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The Real World of Character Marketing and Brand Fan Fiction

  |  July 31, 2014   |  Comments

Brands have the opportunity to cultivate their own fan content online, yet most have not embraced the idea of promoting their products in this fashion. Here are some tips for getting started.

Looking for a new job? Here's hoping you generate as much interest as Louis Bloom. Since posting his video résumé to YouTube a few weeks ago he's received more than 275,000 views. His Craigslist ad surely helped. Indeed, thanks to digital media, Louis is in good position to find work.

Too bad he's a fictional character from an upcoming Hollywood film.

The stunt is a viral marketing effort to promote Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal. It isn't the first of its kind. Back in 2010, pop singer Katy Perry's alter ego Kathy Beth Terry had her own Facebook page. Two years earlier several of the characters from Sony's apocalyptic blockbuster 2012 were on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The New Yorker even once ran a contest inviting readers to create Facebook status updates in the style of their favorite literary characters.

This week it was reported that TripAdvisor has created a page for the Grand Budapest Hotel, the fictional locale from the Wes Anderson film by the same name released early this year. While the page comes with a disclaimer ("...Have fun reading these reviews - go on, add your own! Just don't try to book a visit here, because this fictional place doesn't really exist"), the devotion with which fans have thrown themselves into crafting unique user-generated content is very real.


To date, more than 120 TripAdvisor users from all over the world have taken the time to review their fictional experience at the fictional hotel, peppering their posts with inside jokes only those who have seen the film would understand. The response demonstrates an interest in the movie that goes beyond the standard consumer reaction to entertainment content. In the literary world, this behavior is most closely related to fan fiction - short stories and books based on characters created by other authors. "The culture talks to them," novelist Lev Grossman has written of the trend, "and they talk back to the culture in its own language."

These days fan fiction runs rampant, in large part due to the reach and scalability that digital media affords. Brands have at their disposal the opportunity to cultivate their own fan content online, and community-based sites like Craigslist and TripAdvisor - not to mention the standard social media fare - are a great place to start. While the entertainment industry continues to play with digital platforms, keeping consumers on their toes by blurring the lines between fiction and fact, most brands have yet to embrace the idea of promoting their products in this fashion. Here are some strategies for those eager to get into the game.

Be Consistent

Character marketing only works if the content doesn't appear forced. In relaying your message, it's important to be true to the character or mascot consumers have come to know. That's how Flo, the insurance clerk from the Progressive commercials, racked up more than 5.4 million Likes on Facebook, 26,000 followers on Twitter, and 3,700 followers on Instagram. In keeping with the quick wit and sparkle displayed on TV, Flo's non sequitur posts share jokes, poke fun at pop culture trends, and lament the loss of gluten (#ripgluten, #imissyou). Because they almost always include a photo of Flo in her Progressive apron, the posts reinforce the brand while entertaining fans.

Provide Value

Fans of The Hunger Games know Panem (aka "The Capital") as the post-apocalyptic nation where the books and films take place. Online, it has its own website, Facebook page, Twitter handle, Instagram page, and hashtag (#onepanem). Each platform is used for the common purpose of underscoring the nation's control over the characters in anticipation of the release of the third film this fall. Teaser videos designed to appear as though they aired on "Capital TV" feature the story's fictional president and hint at what's to come in the next installment. This kind of exclusive content gives consumers a reason to follow, while generating excitement and buzz.

Be Discriminating About How and Where You Seed Your Content

Viral marketing efforts often have the most impact when consumers feel as though they've come across them organically. If your goal is stealth, as in the case of the Nightcrawler ad and video, avoid posting to your existing brand and product social media accounts. Instead, send media releases to influencers, bloggers, and entertainment reporters who are likely to pick up your story. If your content stands up, they'll handle the distribution for you.

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Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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