The Secret to Creating a Cult Brand

25.08.2016

It’s a brand manager’s dream come true. Loyal customers gather in a park each Sunday to admire each other’s purchases, swap stories about their products, and share their passion for your branded merchandise. A fantasy or reality? With cult brands, it’s a reality and more.

What Is a Cult Brand?

Cult brands are brands that capture the imagination of consumers and develop a devoted, almost fanatical following. These customers don’t just like a brand - they’re as devoted to it as loyally as cult followers are to their cult leader (hence the term “cult brand”).

These brands tap into the deep-seated human desire for belonging to a group or community. Years ago, people felt the same kind of loyalty to their towns, communities, civic organizations, schools and churches. Today, the same fervor has been channeled into brands ranging from automobiles to shoes.

A cult brand isn’t confined to products. Cult-like following can also be ascribed to celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey who have created personal brands around their interests, ideals and aspirations.

Brands that develop cult-like followings take careful steps to nurture their fans and engage them in the brand story. One thing you’ll find that all cult brands share in common is a truly compelling and engaging backstory. Whether it’s the hand crafting that goes into Louis Vuitton luggage or the rags-to-riches story of a talented gal from the wrong side of the tracks as in the Oprah Winfrey story, cult brands appeal to the imagination and emotions to create deep loyalty.

Passing Fads and Enduring Cults

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether a brand is just a passing fad or turning into an enduring cult. Fads come and go, but cults tend to remain. The two share in common an enthusiastic customer base, but cults differ in the lengths to which fans will go for their passion.

Cult brands often rise slowly, perhaps traveling through several iterations or appealing to different populations in the culture and their status takes root. Louis Vuitton, for example, was always a brand that appealed to wealthy people who admired the brand’s craftsmanship. For a while in the 1990s, the iconic LV logo on a bag became a fad, and many copied the look. However, even as the fad for the logo faded, die-hard Vuitton fans continued to amass his work and share their enthusiasm for the brand. Those following fads went on to the next trend, but the cultlike status of the brand continued to evolve.

Fads usually begin with a specific subset of the overall culture but fail to take root among the mainstream. The fad quickly spreads into the mainstream, and is copied by many, then fades away as the next idea takes hold. Few, if any, customers cling to the fad after the initial buzz has worn off.

Creating a Cult Brand

Cult brands often grow organically from the enthusiasm of their customer base. But in order to become cult brands, they must first be recognizable brands and provide something unique and memorable among their brand attributes to be remembered. They must provide an outlet for emotions and give people something to believe in, like a cult, while helping people connect over the brand itself.

For clues on how to develop a cult brand, brand managers should examine successful brands to discover the strange alchemy that transforms fondness into fanaticism. The following tips can help you develop that strange combination of love and devotion, longing and belonging that makes an extraordinary brand into a cult brand.

Tip #1: Share your story.

Every brand has a story behind it, and it’s in the backstory that the seeds of cult brands are born. All cult brands share a common thread of an engaging, intriguing, and often spectacular backstory that, like the story behind a religion’s founder, often takes on mythic proportions.

Oprah Winfrey is a great example of how the backstory has blossomed into a brand. Born the daughter of a coal miner and a maid in poor Mississippi, she overcame prejudices, struggles and hardships to become a media mogul. Her brand includes the timeless theme that anyone, no matter where they find themselves in life, can change for the better.

Throughout her career, Oprah has shared countless stories of the hardships she faced growing up, the uphill battles she fought in broadcasting, and her weight loss struggles. These stories weave an overall tapestry that like any good myth, demonstrates the average person triumphing over bigger forces to win the kingdom. Oprah’s story is like a fairytale come to life, another sign of a cult brand.

So don’t be afraid to share your brand story, especially if it’s a compelling story that taps into the subconscious archetypes and mythology we all share. It’s a good foundation upon which to build a cult brand.

Tip #2: Purpose and passion drive cult brands.

Anyone can tell a good story. Novelists do it all the time, as do filmmakers and other artists. Good stories alone aren’t enough to found cult brands. Behind the brand must be both purpose and passion.

Purpose is the “why” you do things and “passion” is how you do them. Your brand’s purpose and passion must both tap into the emotions of your customers in order to build a strong core following.

Apple is a great example of a cult brand that demonstrates both purpose and passion. Originally, the company designed computers “for the rest of us,” computers for artists, designers and the average person who found Windows-based systems confusing. That purpose was later transformed by a passion for sleek design and usability that won it millions of fans worldwide.

After telling your brand store, make sure your passion and purpose shine forth in everything you do.

Tip #3: Deliver extraordinary benefits.

It’s not enough to fill your brand’s promise. To become a cult brand with a huge following, you’ve got to deliver extraordinary benefits, not just ordinary ones.

Extraordinary goes the extra mile. It’s a perfume that doesn’t just smell great, it’s a perfume that conjures images of red carpet runways, champagne and caviar on a private jet, diamonds and servants and more. It taps into emotions in a deep and personal way, and delivers on the brand promise in ways that wow your customers.

The Mazda Miata is just a car...but a car that people marry. Yes, they actually marry their cars. An Episcopalian priest conducts “wedding” ceremonies for Miata fanatics to marry their cars. That’s because the little sporty Miata doesn’t just fulfill its brand promise of being a good-looking sports car. It makes users feel young, sporty, powerful. It delivers extraordinary benefits from a simple automobile.

When a car can deliver such extraordinary benefits, it becomes a cult brand. So too can any product or service, with a little creativity and ingenuity and a lot of hard work to figure out what your extraordinary benefits are for customers. Whether tangible or emotional, these benefits set apart your brand from all others in the market.

Tip #4: Be inspirational.

Cult brands inspire. They make followers feel such a sense of belonging and that they can even inspire their own cultural group. Just take the example of Star Trek.

The original show lasted just three seasons, but thanks to the inspirational power of its message, thousands joined a letter-writing campaign to save the show. Years later, the show spawned several spin off shows, movies, merchandise, cartoons, comic books, novels, and even an entire language: Klingon. Klingon is now so popular that Paramount Pictures, which owns the rights to it, are in danger of losing copyright protection for it because it’s become so popular and used in common parlance!

Oprah’s messages inspire people to change. Cult brands like Ikea inspire a simple, streamlined approach to living that appeals to hip up and coming homeowners without a lot of cash. Inspiring people to infuse their lives with your brand attributes is another sign of a cult following.

Tip #5: Offer consistency.

In a world where everything seems to change overnight, brands that can offer a consistent experience can form cultlike followings around them. Like religious cults, the ideas undergirding cult brands tend to remain consistent year after year.

Take the cult brand Harley-Davidson. The motorcycles have massive appeal, to the point where huge motorcycle rallies see thousands in attendance with their customized hogs. Consumers want to buy into the power, freedom and strength the brand denotes. The consistent design, appeal to craftsmanship, and symbolic power of the brand all create a loyal following unlike any other motorcycle brand.

All brands offer consistency, but doing so with a zeal that inspires such buy-in that people will travel great distances to participate in events around a brand is a true sign of a cult brand.

Benefits of Cult Brands

Most of the brands cited above took several years to move from startup to cultlike status. Apple was founded in 1976, but really took off in the 1990s when personal computers became common. Gene Roddenberry had the idea for Star Trek in 1960, but it took years to develop and sell it to the networks, then additional time for the concept to generate the sense of community and enthusiasm common to cult brands. Your brand will take time to nurture along, too.

Once your brand does start to gain a committed cultlike following, the benefits are enormous. Cult brands typically spend a lot less on advertising; word of mouth marketing does all their advertising for them. Sales remain steady and strong thanks to fanatical followers eagerly snapping up the latest products. Funds can be channeled into research and development rather than into marketing, leading to innovations and improvements that can further grow the brand.

Take Your Brand Further

To create a cult brand, you’ve got to build on a strong foundation. If you’re ready to build onto an existing brand or launch a new brand, it’s time to invest in brand guidelines and more that will take your brand higher and further than you ever thought possible. With Frontify’s style guides, you can create an instantly recognizable brand that appeals to customers in deep, enduring ways. Learn more at Frontify.com about our software for brand guidelines, workflow management and more.

Roger Dudler
Roger Dudler CTO at Frontify
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