The Secret Key to Building a Franchise's Enduring Fandom

One thing ensures that fans of a book series, TV show, or movie will remain legion long after new material has faded. Just one thing separates Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Firefly from Lost, The X-Files, and Buffy.

You've seen them. Whether you've ever been to a convention like San Diego Comic Con or simply seen the pictures, you know what they look like. People walking the floor, posing for pictures, lining up for panels dressed as stormtroopers, ghostbusters, Enterprise Red Shirts. You spotted the Doctor's scarf or the Hogwarts cloak. These are the purest of fans, folks who've devoted a certain portion of their lives to caring about their pop culture in a way that many of us can't imagine. They are the beating heart that gives a property life after death. After cancellation, after finales, after releases: These are the people who keep hope alive, who nurture worlds that have run their course.

But what makes the fan choose one show over another? What is it about this that earns their love as opposed to that? Why is there a far more robust following for any and all things Firefly, which ran just the one season, than for The X-Files, which ran for nine years, won a bunch of Emmys, and all but founded a network? Why will Lost — despite the fervent viewership devoted to unraveling conspiracy theories and watching sweaty beautiful people — disappear from the fan landscape once the show goes off the air?

One word: Uniforms.

The Secret Key to Building a Franchise's Enduring Fandom

If you look at all the shows that enjoy a thriving afterlife — and they're almost always TV shows, because that's the media we form the fastest, longest relationships with — you'll see that the characters on those shows all wore uniforms, of one kind or another: Starfleet uniforms, Klingon battle garb, Ghostbusters jumpsuits, stormtrooper armor, Jedi robes, Galactica tanktops, Browncoats' brown coats. When was the last time you saw someone dressed like Neo, or Fox Mulder, or Michael Knight? The bond that unites fans is the shared experience: the idea that a common passion offers a rally point for community. Humans, by nature, flock together — on teams, in the workplace, as families — and a uniform is the most demonstrative display of that community.

Not only does a uniform allow for on-sight verification of a fellow fan, it can also serve as something of a totem with which one can access the story itself. It'd be foolish to posit that there wasn't some element of fantasy at work, that by donning a Viper pilot uniform the wearer isn't trying just a little to be part of the grand Battlestar mythos. The fans don't want to be William Adama or James T. Kirk or Captain Tightpants — it's not about pretending to be someone, it's about wanting to belong to something.

The Secret Key to Building a Franchise's Enduring Fandom

And without that totem to stand in for the work itself, the fantasy crumbles. When Lost goes off the air, do you really think people will dress up as Tailies and gather to eat stale crackers and drink flat beer? When the Twilight novels and films fade, how many girls and their moms will still sport their Team Edward gear? When Buffy stakes her last vampire, will young women go SlayerCon dressed for a night out at the Bronze?

Uniforms have power. Any military historian or first-year fashion major will tell you that. They can inspire, or frighten, or simply keep the cold off your back. But mostly, they tell you who's on your side.