Cunning read

Photo: "Cunning read" by Ewen Roberts .

Fans grow brands. The most dedicated fans build unofficial communities, reveling in the joy that participation with a favorite brand provides. Fans drive sales and love sharing their passion with friends.

Brands give fans something to value. They invest time and money to bring new ideas to market. Creating a brand requires an extensive business commitment, yet successful fan-favorite brands can thrive for years, earning millions.

This harmonious, delicately-balanced relationship quickly becomes noxious when one side demands more than the other side provides. In the worst cases, ill will leads to lost revenue, which harms everyone.

Fox and the 'Firefly' hat

Firefly remains a popular brand despite losing its place on the Fox Network in late 2002. This "space western" amassed a dedicated fanbase that adores Firefly more than 10 years after Fox cancelled the show. To them, Firefly is very special.

During one of the final Firefly episodes, a particular character (Jayne Cobb) dons an orange, knitted hat. The show's producers intended this hat as a visual gag, however, fans have made it their own.

Knitted "Jayne hats" regularly find their way into Etsy stores and convention booths as a badge of honor both sold and shared among Firefly devotees. This is one source from which many fans feed their passion.

Firefly fans had a need. When the official brand neglected to fill that void, these same fans provided a solution.

Money talks

In 2012 Fox licensed the right to sell official Firefly apparel. This includes the Jayne hat, which has been a staple among the fan community for many years.

Any brand in this position faces a dilemma: Is the benefit gained through defending your intellectual property worth more than the benefit gained from good will among your fans?

U.S. law allows legal defense of your brand when fans sell their own unofficial solutions. After all, allowing unofficial merchandise sales may "dilute" your brand trademarks. You will anger some of your fans, but you will also redirect any earned revenue back to yourself.

Conversely, allowing fans to have their way generates good will. If your brand management approach permits some leeway concerning fan activity, any new goods you offer can financially benefit from the resulting good will. You may never be able to sell an official version of what your fans offer, but your other ideas could be just as profitable.

So which is worth more to a business: revenue gained through legal defense or good will among the fan community?

A brand's answer defines its attitude toward its fans more clearly than any mission statement or press release could ever do.

Brand management is tricky business

Fox recently chose to send cease and desist letters to Firefly fans selling Jayne hats.

Fans feel justified selling these hats, claiming they built the demand at a time when Fox showed no interest in the Firefly brand. Fox determined unofficial Jayne hat sales would hurt revenue and took measures to maximize money earned on a brand they invested resources to develop.

Who is right?

This fan-brand relationship has become unbalanced, and predictably, ill will has already led to lost revenue. One merchant even decided to donate all profit it earns on official Jayne hats in order to appease Firefly fans.

Brand management is tricky business.

Everyone can win

Today's fan-brand relationship is more participatory than ever before in history. Minecraft fans and Mojang are just one example of a fan-brand relationship characterized by balanced participation; the results have benefited everyone.

Ultimately the best, most profitable outcome occurs when fans and the brands they adore both work together, respecting one another, appreciating the other.

And that mirrors any healthy relationship.

Fox is within its legal rights to defend Firefly from possible infringement. But when the cost outweighs the benefit, why not let the fans have their say? Read more about the situation here.

What do you think?