Bandwagon: When a brand transcends fandom to become a lifestyle

Toy expert Christopher Byrne identifies the secret sauce that transforms kids brands from mere items on a shelf into a core childhood experience shared by a whole generation.
March 7, 2023

Whether you call it the “Funko Phenomenon,” the “Marvel Metamorphosis” or something else entirely, kid-focused entertainment brands are expanding way beyond toys and increasingly becoming lifestyle brands. This presents a powerful draw for consumers—and a gilt-edged opportunity for IP owners and merchandisers.

But before we delve into that, it’s important to distinguish a lifestyle brand from a collectible brand.

Collecting has been part of human civilization throughout history—think of the treasures packed inside the Egyptian pyramids. In more modern times, Barbie, G.I. Joe, Beanie Babies and Hot Wheels all became collectibles, and lifestyle brands to some.

But what distinguishes a pure lifestyle brand is the active engagement of a consumer with it, beyond simply appreciating a cherished object in an artfully lit glass cabinet. A lifestyle brand becomes part of someone’s identity, and a means of celebrating individual affinity with—and membership in—a community that shares that passion.

Lifestyle expression can range from wearing a branded T-shirt to dropping US$25,000 for a limited-edition Baccarat Pikachu figure. From a merchandise perspective, a toy -or entertainment-derived lifestyle brand offers products beyond playsets, action figures, etc.

Just Google “Harry Potter drinkware,” and prepare to be totally overwhelmed. Wizarding World licensing may have started with IP-based toys (pictured), but the franchise’s spinoffs are now in such high demand—across an array of demographics—that there’s a retail store in New York with a permanent lineup of fans looking to snag mugs, apparel, Swarovski figurines and even Gryffindor-scented candles.

Marvel is similarly powerful, with licensed products like Adidas’ Black Panther shoes. To a lesser extent, My Little Pony fans—the Bronies—while not officially targeted as a customer segment, represent a significant cohort. And don’t even get me started on the impact of cosplay, fan groups, etc.

All lifestyle brands have one thing in common—something in the mythos of the brand speaks to something in the individual, to the point where they want to incorporate it into their everyday life and identity. Perhaps more importantly, the essence of the brand is aspirational. It’s a reminder of the power of myth as a means of understanding the world and our place in it.

Of course, not every brand has the potential to make the leap from fandom to lifestyle. What distinguishes a lifestyle brand is time. Harry Potter is now on its second generation of fans. Marvel is on its third. The stories and characters have become part of people’s lives, personal narratives and social communities. These fans may have grown out of playing with traditional toys, but their connection to the characters—and to others who love them—remains strong. Hence: Harry Potter drinkware.

Can you manufacture a lifestyle brand? Probably not. But what all of these brands have in common are strong, complex narratives with classic themes—truth, justice, righting wrongs and so on—in mythic proportions. That provides the aspirational underpinning.

For most brands, aiming for lifestyle status isn’t part of the initial strategy. It evolves. It can’t be predicted, but in the case of Harry Potter, kids were making their own fan-based stuff before licensing kicked in, so the trajectory was pretty clear early on.

My best advice? Start with a powerful story and build from there. If the story takes hold and proceeds to last a lifetime, you’ve hit the jackpot.

This story was originally published in Kidscreen‘s February/March 2023 issue. 

Chris Byrne, (a.k.a The Toy Guy) is a toy expert, consultant, author and co-host of The Playground Podcast.

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