Chaos by lily fox

The Community of Fan Art – Full of Passion and Potential

Very Serious Writers may scoff, but there is a thriving community of fan fiction writers online. What is fan fiction? It’s fiction written using characters and/or the setting from another author’s work. (Or not necessarily another author. Fan fiction is written by fans of not just books, but movies, games, TV shows, and more.) Popular fandoms for this sort of writing include Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, Twilight, World of Warcraft, many types of anime, and so on, and so forth. As you may or may not know by now, the best-selling novel Fifty Shades of Grey started out as Twilight fan fiction. And fan fiction doesn’t corner the market on what fans can create in homage to the favorite obsessions; talented artists create fan art in a variety of media – and the fan art community is alive with people who are both passionate and adroit.

The PBS Web series Off Book did a video about the wealth of creativity found among the Internet’s fan art community. The popularity of Cartoon Network’s animated series Adventure Time started when fan art started pouring in while the show was still in development. A fan’s gender-bending remix even inspired a special episode of the show, which turns out to be one of their most popular episodes of all time. You can watch the video below… lots of great fan art visuals during the interviews.

So what does fan art look like? Here are a few of my favorite examples:

My Little Pony – Singers – Remake


My Little Pony isn’t the same as I remember from my childhood, but that isn’t a problem for the thousands of MLP fans out there. Mario Mimoso turned pop singers into ponies, a feat for which he’s been thanked for with over 38,000 page views, 300 comments, and nearly 800 favorites. Hasbro’s My Little Pony has acquired fans that run the gamut of age and gender, with a community of adult male fans who call themselves “bronies.” (Note: Adult female fans may also call themselves bronies.)

Burger King vs Ronald McDonald


Tom Pollock Jr. turned the long-standing fast food debate into a very popular pic… over 250,000 views, 9,700 favorites, and 2,400 comments! It did well on Digg for a time, before that site was completely redone, and the artist did a “sequel” to this piece that is slightly NSFW…It includes not only Ronald McDonald and the Burger King, but also the namesake of Wendy’s. I have to wonder what the fast food executives think of this; hopefully they get as big a chuckle as we do.

The Cola Wars – Coca-Cola


Perhaps the cola wars are even deadlier than the fast food wars, at least according to photographer Stephan Black. This photo has over 100,000 views, 3,700 favorites, and 920 comments, while its counterpart – where Coke suffered the casualty – has had only one-third the attention.

What Makes a Brand Fan Art-able?

  • Consumers/fans who are emotionally connected with a product or service
  • A company that is willing to relinquish some control over its brand image to consumers
  • Products or services that lend themselves to visuals
  • Active brand promotion of fan creations (see also: Katy Perry on Pinterest)

The Dark Side of Fan Art

Broken Piano CoverSome brands do not buy into the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” argument. By its very nature, fan artists are often using trademarked characters, names, likenesses, and even logos. You may recall the “most polite cease-and-desist letter ever” sent by the folks at  Jack Daniels when the cover of Patrick Wensink’s book Broken Piano For President strongly resembled the black label of their whiskey. Andy Warhol never had to worry about trademark law from the makers of Campbell’s Soup, but there is a fine line that both trademark holders and fan artists have to walk when it comes to intellectual property rights and the murky area of “fair use.” Trademark holders should be most vigilant when it comes to fan art that could cause brand confusion, brand dilution, or even harm the brand’s reputation by association – and fan artists need to respect that.

I, myself, have been on the receiving end of heavy-handed trademark enforcement. Back before I really understood much about intellectual property rights, I’d created some fan designs on Zazzle related to various obsessions of mine, including Robert Jordan’s epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time and the TV show LOST. The first time I received a notice from Zazzle that one of my designs had been removed by request of the rights holders, I understood. I’d taken a direct quote from a book and stylized it into a t-shirt design. I realize now that I’d crossed a line there. I became irritated, however, when designs that did not use any trademarked words or images began getting removed simply because I identified the designs as being “Wheel of Time fan art.” Honestly, I’m still annoyed that they removed my women’s t-shirt design that simply said *sniff* – you’d understand if you read the books. For the record, none of the WoT designs were removed before author Robert Jordan’s untimely death to amyloidosis in 2007. It was only after he died that the trademark hounds began making their sweeps. I’m still a fan of the series – and can’t wait until the final book is released next January – but there are definitely some hard feelings on my part.

The reason I included this anecdote was to point out the danger for brands who take an all-out warfare approach to trademark policing. In my case, they’re not losing any book sales over this… but some disgruntled fan artists have been known to turn hard feelings into an all-out crusade against the rights holders they used to be fans of.  Instead of a comments-section debate about how the rights holders could have made a different decision, or a simple post wondering how in the world a piece of artwork was considered any type of infringement, the offended artists could try to start a torch and pitchfork crusade against the very thing they used to be a fan of. The boycotts that start this way have undocumented but varying degrees of success; but although the rights holders many not experience a direct financial impact when a handful of former fans turn against them, they may have missed an incredible opportunity nonetheless.

What Fan Art Can Do for Brands

The thing about fan artists is that they are among your fiercest brand advocates. The more people who see their art, the more your brand has visibility. Your fans have their own fans, and their artwork can serve as a sort of free advertising. In some cases, a fan artist’s design may get more visibility than your own designs; if you can reach out to the artist and create a partnership that embraces their passion for your brand instead of deciding to shut them down, you could end up with something really special. Obama’s 2008 campaign did just this with Shepard Fairey’s HOPE design. The distinctive style is still recognizable four years later.

If your brand lends itself to it, you can engage with fan artists by inviting them to showcase their work on your site. Blizzard Entertainment, the folks who bring you World of Warcraft and Diablo III, allow fan art submissions to their site, and they have an annual fan art contest that awards prizes to the best artists for their creations. Fans can also submit art for Adventure Time, Disney’s Club Penguin, Emily the Strange, and so much more. BioWare caught some flak from their fans when they posted some Mass Effect/My Little Pony art, but they reached out afterward to suggest their gamers create something better. There are entire channels on Reddit for My Little Pony fan art, Minecraft fan art, and League of Legends fan art. Musicians and other video artists often encourage their fans to create video responses on YouTube, and there are a fair number of household brands who encourage their fans to contribute to their group boards on Pinterest to show the world how they enjoy their products.

Brands would be best served by having a strategy for their relationship with fan artists. It is important for people from legal, marketing, PR, strategic development, and other departments to be a part of this conversation so all of the benefits and pitfalls can be explored before determining what to do with their fan art community. It’s important to remember that it is a community, and that community is made up of people who are passionate enough about your brand to devote their energy and talents to creating something of their own around it. Many brands would kill for that sort of community. What will you do with yours?

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