Ponies to Bronies: My Little Pony Kicks Up Lessons on Letting Go of Your Brand

Aug 05 2011

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a fantastic example of the evolving relationship between brands and consumers.

I realize I may have lost you with the words My Little Pony, but stick with me; it’s truly a good case study. In the world of web 2.0, your customer’s reactions to your products and overall brand are impossible to control. It’s refreshing to see an example of a company that, rather than striking back to regain control or remaining silent, embraced and took advantage of their unexpected audience and that audience’s unexpected reaction.

Hasbro rebooted their popular My Little Pony TV show with the new cartoon series My Little Pony, Friendship is Magic in October, 2010. Their target marketing was, unsurprisingly, 5-8 year old girls. What Hasbro didn’t expect was that their series would become wildly popular with 15-24 year old heterosexual males, self described as “bronies” (bro + ponies).

The story of exactly how MLP became popular in this unexpected demographic is delightful, and it involves the infamous imageboards of 4chan (the 2nd largest forum in the world, where 13-34 year old males post about everything under the sun) and a love of good animation that led users to discover they also loved the story and the characters.  For the complete back-story, do check out this article on Wired.

My Little Pony’s adult fans have posted the complete series on YouTube along with tribute videos that bring the total of MLP related videos to over 17,000, not to mention countless amounts of fan fiction and art (over 74,000 pieces of MLP artwork on one site alone). There are also multiple fan-produced websites such as Equestria Daily (run by a twenty-something male MLP fan), which receives over 175,000 page views a day and exclusively posts fan art, fiction and videos.

But MLP fans weren’t just embracing the show as is. The fan fiction, videos and images they created become beloved ideas in their own right. They fell in love with and named several background characters that played little to no role in the actual story line, giving them lives of their own.  Adopting language used in the show such as “anypony” and “everypony,” they also developed a culture of behavior that they thought true fans should adopt based on the shows messages of friendship and tolerance. Even the most vitriolic criticism fans received was often met with, “I’m going to love and tolerate the @#*! out of you.” Fans also took the characters in decidedly darker directions in some pieces of fan fiction, and much fan generated content definitely steps far outside of how MPL’s creators envisioned the brand being perceived.

Hasbro could have easily chosen to stifle their new fans, and most companies choose to go the control route. Some infamous examples that spring to mind include Warner Brothers’ legal action against the teen owners of Harry Potter fan sites, and Nestlé’s habit of threatening Facebook users who used variations of its logo for their profile pic. They also could have ignored them and remained silent, another far too common reaction when a company is faced with a turn of events they don’t expect (think Netflix). In a rare move, Hasbro actually embraced their new fanbase. They allowed fan-posted videos and even full length episodes to remain on YouTube, and actively reached out to fan sites. Some of the show’s creators even made a few appearances on fan sites to talk with fans and answer questions. In May, 2011 Hasbro sent fan site Equestria Daily a music video aimed specifically at its adult fans to premier several days before the creators aired it on TV. Background characters named and developed by fans, such as Derpy and DJ P0N-3, were even recognized by Hasbro in a commercial that aired on TV this year.

Losing control of your brand can be a frightening thought for any business. If you listen to and embrace your customers, they will change your brand. If you listen to what they tell you, you may find that what they want is different than what you are offering, or that they love your brand for completely different reasons than you expected. If you can embrace and move with your customers, your brand can be stronger for it. This doesn’t mean letting fans hijack your brand – there will undoubtedly be times when even strong legal action is the appropriate choice – but it does mean listening to and adapting to what your fans, and detractors, are telling you. In the social media world, listening and responding is easier than ever. Only recently have businesses started to really step into two-way conversations with customers, rather than “broadcasting” their message and expecting customers to respond to it. In the case of companies like Hasbro, who are willing to go the extra mile, you not only have a conversation with your customers, but you allow that conversation to actually influence and strengthen your business, opening up unexpected markets and opportunities.

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