How to leverage brand 'superfans'
For Walter Buttkus, White Castle isn’t merely lunch or dinner. “It’s just a way of life for me,” says the New Jersey native, who has been feeding his slider addiction since the age of 5 when his dad first fed him one. Buttkus is now president of a financial services company in California, where—horrors!—there are no White Castles. So he plans his business trips around making Castle runs, and has even been known to grab a flight to Las Vegas for the sole purpose of bringing a crate of 100 sliders back home to Yorba Linda.
But real fast-food glory did not arrive until a couple of years ago, when White Castle rewarded him with a slot in its “Cravers Hall of Fame,” an honor it bestows on only its most ardent fans. “It’s actually easier to get into Harvard than the Cravers Hall of Fame,” jokes White Castle VP Jamie Richardson, describing a vetting process so tough that only 12 of 500 applicants earned a slot in the most recent class.
The burger chain is among a growing number of brands leveraging the passion of extreme loyalists for marketing purposes, or to provide input on research and development. The tactic, deployed by companies ranging from Ford and Volkswagen to Hidden Valley Ranch, is rising in importance as consumers grow skeptical of endorsements made by paid celebrity influencers.
“With trust at abysmal levels, consumers are so hungry for authentic knowledge about brands and products,” says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. “Superfans present a story that captures interest—why would anyone be that into pizza or eye shadow?—and within their devotion is something unique and wonderful about the product that seems more genuine to the viewer.”
These co-called superfans are a type of “micro-influencer,” people whose follower counts run in the thousands rather than millions. While their reach is less than a celebrity, micro-influencers enjoy “better engagement” translating to “a higher ROI, greater retention and deeper connections,” according to a study by media agency Mediahub.
Here’s a look at how some brands are leveraging them.
A new kind of Mustang
Brand fans played a big role in Ford’s rollout late last year of the Mustang Mach-E—the first crossover and electric vehicle in Mustang’s 55-year history. The model risked turning off Mustang traditionalists. But Ford took pains to communicate with loyalists, including flying members of Mustang clubs to Detroit for a behind-the-scenes look at the Mach-E a month before its official unveiling at an event in Los Angeles. The brand wanted to “hear what they had to say and [learn] how we go about launching it and communicating with the Mustang family,” says Jim Owens, Ford’s Mustang marketing manager.
Mustang owners are also featured in a 20-minute video about the making of Mach-E that has drawn nearly 300,000 views on YouTube since late November. It includes this pitch from one owner: “We are starting to move more and more away from the internal combustion engine and people have to embrace that. And embracing it in an electric Mustang is better than embracing it in no Mustang.”
Volkswagen tapped into enthusiasts late last year for a campaign by Johannes Leonardo called “Last Mile” that celebrated the Beetle, which ended its production run last summer. The brand tapped VW fans to help spread the word on social media, using “#thelastmile.” Participants included people like Tory Alonzo, who goes by the social media handle “vdubber4life.” Meg Piro, head of communications planning at Johannes Leonardo, notes that celebrities such as Bravo personality Andy Cohen were also included in the campaign to boost reach. But she adds that “authenticity often can be a lot more meaningful when you go with the micro-influencers.”
Corralling ranch fans
Of course, icons like the Beetle and Mustang are a natural fit for fandom. But what about everyday products, like salad dressing? Hidden Valley Ranch puts “superfans really at the center of everything we do,” says Jacquie Klein, marketing director for the food division at Clorox. The strategy is embodied in its tagline: “You either love it or you really love it.”
The brand has carved out a VIP section of its “Ranchology Rewards” program that is reserved for ranch fanatics. Hidden Valley identified them via a survey with questions like, “How likely is it that you would spend $10 to attend a local food festival dedicated to ranch?” The brand calls on the VIPs to give feedback on products in development or recipe ideas. In return they get samples and swag like a magnum-sized bottle of ranch dressing.
Getting inside Coke
Coca-Cola is trying to nurture and coddle fans with its new “Insiders Club.” Subscribers pay $10 a month to get shipments of new beverages coming to the market. The first shipment included bottles of its new Coke Energy drink, peach-flavored Fanta, cucumber-lime Smartwater, along with swag like Coke and Fanta-branded pens. Coming next: Coca-Cola Tic Tacs. The initial allotment of 1,000 memberships sold out in three hours, and a spokeswoman says there are more than 50,000 people on a waiting list. It’s meant to build buzz about new products. “Marketing today is not always done from the top and not always done from big advertising. It’s done from person-to-person and the network effect,” says Geoff Cottrill, Coca-Cola’s senior VP of strategic marketing for creative.
French fry wheels
White Castle does not put much traditional ad money behind its Cravers Hall of Fame beyond promoting it on social media. Inductees are named once a year. Their reward is an all-expenses-paid trip to the chain’s Columbus, Ohio, headquarters for a ceremony during which they are given a plaque and recognized in front of hundreds of White Castle employees. The program, which has been around since 2001, has led to valuable media coverage. Buttkus has been featured a couple of times in the Orange County Register, including a 2018 story on his Crave Cruiser, a custom-built, White Castle-branded motorcycle that includes wheel spokes that look like french fries.
The Hall of Fame includes some celebrity members, including actors John Cho and Kal Penn, who starred in the 2004 movie “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Also included is the rock band the Smithereens, in honor of their song “White Castle Blues.” But Richardson says the celebs are not compensated: “We don’t have a budget to pay them big bucks. We can give them some free sliders—so that counts for something.”