Blackstar and the future of fan engagement

Music and merchandising have always played an important role in connecting people. So when Jonathan Barnbrook announced earlier this year that he was releasing design elements of David Bowie’s Blackstar album cover, it highlighted how both these industries can connect people in a shared moment.

Under a Creative Commons NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, Bowie fans can now create merchandise for non-commercial use to celebrate his life and music. It was also a sign of a wider change taking place in the relationship between brands and fans. There is now a new merch order happening, and fan engagement is leading the way.

Until recently, official fan merchandise has been largely set designs created months in advance; usually album covers on t-shirts. However, the growth in popularity of social networks and the way people shop is changing this.

The influence of social media in particular means that fans now expect a very immediate and direct relationship with brands and the rise of print-on-demand means fans now have the ability to easily create, print, as well as share unofficial designs and merchandise. They communicate in real time and want merchandise that can be customised to their likes, as well as be immediately available for sale.

Products planned by committee months in advance, are no longer enough.

While the music industry has always been at the forefront of merchandising, Barnbrook’s move has shown us that there is yet another level of engagement that brands can aim for. Brands that give their fans a little bit of artistic licence can see some amazing ideas appear that build brand loyalty.

Just look at the black market to see fan creativity in action. It has thousands of cool, but unofficial designs. Search Google for Doctor Who designs and you will find some great examples, not all under license. In our opinion, brands with strict licence guidelines are losing out, not only on fan creativity and innovation, but also on revenue.

However, there is a new and growing generation of brands that get this; social media brands. For these new entrepreneurs, merchandising is not just about making money, but is another communication tool, an opportunity to truly engage with their fans.

YouTubers Stuggy & Ashton, for example, tap in to their fans’ inventiveness by asking for design feedback or working with submitted fan designs. One of their best-sellers is a sketch submitted by fan. There is no reason why other industries can’t do this, especially the music industry.

Spreadshirt’s print-on-demand technology enables flexible merchandising. Brands and fans can play around, share a design for feedback and tweak it before ordering it. We believe that when you have fans interacting with your brand, taking the time and effort to create something, put it on a t-shirt and wear it, that is the type of engagement all brands should be striving for.

Mass customisation and new technologies also mean brands can keep part of the design static, while allowing more freedom elsewhere. So businesses can be flexible, keeping some of their image fixed and letting fans get creative with the rest. The days of one-size-suits-all are long gone. This new merch order means brands will increasingly find they need to offer a choice of base products, fits and colours, as well as exciting opportunities for fan engagement.

We live in an instant choice world and merchandise should work for this new generation of consumers. These changes also mean we have to be constantly working on improving our platform and services. We are currently working on speeding up the process of making ideas available for sale. Our vision is to make it possible for brands and fans to publish everything everywhere in 60 seconds.

It’s time licence holders across all industries took a closer look at how this new generation of consumers is engaging with brands. The music industry is beginning to get this, but there is still so much more ahead.

We know that embracing fan creativity would be good for business because we see it surfacing on our site every day. Social media stars know this too, and they’ve found a way to harness this creativity and make money from it. Barnbrook recognised the importance for Bowie fans to commemorate him through design and ideas. His gesture shows how music and merchandising can connect people.

The new merch order is here, we say it’s time more businesses caught up.

Philip Rooke is the CEO of Spreadshirt. Follow him on Twitter @PhilipRooke.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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