A Look Inside Collector Culture (and What it Means for Brands)
Marie Kondo asked an entire generation to focus on obtaining items that ‘spark joy,’ and they listened.
Baseball cards. Stamps. Action figures. Model cars. Coins. To some, these might just be ordinary objects. But to those within their respective collecting communities, they’re the focus of a hobby that can border on fanatical (in the best way). A hobby that’s continuing to grow.
The majority of Americans (around 61%) are self-proclaimed collectors. For brands and retailers, this presents a massive opportunity — but only for those who understand and respect the impact it has on their fans. Collecting isn’t just “purchase behavior,” it’s a lifestyle. It ties people to their past, to their community, and even positively affects their mental health.
EQL exists in a space where collectors and collection-worthy brands collide. We’ve seen how some brands can instantly ignite the collective passion of fans, while others fall flat, and it made us wonder: why do some products appeal to collectors while others don’t? What even drives us to collect in the first place? And what does it all mean for brands? We have QUESTIONS.
To satisfy our curiosity, we sought answers straight from the source: the real fans and collectors who participate in EQL-powered launches. Our interviews (along with some Science™ to back them up) yielded a fascinating look into the psychology of collecting, how certain brands strike such a chord with fans, and how others just breaking into the zeitgeist can do the same.
Why do fans collect?
No matter what the activity — from birdwatching to woodworking to, yes, collecting — hobbies give us something to care about that’s just for personal satisfaction, not related to the seemingly endless responsibilities or obligations of adulting. Studies have shown that hobbies reduce stress, enhance well-being, and offer greater opportunities for social connection, all of which improve mental health.
Interestingly, collecting as a hobby offers even more benefits.
Collecting makes us happier
What we uncovered is that the unique nature of the hobby of collecting directly appeals to the way our brains are wired, working our neural reward system to make us happier in our daily lives.
In her book Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play, Dr. Shirley M. Mueller puts it this way: “People collect for one reason and that’s because it makes them feel good. When we’re anticipating getting a desired object, the pleasure centers of our brain light up — even more than they do once we have the object. Collectors get to do that over and over again.”
It’s tough to beat the rush of participating in a super-exclusive, competitive launch or auction — or even better, the thrill of winning. Successfully acquiring a sought-after piece creates a sense of accomplishment, and can even gain the collector street cred in their community, creating further good feelings.
Plus, the ever-expanding world of collectibles offers an opportunity for hobbyists to be constantly surprised and delighted by new finds, which keeps the hobby engaging for years or even decades.
Curtis, a collector from Texas who chatted with EQL about why he collects, shared this: “[As a collector], you’re being blown away all the time… When I walk into a collectible store, the first thing people ask is, ‘What are you looking for?’ And my answer is, ‘I won’t know until I see it.’ There are things I don’t realize are being made or that they exist. I didn’t know I wanted it, but now I do!”
Understanding how collecting makes people happy, brands can build upon this appeal in a few key ways.
First, they can maximize the anticipatory dopamine rush by marketing launches well in advance (and ensuring that they’re run fairly — more on this later). Brands can also encourage sharing and interaction via social media to help collectors celebrate big wins, keeping those good feelings going long past the purchase confirmation. And finally, companies should think creatively about new products to keep collecting feeling fresh and exciting (for a great example of this, check out the innovative spins that Topps has introduced to the world of trading cards by dropping unique and unexpected collab sets).
Collecting builds community
Building friendships is another of the major mental health benefits of hobbies, and collecting offers plenty of opportunity for connection.
The importance of community is highlighted at a time that loneliness is being recognized as a real and growing societal problem. U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently described it as an “epidemic,” explaining that isolation can have serious effects on physical and mental health.
Our 30s and 40s are known as a notoriously hard time to make friends. But perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s also the fastest-growing age for collectors. Having a common interest, especially a niche one, is great for bringing people together. It gives us a topic to bond over — which is why no matter what customers collect, there are plenty of ways to find fellow hobbyists.
The internet is full of message boards that offer collectors a forum for discussing their collections, sharing information about new releases, trading collectibles, and also just getting to know one another. But collecting is also great at getting people out of the house and taking them to new places, like conventions, comic shops, thrift stores, and estate sales. By getting out and about on the search for new pieces, collectors are making human connections as well.
Collecting communities and the spaces they gather — both in-person and online — are constantly evolving, which also contributes to making the collection adventure ever more interesting and dynamic. We see the most popular collecting brands playing an active role in creating, building, and inspiring these communities.
From pop-up events to Discord servers, convention booths to X threads, there are endless opportunities for brands to become part of the conversation, encouraging further interaction between collectors and establishing themselves as fellow fans. We don’t think it’s any coincidence that some of the brands collectors love most, like McFarlane Toys, are also some of the most active in bringing people together over shared fandoms.
Collecting triggers feelings of nostalgia
Nostalgia wields a powerful influence over us, and it can be a really beneficial emotion. One of the most popular categories of collectibles is toys or items that remind collectors of their childhoods. Being around something that provokes a feeling of nostalgia is another way to trigger the brain’s reward system, making us feel good and bringing more positivity into our lives.
Nostalgia can also be a coping mechanism. Fond memories from our past help us tap into our inner child, promoting feelings of calm and happiness. Feeling nostalgic helps to anchor us in a sense of self and remind us that even though our lives are changing all the time, some things will always stay the same. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that people get such joy and satisfaction from collecting nostalgic items.
According to collector Tyler from Illinois: “If it has sentimental value to you and it represents either some part of your childhood or something that’s currently going on — if it’s helped you to get through a bad time, or even a good time — you’re celebrating something, you’re treating yourself when there’s a memory attached to it. That’s what’s fun about collecting.”
Leaning into nostalgia is a common, and effective, tactic for brands to employ to deepen connections with fans. Introducing throwback versions of popular products, incorporating retro elements into marketing, and bringing back classic products for a limited time are all ways that brands can evoke nostalgia in their fan base.
For a perfect example of this strategy in action, check out Iron Studios’ much-hyped Disney 100th collection. It features a range of limited-edition figures that celebrate 100 years of classic Disney films (and the childhood joy they brought us all).
Collecting offers inspiration
Another common category of collectibles is items that appeal to the collector aesthetically, like artwork, knick-knacks, or home decor. Having things in our homes that we find beautiful or interesting lifts our mood on a daily basis while also inspiring us to potentially take part in our own creative hobbies.
For “leave it in the box” collectors, finding creative ways to display their findings is another hobby in and of itself. And for “out of the box” collectors — those who collect toys or action figures but aren’t concerned about keeping them in mint condition within their original packaging — posing or customizing their figurines allows for some self-expression. There are actually entire secondary markets dedicated to handmade accessories for figurines made by fans for fans on sites like Etsy and eBay.
Garrett, a collector from New York City, shared that finding imperfect collectibles can be part of the fun, because then he gets to make his mark on them. “Every single [McFarlane] character is a brand new sculpt which is super detailed. So I like to get a McFarlane that’s really well sculpted, and then paint it in a new way.”
Brands can encourage artistic expression among certain categories of collectors by selling accessories like unique display cases and add-ons for customization, driving interest and brand loyalty in collectors like Grayson who want to take a hands-on approach to their hobby.
So how can brands turn collectibles customers into fans?
So far in this article, we’ve explored how collecting makes us happy, helps us feel less alone, connects us with our inner child, and inspires us creatively. The more brands can understand the mindset of their target audience and cater to their interests, the more loyal their following will be.
However, we heard time and again in our interviews that fans feel misunderstood and let down by brands when it comes to one facet of collecting in particular: the process of purchasing in-demand collectible pieces.
After all, in order to enjoy any of the benefits of collecting that we’ve covered, hobbyists must be able to acquire the pieces of their collection. Thanks to the rise of bots and resellers, that’s getting more difficult than ever. And while the thrill of the chase can certainly be part of the fun for collectors, when it starts to feel like work — logging on early, sitting in waiting rooms, reloading crashing sites over and over — many get turned off.
As Jerrod, a collector from Pennsylvania, puts it: “I already do a thing called a job which is actual work. [Collecting] is the reward for me doing that. It shouldn't have to be a chore.”
That’s why the world’s smartest collectible brands aren’t just winning fans by how they’re creating and marketing their products, but also by finding innovative ways to level the playing field, reward true fans, and make the collectible acquisition process fun again.
Resellers and bots are fully in-the-know when it comes to which products are coveted by collectors, making them prime targets for the secondary market. But for each reseller or bot who gains a product, a true collector misses out on the opportunity to connect with that brand and with their community. Mitigating bad actors from scoring collectible inventory helps brands continue to build a following of true fans, which is valuable well beyond one-time transactions.
One thing we know for sure is that brands who understand their fans and what drives them, and strive to connect meaningfully with them, don't just drive more loyalty but also more revenue.
We think Christian from Texas summed up the joy of collecting perfectly: “[Collecting] is like getting yourself a gift. Hobbies are hobbies because they make you feel good.”
Want to learn more about the minds of fans, collector behavior, and the passion that we expect to drive trends in 2024? We’re dropping a fire report with even more in-depth research and consumer analysis. Sign up now to be among the first to get your hands on The 2024 Fandom Forecast.