Building a fandom in AEC

May 05, 2024

Focusing on creating fans of your brand, rather than just clients, can drive deeper engagement, brand loyalty, and word-of-mouth marketing.

Architectural Digest focused on “world-building.” Those in Seattle focused on the seismograph. World leaders focused on the measurable economic boost.

Of course, the focus of all of this was the Eras Tour. And when asked how it was all possible, time and again, Taylor Swift’s focus is consistent: It’s because of the fans. Taylor Swift does not have customers. She doesn’t have clients. She has fans.

And what does Taylor Swift and her fandom have to do with AEC marketing? Depending on your firm vision, the answer could be nothing or everything. However, the real question is, are you content with having clients – or do you want fans?

What’s the difference? Clients stick with you through the duration of the project. Fans look for a reason to keep working with you.

Clients know your firm’s strengths. Fans broadcast your strengths to their peers and tell them exactly what you’ve done for them, when, and why.

Comparing clients and fans: It isn’t love, it isn’t hate, it’s just indifference. In Seth Godin terms, clients may think, “Why are you bothering me?” while fans demand, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Bring on all the pretenders, we will be remembered. Fandom is the key. But don’t take my word for it, or Taylor Swift’s either. Have you heard of Field Notes or Zentangle?

Field Notes has fans.

A three-pack of original Field Notes notebooks costs $12.95. Most of their notebooks measure 3.5 inches by 5.5 inches. The company was founded in 2007 and maintains manufacturing in the United States. Their beginnings were humble. Their website reports, “Field Notes owe their existence to a tradition of promotional memo books distributed to American farmers over the last hundred years by seed, tractor, and other agricultural companies.” Today, these little notebooks have built an amazing fan following.

Quarterly releases typically sell out shortly after they are available. Each quarterly release has an accompanying video created by Field Notes HQ. Yearly subscriptions include surprises, bonuses, and perks. The company has collaborated on limited edition notebook designs with entities from the United States Postal Service to Starbucks and even German industrial designer Dieter Rams. This is the marketing they do for themselves.

Field Notes fans take it from there. From unboxing videos to handwritten love letters, participation in contests and gifting, the fans are spreading the word.

Zentangle has fans.

At its core, Zentangle is a method for drawing. What you can buy from the company is mostly paper, pens, and pencils. Since the first germ of an idea in 2003, Zentangle has amassed a worldwide following that includes Certified Zentangle Teachers and countless enthusiasts. Special releases (called Project Packs), free video content, and partnerships are the core of their marketing.

You don’t have to buy a single thing to enjoy and engage with the Zentangle Method. Yet Zentangle’s estimated annual revenue is currently $3.5 million per year.

Zentanglers, from all around the globe, spread the word. Although they speak different native languages, they all speak Zentangle.

Common denominators. What fan-based activities do these entities have in common?

  • They are generous. Fresh content is what’s talked about most in the fandom-sphere. This often takes the form of free videos which might be announcements, entertaining clips, or instructional sessions. In all cases, it is content that is free and valuable to fans.
  • They are worth following. Communication is ongoing for those with fan-followings. And those who are paying attention are rewarded for following along. They might not know exactly when a surprise is coming, but they do know, sooner or later, something good will be hinted at, partially revealed, and finally divulged. Fans are waiting for it.
  • They are meaningfully creative. Creativity for creativity’s sake is not the goal. Crafting creative content and approaches that support the thing fans are excited about in the first place is a key to cultivating fans. Whatever these entities are doing, they’re making it meaningful to the fans, something that will be welcomed and embraced.
  • They are consistent. A consistent approach to fan outreach feeds and rewards anticipation, delivering delight on an ongoing basis.
  • They have carved out a space of their own. Let’s be honest, in AEC, sometimes clients struggle to get the names of our firms right. This doesn’t happen with a fan base. Swifties talk about Easter eggs, embrace the number 13, and often talk in lyrics. Field Notes fans know why Wednesdays are special. Zentanglers have their own rich vocabulary of Tangles, TangleRootZ, and Tangleations. It’s world-building.

Don’t say I didn’t warn ya. This all sounds exciting – but also like a lot of work. Why should you and your firm care? As Seth Godin tells us: “When all things are equal, we choose the cheapest.” So if your strategic position is to be the low-cost leader, you might not need to be concerned about your lack of fandom at all.

Are you content competing on this low-cost, level playing field or is it time for a tilted stage? Many firms say they offer something else, something different, something better. But do you? Ask yourself, can you be generous, interesting, meaningful, consistent. Or more of these things? Have you carved out a space all your own, in the eyes of those you work with and for?

It’s worth repeating, as Seth Godin challenges: Clients may think, “Why are you bothering me?” while fans, demand “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Creating a fandom; that’s next-level marketing. Are you ready for it? 

Jane Lawler Smith, MBA, is a Swiftie, Tangler, and Field Notes fan. She is also a Seth Godin follower. Her day job is working to build a fandom for Derck & Edson, LLC. Contact her at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.