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“Experiences are the new status”

Brands are his profession – and 35 years ago he created his own brand. An interview with Avantgarde founder and CEO Martin Schnaack about fan culture, race cycling and the question of how successful brands must position themselves in the future.

Martin, a central promise of Avantgarde is “Creating Fans”. As striking as the term “fan” may be, it’s superficial in times of social media. What is a real fan to you?

The key characteristic is loyalty and advocacy. It’s not just about finding something great, it’s about being ready to stand up for your brand, your club or your band by staying true to it, even if it’s going through a crisis.

This sounds like wedding vows: “…for better or for worse…”.

That’s true, and exactly this lifetime loyalty is dwindling away. In the past, many car drivers used to say: “once BMW, always BMW” or “once Opel, …”. That’s what these brands lived by. Today, relationships are getting shorter and shorter, which leads to completely new challenges for marketeers.

So now it’s more important than ever before to gain real fans as a brand – because they still exist. Take soccer as an example: you won’t find many 18-year-olds who are ManU fans, but become Barca fans when they are 28, and Bayern München fans another decade later. That’s almost impossible. It may get less intense, but you stick with it. That’s what characterizes fans.

Has Social Media corrupted the fan concept?

A bit, yes. Because it’s equated with giving a Like.

What are you a fan of?

First of all I’m a fan of my children, because it’s the strongest emotional connection I have. I look at them and find things great that I would consider average for other people. I feel the same with brands that I love, and I’m willing to argue with colleagues about why this brand is special. And I’m a fan of politicians, too.

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Angela Merkel, for an example. For some time now, I have also been a fan of Robert Habeck from the Green party. Granted I forgive him for expressing himself so stupidly about the new federal states. To any other politician I would say: “Typically, he can’t count to three.” But with Habeck I say, “He just slipped and it’s the media that lead to it”.

Does being a fan also have a lot to do with tolerance?

It goes beyond tolerance: to accept stupidity and still stand up for someone. That’s the big problem in politics, that many people are no longer willing to stand up for their beliefs. Instead, there is a great arbitrariness from which, unfortunately, parties like the AfD profit.

Speaking of generations. What are kids nowadays fans of? Is it different from what you experienced?

Definitely. They would always claim that they are not fans of any brand and rather portrait themselves as enlightened consumers. That’s based on the conviction of the generation, that one would not be influenced by advertising at all. Which of course isn’t true – and that’s why they are still fans of brands, people and many other things, but associated with a certain scepticism.

Brand experience is Avantgarde’s core business. “People don’t buy products, people want experiences,” you said once. Daily life though seems quite different: whether at Amazon or in the supermarket, everyone still buys products online every day…

At first glance, that’s true. However, most of us use Amazon because they have created a very special experience: the idea of ordering something online that will be at your doorstep the next morning. The whole brand was created around this experience of simplicity. What do people mostly buy at Amazon?

Especially books.

Books are a good example that the product is often of lower importance: the most successful books of the last 20, 30 years are very strongly based on worlds of experience – not only in our heads, but in reality. Take Harry Potter as an example: parents and their children camp in front of bookstores before the new episode of the series starts selling. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the movie locations every year. That’s the pure pursuit of the experience.

Another kind of books was even created for the experience alone: travel guides. For many people the planning of a journey is already half the experience.

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And what about the supermarket?

The retail sector is on its way, at least. When shopping, many of us are already more attracted by the experience than by the acquisition of things. If stores want to compete successfully with Amazon, this would be the only chance for them: making shopping a real-life experience that immerses people into a world of impressive department stores. With that you wouldn’t buy products alone, but reminders of said experiences: bags and bags full of things that prove you had a great day.

Retail meets entertainment…

And that’s exactly where we stand with Avantgarde: at the interface of the entertainment and marketing industry. It’s our mission to inspire people to exchange ideas with a brand. That is the only way to create a real fanbase.

A great example from cycling is the clothing brand Rapha. One of the first things on their website is the message “Come ride with us”. You don’t see their jerseys anywhere, even if they earn all their money with them. Years ago, the founder created an exhibition highlighting cycling legends and advertised two or three jerseys in between which were sold immediately.

What’s the reason behind that?

Because the racing bike fans, triggered by the experience of the exhibition, packed them on the run. Rapha has perfected this experience: if you are a club member, you can always find someone in the online portal who will go out for a ride with you. You come to their shops – clubhouses, as they call them: and the first thing you see is a huge bar, where you get coffee for free as a member and you can chat with other cyclists. You’ll only find the clothes towards the back of the store – and yet the business model is geared solely towards selling them. But just around experiences, around the community. For me, this is the new and only way to establish a brand today.

This is a rather analogous example. Will digitalisation reduce the importance of the experience?

No! The experience, we say “one touchpoint: Life”, that will stay – at least for the next 50 years. People will have a longing to experience themselves physically. Digitalisation even strengthens this need. Firstly, because we are realizing how quickly one becomes lonely in front of a mobile phone and PC. Secondly, because of social media.

Why is that?

Social media can be a driver of real-life experiences. After all, what do people publish on Instagram? Photos of them skiing in knee-deep powder or diving in Hawaii, not pictures of new skis or plane tickets.

Making oneself distinguishable through experiences, in an increasingly standardized world, is what it’s all about. That’s why experiences are the new status symbols.

Then digitalization is more likely to strengthen the drive for experience?

Definitely – if we are speaking about status: I can only attain status if my experience can spread.

Stay tuned for part 2 of our interview with Martin Schnaack here in the Avantgarde Stories next week!

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