Brand Loyalty versus Fandom

April 12th, 2007

MacUser has a recent post exploring the question of what makes Apple product users so loyal. The writer, commenting on an article at Blackfriars Marketing, suggests, “In my opinion, they really nail it: we’re just very satisfied customers.” That’s a nice sentiment, but I think it’s only part of what fan cultures are all about.

We’re not just talking about “very satisfied customers” here. We’re talking about a much more participatory and engaged type of fans:

Pundits often refer to them as “zealots” or “fanboys.” The more polite references include “Mac loyalists.” I am, of course, talking about Apple’s more vocal customers, those who will defend the company and its products in any debate going on around them. What is it that drives their passion for most things Apple? Is it a deluded mind, warped by the Reality Distortion Field that Steve Jobs so successfully wraps every new product in? In short, the answer is no.

Let’s applaud Blackfriars for dismissing the out-of-date notion of the pathologized fan. Assuming we really are talking about the people who are emotionally invested in Apple, though, let’s also recognize that such passionate involvement goes beyond “very satisfied customers.” I’m a “very satisfied customer” of Apple products, but I am not one of those vocal defenders. I’ll read whatever links of Apple-related “news” my friends send me, but I’m not interested in tuning in for Steve Jobs’s newest proclamations or Apple product announcements. I certainly wouldn’t be reading any Mac blogs if not for my research interests and the fact that my friend writes for one (no offense, Dan). I have an iPod and an iPod Shuffle, a PowerBook, and a G5 PowerMac, and no other MP3 players or Windows-based PCs, but I wouldn’t be opposed on principle alone to buying superior products from other parties. In other words, I’m a very satisfied user, but only the least invested or active kind of “fan” of Apple.

If being a very satisfied customer is not enough to account for Mac loyalism, where is the line between brand loyalty and full-fledged fandom? This calls to my mind a conversation between Nancy Baym and Kristina Busse over at Online Fandom. Nancy (are we on a first-name basis in the blogosphere, or is it the more academic-sounding “Dr. Baym”?) wrote a post asking why people read her blog, and I had commented that I was interested in her take on fandom “as a fairly common process, not just limited to the hardcore folks making filk music and writing fan-fic.” Nancy followed up with a new post:

Fandom IS an everyday very common practice. It’s happening whenever people are using some element of pop culture as a locus for their own social organizing, whenever they’re taking something from pop culture and making it a piece of their own social identity. So, yeah, it’s much broader than sci fi, it’s much broader than fanfic, it’s much broader than the stuff that usually gets covered when people talk about “fandom.”

I’d like to see the term claimed by all of us who practice it, because then we’d realize that most of us are engaging in some form of fandom to some extent. We’d stop stigmatizing it as a symptom of having no life (never mind the rich lives of those who are ‘the hardcore folks’), and we might even recognize that what goes on in fandom is a mix of appreciation, consumption, and creativity that is interesting in its own right and that has tremendous power as a model for many practices outside of fandom.

This launched an interesting exchange on how brand loyalty is one thing, but fandom means integrating some product more centrally into your social identity. My take on this is that the social connections in some fan communities—particularly those long known as “geeky”—are also encouraged by the aforementioned social stigmatization itself, among other factors. (If you’re interested in theorizing fandom, you should just read the entire conversation in comments following the post.)

Suggesting that fandom is more than being a “very satisfied customer” shouldn’t be understood as denigrating the inherent quality of the product in question: that is, I recognize that Apple fans are indeed pleased with the quality of their Apple products. Ending inquiry there, however, would be like saying that my family is full of Red Sox fans just because it’s a superior baseball team. Other factors feed into the recipe for fandom. In the case of sports, hometown pride is typically a major factor (if not the only factor) in encouraging team devotion.

This brings us back to the original question, then: what factors turn a satisfied Apple customer into an Apple fan? Certainly the enjoyment of formal properties plays a part (e.g., people like easy-to-use computers that don’t crash often). In general, social connections associated with the objects of fandom (e.g., being from the same town, gathering at conventions, even sharing the same stigmas) also play a large role in supporting a sense of community.

In the case of Apple, the community appears built around events (such as the MacWorld Expo) and perhaps even a sort of parasocial relationship with the personable face of Apple, Steve Jobs. Most evident to me, however, is die-hard Mac users’ shared sense of marginalization in the face Microsoft and PCs more broadly, particularly in terms of hardware and software compatibility. Some Apple devotees are also probably feeling a recent sense of elation that the underdogs are finally coming out on top (kind of like the Sox winning the 2004 Series) thanks to the such successes as the iPod, increasing market share in academic institutions, and access to more software through Boot Camp.

That’s not an exhaustive list of possible factors encouraging fan involvement, of course—and I’d love to hear from any of you computer users out there who have other ideas. Considering how much the issue of marginalization or perception of an outside threat comes up when analyzing community solidarity, I can’t help but wonder what Apple fandom would look like if OS X were to climb to the market position currently occupied by Windows. Does Windows even have the kind of hardcore devotees that you see jumping in to defend Macs? When I hear the typical Mac vs. PC debate nowadays, it sounds more frequently than not like an Apple-branded evangelist trying to convert someone who is quite content to practice what he or she grew up with. I don’t ever hear anybody really lobbying for Windows, aside from its role as a gaming platform (and that comes up even more often in the console vs. PC debate). I feel like the committed PC die-hards must have moved on to various iterations of Linux by now, but here’s your chance to correct me if I’m wrong.

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9 Responses to “Brand Loyalty versus Fandom”

  1. Dan Says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your point about marginalization. There’s an affinity that many of us have for the underdog, whether it be the Red Sox, the Mac, or the Rebel Alliance. There’s also a sense of non-conformity, and of pride over that non-comfority. We like to believe that we’re independent, thinking people who aren’t going to simply do what we’re told my the majority (despite the fact that in many ways non-conformity is just conformity to a minority—this is starting to sound like a song).

    Would Mac fans change if Apple were in the top place? Maybe. Did some Red Sox fans lose interest after they won the World Series? Sure. I haven’t followed baseball nearly as closely since that point (though I might also attribute that to narrative structure; it seemed very much like the end of the story—the same way Star Wars ends with the Rebels beating the Empire). So if Apple finally “won” and dethroned Microsoft (which I think unlikely, despite being a Mac fanboy, zealot, what-have-you), perhaps the partisanship would become less rabid; then again, perhaps Apple would merely become the Empire to someone else’s (Linux’s?) rebellion.

  2. Thomas GvL Says:

    Fascinating analysis… I’m the writer of MacUser the post, by the way ;)

    I guess what I meant is that the fact that some of Apple’s customers are so passionate comes from the fact they are very satisfied. It’s true that all “very satisfied” customers won’t be involved in the online Mac community (although nearly all of the real-word, non-geek Mac users I know do promote the Mac pretty heavily to their friends and relatives).

    I think pretty much all of the reasons you bring up are parts of the puzzle… the marginalization of the platform, I think, is definitely the source of the Mac community. When people sense they are in some kind of danger, of threatened by an “enemy”, they do stick together more and are definitely more vocal about it. While Microsoft has proved to me less of the big threat they were before, the community is already born and it thrives.

    Great article, you definitely trump me and Blackfriars here. I think it’s well worth a follow-up on MacUser… Stay tuned.

  3. Jason Says:

    Thanks for the comments, MacUser guys. I’m curious, Thomas: do you get the sense that your non-geek Mac user friends get branded as fanboys and zealots in more or less the same way that the really active Mac fans might be characterized? Word-of-mouth marketing depends entirely on people liking a product enough to say something about it, so not every ‘very satisfied customer’ is going to get branded as a nutjob. I wonder if excited Mac users are characterized as zealots more because of some stigma associated with Macs (cutting across fans and satisfied customers alike) or the intensity of the recommender’s pitch (probably higher among the hardcore, though I could be wrong on that).

  4. Jacob Says:

    …I can’t help but wonder what Apple fandom would look like if OS X were to climb to the market position currently occupied by Windows

    One market where the largest and most powerful companies were, and to some degree still are, sources a large fan cultures is the auto industry. At least in the US, among buyers of US-based cars and trucks, there is brand loyalty that easily fits under the umbrella of fandom. Many buyers of Ford pickup trucks would never, ever, drive a Chevy, but I don’t see either company as the underdog here. My personal impression is that this segment of auto culture has been in decline since the 70s, but its definitely still present.

    Does Windows even have the kind of hardcore devotees that you see jumping in to defend Macs?

    Among software developers, there are definitely active communities that are promoting a Windows Is Better message. It may be less visible than that of consumers, both because of the limited social scope of developer communities and the greater variety of options for development (its not just the OS platform, but also the toolset that is being carved into market share).

    The greater fandom present among developers for Windows may show another ingredient in your recipe for fandom. For a lot of end-users, one of the characteristics of using a Mac is that its done by choice. PCs are the reasonable default for a lot of people, but if you’re using a Mac its because you want to. Developers, who have greater flexibility in their choices of platform, are then in a situation where they can choose Windows for their own reasons. This might explain why otherwise fine products don’t inspire the same fandom that Apple and others seem to be able to produce.

  5. Jason Says:

    Those are really great points, Jacob. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that computers and cars have such vocal devotees and are also relatively high-price products, making people more likely to carefully consider and personally invest in their positions (though I suppose you don’t have to spend a lot of money to be involved in a Marvel vs. DC or Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate).

  6. Nancy Baym Says:

    Nice post Jason, thanks for picking the discussion back up. Two thoughts.

    First. Nancy, please. I do ask my undergraduate students to call me Dr. Baym, but no one else. Except in jest.

    And on a more substantive note, I think one element of Apple fandom is that their design has such powerful aesthetic appeal (ie it’s not just that they make a great product, it’s that they make gorgeous objects that people want to touch and gaze at even when they’re not in use). People don’t just like their macs and ipods and soon iphones, they LOVE them (did you not feel desire when you saw what the iphone looks like? didn’t we all?). Part of what Apple does is use the aesthetic to connect to people at an emotional level, and that’s where loyalty turns in to fandom. Because when you love something, you want to talk about it, and you want to talk to other people who love it too and find new things you can do that might make you love it more (or delight in having someone who’s also upset by some geeky tiny detail that no one else could bear to hear you go on about).

    Think you’re right about the marginalization element too.

  7. Jason Says:

    Thanks Nancy—that’s an important aspect I overlooked here. The aesthetic pleasures offered by Apple products is arguably pretty similar to aesthetic pleasures offered by other entertainment media. That also may help to explain how one could feel like a hardcore Apple fan and still be ignorant of (or unconcerned with) the perceived marginalization of Apple products, kind of like when you make your friends listen to your recently-discovered favorite band because you must share your newfound joy with them. It certainly doesn’t have to be a marginalized band; it just needs to be awesome.

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  9. Neil Keogh Says:

    @Jacob in answer to question …I can’t help but wonder what Apple fandom would look like if OS X were to climb to the market position currently occupied by Windows

    After reading your post, I thought it was a quite interesting question & so I thought I would give you my perspective on this.

    I have been a loyal customer to Apple for over 15 years, owning several Macs, iPods, iPhone & AppleTV.

    A few of the reasons why I decided to switch to Mac was because I liked the intuitive nature of the OS, it has great security, Apple produce great software to go with the Mac, the Apple Care support service is brilliant & they are a company who are always producing innovative product.

    When it comes to the question of would my loyalty to Apple still hold if OS X climbed to the market position currently held by Windows? Well I would say that this would depend upon just one thing.

    Providing that Apples consistancy in creating great products & services remained, my loyalty would remain! If however their products & services started to slide, I would consider looking else where (although probably to Linux or Ubuntu as I don’t think I’d ever switch back to Windows!)