Taking brands past passion

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Our clients in gaming, music and electric vehicles think about their categories all the time. They want to talk about them and to hear from others who share their passion. However, welcome as this is, it can create potential challenges as brands grow and become more mainstream.

So, what happens when they need to engage consumers who don’t share their fervour? As Byron Sharp points out, brands only grow by expanding their audiences, so simply focusing on the core passion buyer is something of a dead end. 

Gaming, EVs, even music streaming, all kicked off with zealous and dedicated people onboard. Those creating the products and those using them were one and the same. Such consumers are easy to understand, in terms of both their product and communication needs. Gamers get gamers, passionate advocates of new technology and sustainability understand early adopters of EVs, musos know the hottest bands.

The big challenge for these passion sectors is moving beyond the ‘people like them’. Here they encounter consumers who don’t spend that much time thinking about their brand or category, who aren’t predisposed to see their purpose, and may not be that well-informed (nor care to learn).

Low-involvement categories have long known that regular users don’t necessarily care that much about you. But this can be new news in sectors used to appealing to engaged consumers. Just because someone plays FIFA every night that doesn’t mean they are familiar with the family trees of indie games studios. Just because someone drives a Nissan Leaf to avoid the London congestion charge, doesn’t mean they really get what ‘fully carbon neutral’ means. And while a consumer might spend most of the day sporting earbuds, they possibly have no interest in music beyond their favourite Bruce Springsteen tracks.

There’s an extended competitive set with this audience too. A passionate advocate of sustainable tech might well be deciding between a Nissan Leaf and a Renault Zoe, but a more mainstream consumer could also be considering diesels. A passionate gamer’s decision may be between God of War and Red Dead Redemption 2, but for the less-engaged we might need to throw in gig tickets, trainers, and who knows what else to compete for that ‘treat’ share of wallet.

We also have to consider the needs of the core target. Brands have to take care not to overly dilute their essence in search of universal appeal. The best are able to extend their reach while at the same time retaining their identity in the eyes of their most passionate fans. Adidas and Nike come to mind as great examples here – they both successfully compete as mass market leisure/fashion brands while still maintaining respect from athletes as makers of specialist products.

The challenge is being able to really understand the role your category plays when it’s not at the core of a consumer’s identity. This means stepping back and adopting their perspective and understanding the context in which they engage.

This is where great qualitative researchers come into their own. Of course we need to understand our clients’ businesses and share their passion for their category. In Thinktank’s case this means that we love music and gaming, and that we believe in the energy transition.  But we never go native. This allows to have the empathy necessary to understand and bring to life those consumers who don’t live and breathe a brand but may still buy into it.  So our clients get them – as people and as customers. 

Andy Cooper is a partner at Thinktank International Research