Every human being is born with very little self awareness. And from that moment on, begins a lifelong exercise in construction of one’s unique identity. Personal identity is possessively guarded by the person and the sense of self is supreme. Despite this deep internal knowledge, each individual strives to be a part of something greater than the self; to become an element of a larger shared consciousness. Every one secretly wants to belong.
Cult brands aren’t just companies with products or services to sell. To many of their followers, they are living, breathing surrogate family filled with like-minded individuals. They are a support group that just happens to sell products or services. Picture a cult brand in this context, and you’ll have a much better understanding of why these brands all have such high customer loyalty and devoted followers. – Matthew W. Ragas
A Cult Brand is a benign cult or group where a high involvement product or service provided by the brand has a committed customer base. The members of the ‘tribe’ are passionately attached to the brand and share similar interests. The followers often engage in ritualistic behavior (like jargon or uniform) surrounding themselves with brand associations. Star Trek fans, for example, invest millions every year on the memorabilia of the hit series.
After the company has satisfied the general criteria of being a good brand, there is another distinctive factor which appeals to a potential cult consumer besides the need to belong. Something that is above and beyond the product. Something so strongly attractive to the person as to turn him into a brand loyalist. Something extraordinary.
That something, we find, is the promotion of self through the practice of projection.
That something is Image.
Since a cult customer shares the values of his beloved brand, relevant information can be conveyed about him on examining his possessions and patron-ship.
SPOTTING A CULT BRAND
There are a few traits common to a Cult Brand which can help make the identification:-
- Identity lending
- Dedicated customer loyalty
- No true substitute or competition
- Sense of shared ownership
- Timeless, sustained allegiance
- A lifestyle, not just a product
- Strong internal and external communications
CULT BRANDS ARE THRIVING BRANDS
The Brand and its faithful followers both benefit from their inclusion in the phenomenon of Brand Cult.
When a group of customers has very strong associations between a brand and a desired feeling, the brand possesses equity which it can leverage to grow.
Oprah as a brand stands for ‘heart’ and the quiet joy that one derives from helping others. No wonder she has such a large and steadfast fan-base.
The loyal customers display low price sensitivity and willingly pay a premium for the value derived.
Moreover, there is practically no actual rival in the market. This is so because the deep emotional connect biases consumers in favor of the cult brand. They find no other brand’s product equally satisfactory.
Cult Brands expand naturally. They enjoy further purchases from link and kin of cult members who are keen to join the exclusive club thanks to the positive word-of-mouth advertisement.
CREATING A CULT BRAND
A lot goes into the making of a cult brand.
Cult Branding is the consequence of a higher understanding of the customer. This understanding in turn is made possible by the deft matching of product development and marketing with consumer insights of human needs.
In order to create a cult-like following, experts suggest firstly identifying your best customers and keeping an open line of communication with them.
Your repeat customers and referrers are your brand lovers. A well-maintained database, carefully crafted surveys and a regular review of the online brand-related noise will help you determine who these people are.
Interacting with them or even plain listening to them will make it a lot easier to recognize the intangible emotional clues that make you who you are to your customers. You will know why they chose to give you their business.
Now comes the time to serve your customers.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says, “If you’re customer-focused, you’re always waking up wondering, how can we make that customer say, wow? We want to impress our customers—we want them to say, wow. That kind of divine discontent comes from observing customers and noticing that things can always be better.”
Amaze them, embrace them and celebrate their loyalty; let your customers know you are grateful and that they are special to you. Deliver them a life-style which fascinates them while facilitating self-expression and aspirations.
THE GOLDEN RULES
To truly capture your customer’s heart and foster the forces of customer loyalty, authors BJ Bueno and Scott Jeffrey state seven rules which all Cult brands abide by:-
Rule #1: Differentiate
Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else. – Margaret Mead
Offer your customers the chance to be part of a crowd while not neglecting their need to stand out from it.
How does one do that, you ask?
Be the inclusive group that is different from the mainstream groups. Be remarkable!
Apple is a case in point. It is the epitome of a cult brand. Its brand slogans like ‘think different’ and the receptiveness of its customers demonstrate the manifestation of personal identity.
Rule #2: Be Courageous
Dare to be different. Believe in yourself and take calculated risks. Do not obsess about followers. Do your all to better serve them and have the confidence that success shall be yours.
Rule #3: Promote a Lifestyle
Experiential purchases help customers to pursue their aspirations and celebrate distinct lifestyles. Supporting the customers’ emotions will forge a bond between your brand and them.
Rule #4: Listen to Your Customers
Hear out your customers. These are the enthusiastic followers of your brand. Have the strength to take criticism or discontent and create solutions. You can turn the half-hearted followers into fervent believers just by showing them that you were really listening. Starbucks came up with the ‘splash stick’ as a result of the company’s ongoing idea exchange with its clientele.
Rule #5: Support Customer Communities
Build strong, ongoing relationships with your customers by developing and supporting customer communities in order to generate powerful, long-term goodwill. Setting up social events and online forums that reflect your brand’s mission is a promising way to show support and initiative.
Today, Coca Cola has an engaged global community of over 50 million avid evangelists connected through Facebook.
Rule #6: Be Open and Inviting
As a cult brand, do not discriminate. Welcome everyone. You must not exclude those who do not fit the profile of your ideal customer. Your customer will not come in the same packaging everytime.
Rule #7: Promote Personal Freedom
Be empowering. Let your customers feel in control and free to articulate themselves through your brand. Promote the message of self-expression minus the threat of consequences. Harley Davidson, for instance, sells the opportunity to experience feelings of raw freedom disguised as a bike.
The Brand and the customer enjoy a symbiotic or a mutually beneficial relationship. Cult consumers tend to stick with their favored brand over time. They care about what it stands for and what happens to it. They share a purpose with the company and other kindred souls in the cult. And they rave about the brand brilliance to anyone willing to listen.
Cult brands, on the other hand, are driven by powerful ethos and acknowledge appreciation of the loyalists. They adopt the Reverse Branding Model by initiating Brand Marketing strategies from the inside out. These brands are pervasive, inspirational and make genuine efforts to please their customers. They are relatable yet exceptional.
It is not a tough task for the cult brands to draw in the enthusiasts since they are a source of indescribable joy to their customers – the joy of belonging, owning and expressing.
At their core, cult brands are always fun. They make us happy. They uplift our spirits. They cheer us up when we’re down and give us confidence. They help us enjoy life. They not only make us feel better about ourselves, they also give us a temporary escape from the drudgery of everyday life. – Matthew W. Ragas
The future is bright. Even as new brands emerge to claim the mantle, we see established ones gathering a greater cult status. The culture of cults is bound to continue and prosper as long as brands have a host of ardent admirers who are cherished.
Contributed by Ankita Verma (Class of 2009, IBS Hyderabad)