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(Last updated 12/12/03)

Previous stories pertaining to Professor Blackwell's research:

"Author: E-Commerce Failures Should Caution M-Commerce Advocates," 7/13/01.


COLUMBUS, Ohio – Most companies spend a lot of time and energy trying to find and keep customers. But what they really should be doing, according to Roger Blackwell, is creating fans.

Roger Blackwell

America’s staid, button-downed companies need to be following the path of the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Madonna, said Blackwell, a professor of marketing at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

These rock stars and others like them have developed a loyal fan base who go beyond being just customers of music, concerts and apparel. These fans are passionate advocates of their favorite musical acts.

Companies can develop the same kind of devotion to their brands, Blackwell said.

He explains how in his new book, co-authored with Tina Stephan, called Brands That Rock: What Business Leaders Can Learn from the World of Rock and Roll. (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).

“In today’s hyper-competitive environment, the most effective marketing strategy is to have your own fans evangelizing to others to become customers and eventually fans,” Blackwell explained.

“I think most companies have a great deal of difficulty turning customers into fans, and that’s why they will benefit from examining what musicians have done. It’s not easy,” Blackwell said.

But the rewards are enormous. Blackwell said that when companies turn customers into fans, they gain loyal followers who help spread the word – they become an unpaid marketing staff who evangelize to others.

“In today’s hyper-competitive environment, the most effective marketing strategy is to have your own fans evangelizing to others to become customers and eventually fans,” Blackwell explained.

You can see the fans of Abercrombie and Fitch evangelizing by wearing clothing with the company logo, he said. Instead of paying people to advertise, Abercrombie, like other companies such as Nike, have their fans doing the advertising for them.

The key is to build passion for the brand, he said.

“Companies have to take concepts like passion and ask what they mean in a business setting,” Blackwell said. “Everybody understands feeling passion for a favorite band. But how do you develop passion for a product?”

Blackwell said that in order for companies to develop passion for their brands, they have to use some very business-like strategies, such as using Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software that helps tracks customer’s needs. Successful brands are committed to serving customers, finding ways to meet their customers’ needs and building a lasting relationship.

The goal for both bands and brands is to develop a strong emotional connection with their fans, according to Blackwell. It may seem strange, but customers can build emotional attachments to the most unlikely of products – such as cheese.

“Velveeta is a brand of cheese that has very loyal fans. It doesn’t appeal to everybody, but those who like it buy it over and over again,” he said. In fact, Blackwell said Velveeta is similar to a rock star who may be looked down upon by some observers but who has a very dedicated and loyal fan base – Neil Diamond.

“Neil Diamond is the Velveeta cheese of the world of rock and roll,” Blackwell said. “Like Velveeta, he has capitalized on his place in American culture, reaping the financial rewards of doing something well and sticking with it.”

Building an emotional connection between a company and its customers begins with the CEO, he said. CEOs who spend all their time in the office won’t be very effective. They need to spend time with their fans – something that Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart did to perfection.

In the book, Blackwell compares the success of Walton to that of the rock band Kiss. Both used simple, effective strategies to relate to their middle-America fans. Walton, like Kiss, spent time getting to know fans and was dedicated to serving them.

When you understand your fans like Kiss and Walton did, you know what appeals to them and you concentrate your efforts on those fans. “Not everyone is a fan of any particular band, and that’s OK,” Blackwell said. “And not everyone is going to be a fan of Wal-Mart. That’s market segmentation and knowing who your core fans are. You have to make sure you target your efforts to the right people.”

One of the themes Blackwell emphasizes is that bands and brands don’t have to be the best in their category to be successful. They have to be good – but they don’t have to be the best. What is important is to have a good product that makes a connection with customers that turns them into fans. Many of the most famous and loved rock bands aren’t known as musical innovators – they just create a better connection with their fans. The same is true of brands.

“A great product without personality is never going to be a success,” Blackwell said. “That’s just as big a mistake as having excellent marketing and a poor product.”

Company executives can learn from successful musical stars that being a success means being relevant to the culture, Blackwell said.

“The process of building brands or bands is to understand the culture you’re appealing to and make sure your brand is relevant and reflects that culture. That’s how you turn customers into fans,” he said.


Contact: Roger Blackwell, (614) 457-6334 or 292-2129; Blackwell.5@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu