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.”