For large consumer brands, 2021 is going to be the Year of the Fan. This year having a loyal and vocal fan base will be preconditions for thriving in today’s environment. Conversely, it’ll be clear if you don’t. If you don’t have an identified and active cohort of fans, your brand and company are at risk.

There are a few reasons for this:

The first is that the emotional state of humans is very fragile right now. Customers are operating on fumes—professionally, personally, emotionally. How you make them feel matters more than ever before— that much is clear. Risk alienating your customers in a time of need and exposed emotions and suffer the consequences.

The second is that we, as customers, have an unprecedented opportunity to act on our emotions, particularly the strong and negative ones. In the last week, we need look no further than, traders organize via Reddit to effect a “short squeeze” in the stock of GameStop (Ticker: GME). A concerted effort on the part of enough people can find a point of leverage to effect change, and quickly. Note that the point of leverage can be something like the short interest in an equity, like GameStop, or it can be based upon sensationalizing a situation for the point of capturing attention. This leads me to my next point.

Online megaphones like Twitter and Facebook, communities like Reddit, and now ubiquitous rating and review mechanisms in every store empower every and any upset customer to use their voice. With each passing year, our online channels are becoming more full of our frustration and venting. We are banding together to be a part of movements, many of which are negative and the maelstrom of negative activity is addicting.

The third reason is that with relatively little concerted effort a mob of upset people can easily overwhelm a brand. Why? Because a mob can come together right now, on TikTok or Instagram and spread to Twitter and YouTube, gaining momentum, from people who aren’t really involved.

Today, the desire to join in on online rushes and chorus of complainers is overwhelming. For the past 20 years, reviews and public commentary on brand experiences have become ever more performative—the entertainment factor of complaining about an experience has grown more significant over time. Now, joining in on the “mob justice” is part of being online. For better or worse, it’s something a lot of people just do.

So, what does this mean for 2021?

The way customer relationships play out in 2021 goes like this: A company announces a change to pricing, a small and vocal group of their customers takes to TikTok and records a catchy jingle complaining and then others love the jingle enough to record their take on it. Without being customers, the second order TikTokkers are now just reacting to the creativity of the complaint and off we go—a meme is created! The pricing change turns into an online crusade for a week or two, during which time the brand’s name is spread far and wide (yay! Lots of reach!) with a horrible brand reputation (“aren’t they the company that screwed customers?”).

These “little” brand explosions are happening increasingly frequently and the only real option that today’s brands have is to realize they need to be constantly recruiting and activating fans to their side. They have to be building such amazingly strong relationships with customers and delivering at a high rate of value that should they choose to make a pricing change, they can test it with their loyalists first.

As I look across industries, from Quick Service Retail to Digital Media, from Financial Services to Telecommunications, I think that they can all learn from their counterparts in Sports. In Sports, the whole point of the business is to create and nurture Fans. Historically, however, really being able to be in touch with your fans and identify them if you were a bank was not part of the focus. It has also been pretty tough to do—feedback in-person isn’t tracked actively, phone surveys, and email surveys have poor response rates.

Take, for example the NBA. In addition to adopting “the Bubble” for their games to ensure continuity of competition, the NBA moved rapidly to involve fans in new ways. Whether it was getting some of their superfans to watch from home and show up on video screens or amping up their social interactions, the league ran towards new ways of involvement. In return, some of the fans were able to deepen their sense of community and belonging, at a time when it was needed most.

Image of Lebron James walking on a basketball court with virtual fans in the stands

2020 changed that for a lot of brands. Not only have their customers flocked to their digital channels, they’ve started to realize that they can change their relationships with just a few clicks.

Take Delta, for example. Early on in the pandemic, travel was one of the first industries to be hit hard. Delta doubled-down on their social media and customer support coverage in order to meet increased customer demands. As customers pushed back against cancellation fees, Delta removed the fees entirely, issued credits they otherwise wouldn’t have, and were proactive about communication through regular email updates sent from their CEO. These changes were made because of Delta’s customers voicing concern, not because it would save the company money. Delta acted early, engendering customer loyalty and appreciation because they moved first.

This year, we’ll see churn rise for a lot of traditional companies who have lagged in their move to digital. Those who have not figured out how to identify and activate their fans are susceptible to not just churn but scorn and in today’s environment, that might be a death knell.

Beware of the mob, folks. Find your fans—you’re going to need them.