Fandom is more than a term; there’s an incredibly complex art and science to it. As long as it’s connecting in the right ways, it’s better supported when it grows organically between the creator and fans. And it’s no surprise that the two most powerful drivers of fandom are what GenZ craves–authenticity and vulnerability; they can always tell the difference when it’s real.
In this conversation between Visionaries, Danielle Lee, President, Warner Music Artist & Fan Experiences at Warner Music Group and Kelley Walton, Head of Brand, Product & Integrated Marketing at Amazon Music, we uncover the power of fandom and how marketers can emphasize the humanity behind a strong creator-fan relationship.
Fandom is Two-Way
Danielle Lee, Warner Music Group: Fans are unafraid to use their voices and wield their power to make the world a better place. They see themselves as change-makers and are taking action through their purchasing decisions. This phenomenon is playing out in the music industry in interesting ways.
For example, when Lizzo used the word “spazz” in one of her records, her fans called her out for using a slur. Lizzo responded to the feedback by changing her lyrics, a move that is consistent with her brand of inclusivity and making everyone feel like they belong. This example shows how an artist can listen, learn, and act on new information, and it demonstrates the two-way exchange between creators and their fans.
Kelley Walton, Amazon Music: The evolution of fandom is what’s exciting to me, especially in the last 5-10 years. It used to be a one-way street where fans were just spectators of their favorite musicians or sports teams, but now it’s become a two-way relationship and community. The most powerful fandoms, like the Bey Hive and the Swifties, are real communities of people who are invested in the success of their idols.
Keeping it Real Counts
Danielle Lee: Fandom isn’t just about fans. It’s a broader structure of ideas and practices that people seek to belong to, based on shared values. This connection isn’t just limited to music or sports, but also extends across different genres of literature, TV, and film. At its core, fandom is about reflecting on relatable stories that we experience in our own lives and finding an outlet to connect with others.
Continuing my example of Lizzo, she has been successful because she expresses herself in a vulnerable way and is unapologetically herself. She doesn’t conform to traditional norms of beauty and instead empowers people to embrace their own unique qualities. By breaking free from these constraints, Lizzo has become a role model for those seeking to embrace their own beauty and boldness.
Kelley Walton: When it comes to fandom, authenticity, humanity, and transparency are essential. This is exemplified by the fact that artists, musicians, and athletes are also fans and humans. The NBA’s 75th anniversary campaign provides a great example of this. During the filming of the campaign, we had current NBA players and legends on set. While we created a beautiful ad campaign, some of the most engaging content we got was from behind the scenes.
For instance, Donovan Mitchell, a current player, saw Bill Walton on set and asked to take a selfie with him. Donovan then asked for the picture so he could share it with his community. These authentic human moments resonate deeply with the fandom community.
Fandom is Multi-Dimensional
Danielle Lee: Fans are not just there for the music, but they are also interested in the artist’s fashion, love life, fitness, travel, and everything in between. While data and fan insights are important for our business strategies, we also draw inspiration from the authentic artist-fan relationship and what’s happening organically.
An example of this is a recent project we did with Rico Nasty. We were doing research to build her e-commerce business leading up to Valentine’s Day. We came across a post on her Instagram where she was posing with friends with an edited caption that read “cults of c****.” From that, we were inspired to do a merch drop that captured her fierce persona and came up with the hashtag #NastyValentines.
Her team loved the idea and creative. The merch sold out quickly leading up to the holiday, making it a big success. This wasn’t a music-led moment. Often, we do things that are tied to a new release or an album dropping, but this was just a random Valentine’s Day, and it was an opportunity to build fandom.
Kelley Walton: Music is a big part of everything, but one area that we’ve really focused on is the intersection of music and sports One of the big opportunities for the broader Amazon world is the recent acquisition of Thursday Night Football by Amazon Prime Video.
One of my teammates had this great idea–Thursday night football is followed by new music drops at midnight on the East Coast. What if we stood up a post-Thursday night football live music experience to take advantage of all this energy? This launched for us last year, and we had great artists like Anita, 21 Savage, and Megan Thee Stallion, share their new music after the game.
We saw great engagement around this, and some of our favorite moments were when Al Michaels threw to 2 Chainz on a weekly basis. It was really authentic, as he’s an authentic fan of 2 Chainz, who hosted the series for us.
People are Drawn to Truth
Danielle Lee: People are attracted to energy and voices who are unafraid to express a point of view that may not be popular but is really speaking their truth. This is a theme I see not just in music and sports, but also in business. Truth is magnetic and draws people in community together to have real talk about how they’re impacted by what’s happening around them.
Kelley Walton: There are really pivotal figures that sit at the center of important movements that are happening in our time who have a point of view and are unafraid to express it. And even when you don’t agree with the politics of some of those folks, fandom is at the center of a lot of those movements that are happening. This extends beyond sports, entertainment, and workplace culture. It can be in small circles or bigger circles; people are drawn to authenticity.
Embrace Cultural Fluidity
Danielle Lee: Gen Z approaches music with fluidity and as creators, they forge new aesthetics, genres, and fandoms. Their global citizen identity and engagement with music has led to music becoming highly exportable, seen in the rise of K-Pop and Afrobeat.
Burna Boy’s One Night in Space concert, where he headlined Madison Square Garden as the first Nigerian artist, sold out and became a massive cultural moment for pushing Afrobeat into the mainstream. To make the event more special, the team did a merchandise drop, integrated into the live stream experience, and did gifting with influencers from the African diaspora to build awareness. The team’s dynamic efforts made Burna Boy’s story come to life.
Kelley Walton: You could see the influence of Burna Boy even further as he headlined the NBA All Stars halftime show. Cultural music’s popularity was evident when the MTV VMAs that were opened with Bad Bunny and closed with a show at the live stadium at Yankee Stadium sold out. Cultural music–from Latin music to Afro Fusion, to K-pop to Hip-hop–is a huge fandom trend, and this notion of fluidity is really exciting.
💡Advice for Marketers Today
Danielle Lee: To be a great marketer, you have to love people, or at least understand people. And the heart of brand building is finding the universal truth and what everyone believes about that brand. In order to do that, you have to be curious, listen, be empathetic, and vulnerable. Experiencing other cultures and stepping outside of norms is the best way to build that muscle.
Kelley Walton: Advice I remind myself and offer to mentees is if you have a seat at the table, don’t be afraid to use your voice. Be courageous in sharing your point of view. Say the things other folks are afraid to say. If you’re not gonna use your voice, let someone else who will.
Visionaries, hosted by Nadine Dietz, airs every week and is brought to you in partnership with The Wall Street Journal. Each week, two new visionaries share their game plan and how that impacts today’s teams, talent, and hybrid work environment.
Meet The Visionaries
Danielle Lee, President, Warner Music Artist & Fan Experiences at Warner Music Group: Danielle Lee serves as President of Warner Music Artist & Fan Experiences at WMX, Warner Music Group’s label and artist services division. Lee leads a centralized, in-house creative agency for the Warner Recorded Music roster as well as for third party artists. Her team is responsible for the development of impactful fan centric experiences that grow revenue for artists through merchandise, VIP experiences, gaming, NFTs, content, and collaborations. Prior to joining WMX, Lee served as Chief Fan Officer for the National Basketball Association (NBA), overseeing brand, creative, and multi-platform fan marketing globally. Prior to that, she spent four years at Spotify as Global Vice President of Partner Solutions where she was responsible for developing go-to-market strategies and growing global revenue across music, podcasts, and high-impact digital experiences. A marketing veteran, Lee has also held roles at Vevo, AT&T, Showtime, and AOL. Lee currently serves on the board of American Documentary and L Brands whose flagship brands include Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.
Kelley Walton, Head of Brand, Product & Integrated Marketing at Amazon Music: For almost 20 years, Kelley has been a leader at top global brands, delivering business results through innovative integrated marketing strategies. In Kelley’s current role as Head of Global Brand & Product Marketing for Amazon Music, she develops brand & product marketing strategy, marketing campaigns, brand partnerships, and social media strategy that drives the growth of the Amazon Music Brand. Prior to Amazon Music, Kelley led Brand Marketing and Creative at the NBA and has held increasingly senior marketing roles with brands such as ESPN, LVMH/Hennessy, Coca-Cola, and Under Armour. She’s a fierce DE&I advocate with a particular focus on increasing access and opportunities for underrepresented groups such as women and people of color who have traditionally not had clear professional pathways in marketing, media, sports, tech and entertainment.
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