Brands And Customers: How Close Is Too Close?

Brands And Customers: How Close Is Too Close?

The goal of every brand should be to create as many loyal customers as possible. But for a few brands, loyalty can go a step further into all out fandom. These groups of highly enthusiastic and engaged customers represent a well-spring of ideas, possibilities and raw, qualitative sentiment. In B2C, we find fan communities built around toys to snack foods to quick service restaurants. In B2B, there are user groups built around core technologies and equipment that would give any “My Little Pony” convention a run for their money.

But the important thing to remember is that fan groups, while built around brands, are usually not the creation of the brand itself. They’re one of the best emergent properties of brand that reveal just how important a brand is in the lives of some customers, all of which can compound and amplify a brand’s reach. Should these precious communities be left alone, or does it make sense for brands to step in? For Lego, the answer to that question was to indeed step in. And not everyone is happy.

As reported by the Guardian, Lego has taken over the website BrickLink – which for 20 years has been the best-kept secret in all of Legoland. BrickLink is the destination for tracking down elusive, hard-to-find lego pieces, trading coveted mini-figures, and a place for AFOLs (Adult Fan of Lego) to show off their best creations and even provide instruction on how to build them. Some of these creations can use upwards of thousands of pieces, and there are 20,000 designs listed.

Speaking to the Guardian, Adam White, editor of the Bricksfanz site, said fans’ reaction had been mostly negative. “It’s because BrickLink was an independent platform,” he explained. “Lego has its own part ordering service, but it sets the prices and the range is not as big. People are asking: are prices going to go up? I don’t think Lego is a big bad corporate, but everyone thinks this is about cleaning up in the secondhand market.”

Fans are also concerned that with “big brother” watching, there may be new barriers to creativity. There are also plans on the site to create everything from souped-up Batmobiles, to giant Star Wars spaceships, and epic Harry Potter dioramas. Given that Lego has licensing partnerships with many of the world’s leading movie studios, under Lego ownership, will they be compelled to take these unsanctioned creations and instructions down?

Lego’s chief marketing officer, Julia Goldin, says the site will continue to run independently from its US base. “It has been a very effective marketplace, so you don’t want to interfere with that,” she explained. “We will always listen to fans. This is about getting much closer and understanding what the community needs in order to continue expanding and thriving.”

Customers are right to be suspicious. While acquiring a fansite is not the same as a true M&A, people know that when brands takeover other brands, changes are coming. When Amazon bought Whole Foods, they promised no changes to the brand. But who is so naive as to believe that?

The very worst thing Lego could do, would be to put BrickLinks on a P&L and make the site’s ROI a priority discussion topic in each quarterly business review. Sure, there may be subtle ways to drive ROI over time, but as soon as the measure of a beautiful, creative safe space for play and expression becomes monetized and over-regulated, the intent behind the community will become corrupted and everyone will lose.

However, if Lego realizes that they are the custodians of something unique and special, are wildly transparent about their intentions, use the community to celebrate and uplift members, creating a two-way street with product designers and engineers, they could be a shining example for other brands.

When brands want to get closer to their customers, they must always be clear in the motive. And that motivation needs to be revealed in practice.

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