can create attention on their own. But great brands build love and loyalty by tapping into natural forms of self-expression. What are your favorite examples?