January 6, 2007
(Not) Interesting Brand Communities? Fans of the Quotidian

To revisit another piece I wrote for the C3 Weekly Update (the initial piece appeared in our internal newsletter last February), I am interested in the variety of fan sites dedicated to the more commonplace brands and the brand communities that follow around them. While affiliated researcher Rob Kozinets has written at length about brand communities, including some communities that form around the content and products of yesteryear, and affiliated researcher Grant McCracken has encouraged brand managers to encourage greater fan involvement in what may seem some of the most static brands around (such as Mr. Clean), these sites are examples of fans attaching to the most everyday of brands and forming celebratory sites on their own, without explicit coaxing from the company who manages the brand itself.

It may not be surprising that brands like Nike or Abercrombie & Fitch have had semi-religious online followings because they aim to incorporate a whole lifestyle around the products they sell. Nevertheless, there are a lot of other brands which have reached what Grant McCracken would call the commodity basement (not to be confused with my concept of the bottom of the branding barrel), where brands become commodity goods rather than distinguished branded goods. In these cases, however, these commodity goods have fan followings, some for comedy and irony but all celebratory of these brands. These are everyday products that have sometimes ardent fan followings online, extending far beyond Coca-Cola and Starbucks and Apple and Harley-Davidson.

The Empty Bowl. The Empty Bowl was an online forum (now replaced by an online casino directory) dedicated to discussions for fans of specific cereal brands. While the cartoon icons created for a variety of cereals are certainly meant to appeal to children, it was still surprising to see adults form fan communities around these various cereals. This Web site actually featured articles which detail the latest cereal releases, branding changes for cereals, a considerable depth of sales information and any other kind of data you could imagine dedicated to American cereal brands. Kellogg's, Post, and General Mills fans all gather here (across the great cereal brand divide) to debate the foods which obviously mean more than mere sustenance to them. Actually, The Empty Bowl had official membership, staff writers, and scores of polls and ratings systems for cereal products. One of the most popular features are "cereal reviews" of upcoming cereal brands or the reformulation of various classic cereals, as well as variations on a theme. When I first looked at the site, there was a story on Berry Burst Cheerios. (By the way, I saw yesterday at the grocery that Cheerios has now launched a Fruit Loops competitor.) Too bad The Empty Bowl is no longer around, but the site was featured other places as well.

Pringles. This Pringles fan site is dedicated as a place where Pringles fans can publicly display their ardent love for the brand of stackable potato chips. Fans from around the world have posted their name, location, and contact information on Pringles, as well as links to their personal Web sites. The intent of this site, which is not nearly as detailed or as official as The Empty Bowl, is to locate more narrowed interest in a particular brand of potato chip. If the many responses are any indication, though, there are a lot of Pringles fans out there.

Pillsbury. Aside from the fan following for cereal brands in general and Pringles as a particular food brand, I was also interested in a fan site I found for the icon of the Pillsbury company, the Pillsbury Doughboy. The Web site for dough fans, located here, focuses on expressing a fan following for not just the pastry products the company releases but the brand icon that has represented Pillsbury for so many years. The cute little doughboy makes all the difference, as he has become the symbol for many collectors who have formed fan sites about him and the company, such as this example.

Windex. As a final example to contrast my interest in fan followings for food brands, I was interested in a much less organized or ardent fan appreciation for Windex spray. This fan expression is likely much more ephemeral, very surface in nature with no depth of involvement at all, but it's nevertheless interesting that a variety of people on MySpace has joined the Windex Fan Club on MySpace. When I first wrote about the Windex Fan Club, there were 212 members--now 194, since some have apparently since lost their affinity for Windex. The club features a picture of a Windex bottle and space for Windex fans to share their own Windex stories and how the products fit into the lives of those in the community. Movements like these show that, even if the level of involvement is somewhat low (especially because Windex is the only one of these four examples that does not have a face--literally in the case of Pillsbury and Pringles and many of the cereal brands), fans can still find some power and meaning in appropriating these brands to express community, even if it is for the purpose of irony and humor. The fact that a bottle of glass cleaner can be used to achieve even a superficial community is illuminating.