Funko & Fandom: A Conversation with Funko

Funko at SDCC

Funko Pops! have become a cultural marker for any fandom. You know your fandom has had an impact if it gets some Pops! made for the characters.

I remember when I was desperate for Yuri on Ice Pops! and tweeted at Funko incessantly. I just needed them and I was going to let them know about it. Once they were released, I bought them all immediately. Similarly, Grogu (or, as we called him at the time, “Baby Yoda” or “The Child”) didn’t have a Pop! despite clearly being a fan favorite. He didn’t have any merchandise though since he was kept under wraps. Once word got out that one was in development, the fandom grew incredibly excited. It just didn’t feel right that such a popular character didn’t have one, and that was swiftly corrected.

The Pops! have become more than just a piece of merchandise, but an event in and of themselves. People track rumors for them just as enthusiastically as they track rumors for upcoming superhero films. But I had to wonder what this intense fandom fervor felt like on the other side of things. Does our social media activity count for anything? Clearly they have their finger on the pulse of fandom, but what’s that relationship like on the other side? Do they hear us? Are we just social media noise?

Thankfully I got to sit down with the Head of Comms for Funko, Jessica Piha-Grafstein, and get a peak behind the curtain. Just how does the relationship between company and fandom function?  

The Geekiary: When fans tweet ideas at the Twitter account, does that have any impact at all on what fandom you choose to pursue?

Funko: Yeah, we take into account what our fans tell us. And if it’s a consistent theme, for sure we take that to our licensing team and our licensing team does their due diligence to see if we have that license? Can we obtain that license? And then it goes through the thoughtful process of our creative team, mocking it up, sculpting it, etcetera. We take every suggestion into account and we actually have our own internal tracker for everything that has been mentioned, or what kind of suggestions there are. 

TG: I know that when The Mandalorian came out, there was no Grogu merchandise. We didn’t know him as Grogu yet – it was baby Yoda. And people were tweeting at you. Within a few weeks, suddenly, we got news that there was going to be a Grogu Pop! So we all like to think that we had a little bit of say in that. But besides that, how else do you select with fandoms you pursue to make Pops?

F: It really comes from our licensing team and our internal team who really understands what’s trending in pop culture. When Squid Game came out, for example, as you probably saw that huge photo op, Squid Game was a huge, huge opportunity. And we are the only company that can get product from concept to the shelves in a record amount of time. [The Squid Game] line was the fastest from concept to the shelves.

So I think that we understand what fandom is. Whether it’s sports fandom, […] or whether it’s trending new shows like Squid Game, we’re gonna we’re gonna hop on that. And it’s really the entire company that has a say in that.

TG: That’s awesome. Have you heard of Our Flag Means Death? I’d be a bad fan. If I didn’t name drop it at least.

F: No, I have not.

TG: It’s an HBO pirate show. We’ve been tweeting at you guys. So we want to make sure that you know [about it]. 

(Authors note: If they make OFMD Pops, you’re welcome!)

But besides that, what has been your personal favorite fandom to interact with online?

F: I would say that the Star Wars community is just so passionate, and passionate to a point where we created a Grogu balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which was huge. So I really feel in my heart of hearts that the Star Wars and Lucasfilm community is really an extension of Funko. And we are an extension of them. Because they do have so many amazing characters, a legacy brand. And we really are able to capitalize on that amazing legacy with some great consumer products.

TG: Yeah, that’s definitely true. Because that goes back to was tweeting at you about Baby Yoda and wanting that. And then we got the big [balloon]. We really feel like there’s a connection between the fans and you guys. Like there’s a really strong relationship, and you guys really hear us.

Speaking of which, which fandoms are on the radar, upcoming, [or in] development that might not be out there yet, but we can keep an eye on?

F: We’re doing a lot more with sports and music. That’s definitely an area we’re penetrating more into. Just like people have fandoms with TV series and movies, they also love sports teams. They love their collegiate team. They love all different kinds of music artists. We’re really focusing on the expansion of that line. And then, of course, making sure that we’re doing other touchpoints through our other brands like Loungefly and Mondo.

TG: That is really cool that we have all three here because they’ve all individually been a major cultural thing in the geek community. And now we’re all in one corner together [in Funkoville]. So it’s a lot. It’s overwhelming and it’s amazing. How did you guys come up with the concept of making it a little street corner over here?  

F: It really comes down to our innovation team, our creative team, our SVP, Mike Becker, who’s our founder. He really wanted to come back to SDCC in a big way, and what better way than creating a town Funkoville? So we’re really, really excited to have it. And, of course, these great brands. They do something really spectacular and cultivate their own communities. So having them be a part of this is really a special moment for Funko and for the Funko family. People come by and maybe they love the [vinyls] and posters, and they’re only going to stop by Mondo, but they see that it is a community and that everyone has something that they’re looking for.

TG: Yeah, because I’m a Loungefly and Funko person and I know a lot of Mondo people and now we’re all like together in the same thing. I got my Loungefly bag with me today. A Loki one.

F: Wonder Woman is mine.

TG: It’s kind of brought a lot of different types of stuff together into one group, which is really cool.  (…)  If there was one fandom that you guys don’t currently cover that you would want to cover (…) what would you like to see done?

F: So I’m gonna take what our, what our Chief Creative Officer has said over the decades. He would love Nintendo to do Super Mario Brothers, and that is something we haven’t done yet. And so he always says, ‘Nintendo, if you’re listening, we would love to do Super Mario Brothers.’ Because again, legacy game. Definitely going through the ages and has a nostalgic factor, but [they] also create some really cool content nowadays. So that’s something that’s high up on the list.

TG: I know that you guys have a lot with Disney too, especially Loungefly. You walk through the shops [at Disneyland and] there’s Pop’s, there’s the bags. What can you say about your relationship with Disney, specifically Disneyland?

F: We feel really lucky that we have a great relationship with the Disney team all the way from the licensing side to the PR side to the marketing side. But when it comes to Disneyland proper, we’re definitely expanding our product assortment there, especially Loungefly. Our CEO actually took his family there earlier this year, and he said “Jessica, every single person was carrying a Loungefly bag.” I mean, it’s pretty amazing to see that so I think I’ll definitely see more products from Funko and are our other brands basically pop up there.

TG: The Pops! and the bags have become kind of like a status thing with the Disney community. Like if you’re a fan of the Haunted Mansion, you have to have Haunted Mansion Pops and bags and all that stuff. So it’s just really cool to see.

F: Which is such a compliment to what that fandom offers. Loungefly did a great job in getting into apparel because now they want people to be able to showcase their fandom in what they wear. And it’s a unisex line and so it doesn’t matter who you are, you can wear it. So I think they are a great example of bringing it next level. And then Funko is really all about our core collectors and our fans. And we want to make sure that we’re continuing to innovate and basically do what you said, which is support our fans, make sure that they’re being heard and that we’re producing products because they are what matters. 

So the moral of the story here is that our tweets are being heard.  You hear that, Our Flag Means Death fandom? I name-dropped it in an interview. Time for you to hop on Twitter! Let’s get some pirate Pops!

Huge thanks to Jessica Piha-Grafstein for the wonderful conversation.  

They’ll be hosting their first ever Summer of Loungefly event on August 13.  More information can be found on their website.


Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.

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