Turn your customers into fans

Here’s how the smartest brands, from an F1 racing team to mattress and insurance companies, are tapping data to build excitement and loyalty.

Mark Jackley | March 8, 2023

Patrick Mahomes has fans. So does Taylor Swift. But how about a mattress company—could it possibly win the hearts, not just the hard-earned dollars, of people who cherish nothing more than a good night’s sleep?

From Maine to California, legions of the well-rested would tell you, “Heck, yeah!”

You’ve probably heard of Sleep Number, whose “smart bed” mattresses are sold in company stores nationwide. Sleep Number is part of a wave of brands using data collected and analyzed with a variety of advanced technologies to forge lasting human connections with customers and convert them to fans.

Here’s how the company does it.

When a Sleep Number technician sets up your bed at home, you get an app that lets you adjust the mattress’s position, firmness, and temperature. The app also invites you to join the InnerCircle Rewards program, where customers earn rewards for learning more about their beds and sharing their stories of sleep health with one another and the world.

It’s the beginning of a carefully charted journey in which customers move from rational loyalty (earning rewards) to behavioral loyalty (improving sleep) and finally to emotional loyalty (advocating for the brand). Since launching the program, Sleep Number has increased customer referrals 13% and product reviews 60%. It estimates that customer recommendations drive nearly half of company sales.

“We knew there would be power in building a community and providing value beyond discounts,” says Lisa Erickson, the company’s senior director of customer relationship management and loyalty, who frames it as customers gaining a passport to a nation of sleep experts. “We’ve become a health and wellness brand, not just a mattress company.”

Fans and customers—what’s the difference?

When does a buyer become a fan? “A customer, even a satisfied customer, will happily leave to another company if it's cheaper, better, faster,” says online marketing strategist David Meerman Scott, who with his daughter, Reiko, wrote Fanocracy, a book examining fans of sports teams, rock-and-roll bands, insurance companies—you name it.

“Customers are transactional,” he says. However, a fan has an emotional attachment to a company, a product, an idea. It is much, much harder to get them to leave if you are trying to steal them away from another business.”

People want to do business on a personal level, Scott says. They also want to belong—to groups of like-minded people, communities, or tribes, whether they share an interest in riding motorcycles, insuring them affordably, or joining the tie-dyed Bedouins who follow what’s left of the Grateful Dead. Scott points to neuroscience, arguing that thousands of years of surviving woolly mammoths and the harshest of elements have hardwired humans to band together based on mutual likes.

Rewriting the rules on fan engagement

In sports and entertainment, fans are everything. Oracle Red Bull Racing is coming off a record-breaking Formula One season, winning the Constructors’ Championship while driver Max Verstappen defended his Drivers’ Championship and set the mark for most wins in a season. The team uses data from a suite of Oracle Cloud Applications—powering loyalty and engagement, campaign management, and fan-created videos—to help expand its fan base. Since launching in 2021, the team’s loyalty and engagement platform, The Paddock, has signed up fans in 249 countries, more than 250,000 during last year alone.

And if you’re thinking, “Of course they have lots of fans—they’re an F1 team,” consider that the sport, for all its glamour and excitement, wasn’t always a marketing innovator. Teams were slow to embrace personalized marketing. But that changed when Oracle Red Bull Racing rewrote the rules, adopting the latest digital tools and showing a willingness to try almost anything, including running a car up a World Cup ski slope.

On The Paddock, fans watch behind-the-scenes videos, take quizzes, and refer friends to earn points that can be exchanged for team merchandise, digital downloads, autographed items, and other rewards. All the while, Oracle Red Bull Racing learns more about each Paddock member. Does a fan prefer podcasts over videos? Does that person go by a nickname? The platform captures and integrates such data points so that the team can refine its customer segments, personalize the next fan email, and directly strengthen relationships with every Paddock member.

This year, fans can even enter a contest to design the team’s car liveries (each vehicle’s paint scheme and design) for the three United States races of the 2023 season. To inspire creativity, Oracle Red Bull Racing asked Mr. Doodle to apply his trademark black-and-white doodles to one of the team’s show cars. “This gives our fans an opportunity to get into the heart of the team and own a bit of history,” says Kelly Brittain, Oracle Red Bull Racing’s brand and communications director.

Any industry can have fans

Scott maintains that any brand, in any industry, can acquire fans—even insurance companies, and not just those with the marketing bucks to create and plaster the airwaves with the GEICO Gecko or Jake from State Farm. He cites the example of Hagerty, a specialty insurance company for classic cars. Himself the owner of a 1973 Land Rover and a member of Hagerty’s Drivers Club loyalty program, Scott is an avid fan of the company’s content on vintage autos, including a YouTube channel, email newsletter, print magazine, classified ads, and vehicle pricing lookup.


Scott also became a fan of American Airlines when the company linked data—his tagged social posts and customer number—to enable it to respond faster when he sent American a direct message on Twitter about his flight being canceled and needing a new booking. “They got back to me faster than if I had tried to go through their normal service channels,” he says. “I was able to communicate on my terms, not theirs. That made me a fan.”

There are countless other examples of digitally facilitated fandom. Chewy.com, the pet supplies juggernaut, shares customer analytics with its entire staff. When someone contacts customer support with a question about dogs, the team makes sure the ticket goes to a fellow dog owner. Nothing against cats or hamsters, but when Bandit’s owner and Ginger’s owner discuss the best supplements for older dogs with joint pain, the magic starts to happen.

Besides answering a question, solving a problem, or making a sale, the employee wins a fan. Sometimes customers call back just to swap pet stories.

Meineke’s loyalty platform lets the auto repair chain show that it really knows its customers. The platform captures data online and in stores—for example, when people log on to check their vehicle’s service history. As with Oracle Red Bull Racing’s fan-engagement platform, data collected on Meineke’s feeds member profiles, allowing the company to match members and rewards. Someone in northern climes might receive a special offer on snow tires, while someone down south might get an offer on AC service.

And then there’s Denon. The maker of award-winning sound systems and speakers turned a customer data nugget into a cool new product. When customers digitally initialize their speakers to stream music, they can actually name them. Bathroom Speakers, wouldn’t you know, was a popular choice. Soon enough, Denon rolled out waterproof, humidity-protected speakers—a capability that wowed fans old and new.

They’ve bought your product—now what?

Efforts to turn a customer into a fan begin after purchase, of course. But if you sell mattresses, a customer might not buy again for 10 or 15 years. Even if your company has frequent chances to upsell buyers, it’s smart to start engaging with them well before the next transaction. “Sustaining loyalty and winning fans are about how you maintain engagement in between purchases,” says Rob Tarkoff, executive vice president and general manager of Oracle Cloud CX.

Marvel Entertainment is a case in point. In between shelling out for streaming movies and TV shows, tickets at the local cineplex, and good old-fashioned comic books, Marvel Insider loyalty members earn rewards for participating in quizzes, polls, and short surveys. One online poll asked the burning question: Which superhero wedding would you most like to attend? (The winner was Mary Jane’s and Spider-Man’s nuptials.) It’s one more piece of data Marvel marketers can use to personalize fan outreach in a character-driven genre.

Companies are using a variety of technologies to immerse customers in their brands. Video game companies craft “micropersonalized” worlds where players can customize avatars as extensions of themselves. Realtors let home buyers scan a barcode with their phones to tour houses remotely, thanks to augmented reality. With an app and onboard Wi-Fi, Yamaha enables dirt bike riders to monitor engine settings that can be adjusted for better performance given current track conditions.

When customers are immersed, a brand collects more data on how and when they use products—a feedback loop for improvements that can earn fans for life. “All of this changes the nature of how a brand measures your consumption,” Tarkoff says. “It's not just about when you buy, how much you pay, and what's in your contract, but also the interaction with your device and the data that’s generated.”

Fan-building works—if you mind your manners

When people rally around a brand, they create something valuable: word-of-mouth marketing. It’s the Holy Grail of marketing because, in seeking recommendations, buyers trust people like themselves more than paid ads.

Lovesac is one brand whose fans have fueled its growth. Named for its maiden product, the world’s biggest, squishiest, and most outrageously comfy bean bag, Lovesac has expanded to sell sectional sofas and other seating (called Sactionals, of course) in 70 US showrooms, powered by fan content on Instagram and other social media. Fans pose with dogs, cats, babies, besties, and sweeties, or sometimes by their selfies, to show how much they love having a soft place to land.

It doesn’t hurt when celebrities are a brand’s fans. Touchland turned a boring medical product, hand sanitizer, into a fragrant hit thanks to unpaid social media plugs from the likes of Kris Jenner and Naomi Campbell. Partnering with prestigious perfume house Givaudan, Touchland used word of mouth, including the unpaid social media, to gain more than 68 billion earned media impressions in 2022.

Danny Ashorineko at design agency DarkRoast says that fans will “fiercely defend” a brand against critics, but marketers shouldn’t overstep. Fans are promoters, he notes—but on their own terms, not yours. Brand communities are more powerful when fans talk with each other, and brands avoid behavior people might find intrusive.

Scott agrees, noting that tone-deaf loyalty programs and social outreach can be annoying. “It’s like the brand is trying to grab you and interrupt your day: ‘Hey, hey, hey, we’ve got a special offer,’” he says. Scott reiterates the importance of letting customers engage when and how they want. “It’s just good manners.”

The American Marketing Association had even stronger words of caution. It produced a study arguing that some consumers prefer a less intimate relationship with brands. While acknowledging that loyal customers tend to spend more, the study said it’s important to understand customer segments and tailor engagement accordingly.

One way for brands to signal they understand their customers is to make loyalty programs less about, well, loyalty. “I think ‘loyalty’ makes it sound like a conscripted relationship,” Tarkoff says. “The better term today is ‘customer engagement.’ Even if you have a negative experience with a brand, if they’re consistently engaging you, there’s an opportunity to put you on the right course. The death of brands is low engagement.”

Customers who engage deeply enough to become true fans—who like earning rewards, talking up a favorite brand on Facebook, or wearing their fringed Harley-Davidson jacket on a weekend ride—are invaluable assets. As DarkRoast’s Ashorineko puts it: “You can build a big business with customers, but it takes fans to put a dent in the universe. Any business leader knows immediately which side of that equation is more profitable.”

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