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The Psychology of Cult Branding: How to convert your customers into your tribe

Who in marketing, or business in general for that matter, wouldn’t want to master the art of cult branding?

Really, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

However, to do this successfully first you need to understand what cults and brands actually are, and how and why they came together in the first place.

So, with this in mind, let’s start with cults.

What are they?

In essence, a cult is simply a group of people bound together in the devoted, often fanatic, worship of the same thing — usually a religion or belief system.

Cults seem to exist because us humans appear to have a fundamental need to be together, to ‘belong’ to something, and to find meaning in the ‘strangeness’ of the world and universe we inhabit.

Pretty straightforward, right?

Brands, on the other hand, are arguably a little more complex to define. But to keep things straightforward here let’s just say they are a something i.e. a company, product, service or person with a unique and distinctive sign, symbol or design that singles them out as being ‘real’, ‘authentic’ and ‘different’.

Just like cults, brands have existed for hundreds if not thousands of years, but they really rose to prominence during the industrial revolution when goods started to be mass-produced in factories and then rapidly transported all over the place.

Understandably, things have changed a lot since those early days of mass production. Back then brands were all about proving ownership, showing authenticity, locality, and signalling standards of quality and craftsmanship.

But that’s no longer really the case. In fact, according to marketing guru Douglas Atkins, an expert in consumers, branding, and the psychology of cults:

‘All that has changed…because the producer is not king; the consumer is’. Click To Tweet

How and when did this happen? Atkins argues things started to change when the domestic markets became saturated with more and more products and supply began to far exceed demand.

Over time this shifted the balance of power from the producer to the consumer, and this has resulted in far more competition between brands than ever before.

But if cult branding is so important in the modern era of conspicuous consumerism, how does one go about making the transformation?

To help you answer this question, here are 8 top tips you’ll need to consider if you want to give your brand — no matter how big or small — that sexy ‘cult’ status star factor:

1. Create an awesome ‘Badge of Success’

Think of any cult brand and it will invariably have an eye-catching (and often hugely symbolic) logo. Click To Tweet

Alongside this, more often than not, they will also have a memorable name and beautifully crafted slogan or mission statement.

If you don’t believe me just close your eyes right now and think of Apple, Disney, Nike, Coca-Cola, Virgin or Starbucks.

See what I mean?

What is crucial to understand here is a bit of psychology 101.

People today buy ‘stuff’ to fill the huge emotional vacuum which was once satisfied by institutions such as strong family units, the church and other cohesive non-commercial entities that acted as a societal glue and brought people together.

As a consequence, the function of the brands ‘logo’ is now far more than simply a ‘mark indicating quality’, instead it acts as a symbol that we subconsciously decode into a carefully constructed company image.

For the cult brand, having the ‘right’ expectation connected to their brand identity is absolutely vital.

2. Get the right people on board right at the start

In essence, a cult brand is not really about the product but the people behind the product. Click To Tweet

It’s about their attitude and ethos, vision and leadership. It’s about how they train and support their people from the start, and how these people are valued and their talents nurtured.

That’s what makes the big difference.

The brand flows seamlessly through these different elements and reflects them onto the consumer’s ego as an idea, attitude and way of life.

So when someone buys their brand they are buying into a like-minded community with a mutual set of values where they feel respected and ‘at home’.

Furthermore, when consumers buy that brand they are also making a big statement to the rest of the world about who they are, what tribe they belong to and what is fundamentally important to them.

3. Utilise the power of the grapevine

Advertising and marketing today are evolving at an incredibly fast pace.

The old paradigms are shifting on an almost daily basis and as a consequence yesteryear’s approaches are simply no longer as effective as they once were.

In today’s multimedia ever-expanding digital age, consumers are savvier than ever and brand awareness needs to be smart, original and ahead of the curve to keep on their right side and make sure the all-important ‘word of mouth’ recommendations that people 100% trust flow in abundance.

Sure, there is still a place for traditional mediums but they need to be aligned and compatible with the new emerging ones.

4. Take advantage of the opposition

A good cult brand is a community, and all communities have ways of setting themselves apart as distinct, different and special.

This not only acts as a further unifying force but provides an opportunity to polarise itself against something seemingly existing on the opposite side of whatever spectrum they represent.

You can see this principle clearly at work with the dynamic between say Apple v’s Microsoft, Virgin Atlantic v’s British Airways or Starbucks v’s Dunkin’ Donuts!

The key here is to successfully identify the niche your ‘soon to be’ cult brand occupies and find a suitable counterpoint to push and leverage itself against for maximum effect. Click To Tweet

Like sails using the wind for navigation, or a bird or plane using air current for flight.

5. Learn how to make ‘Love Bombs’

It is widely known that cults successfully employ the practice of ‘Love Bombing’ i.e. influencing an individual’s behaviour in a calculated fashion by lavishing attention and affection upon them.

It is actually fairly easy for a brand manager (whose role incidentally is now also like that of a community leader) to positively recreate something similar simply by always employing people who instinctively know how to look after people properly and make them feel relaxed, valued and part of something bigger.

After all, who doesn’t want to feel valued and important?

6. Be consistent 100% of the time. Every time!

To be a successful cult brand it is crucial that you get this one right.

No matter where you are in the world, or what medium or sense you are experiencing it through, the experience should always be consistent.

Sure, there might be some minor cultural flexibility required and so forth but essentially the values, core beliefs, rituals and even shared ‘group’ language should all be steady and true in order to maintain the brand’s unique meaning system through which the consumer identifies and sees the world.

7. Be authentic, honest and never imitate

When someone really buys into a cult brand they usually make a big financial investment and emotional commitment. Click To Tweet

For this reason, it is absolutely crucial that this is paid back to them in full by the people responsible for managing and overseeing that brand.

Failure to do so can lead to it breaking apart very quickly.

When Gerald Ratner of the British jewellery company Ratners gave his now infamous derogatory “…because it’s total crap” speech in 1991 he almost instantly wiped off ₤500 million from the value of the company and led to its eventual downfall.

Basically, in an unguarded moment he catastrophically revealed his antipathy towards the company’s products and in effect its customers….not unsurprisingly they fled in droves.

The same thing was also true of Anita Roddick of The Body Shop fame. When the facts about her cult status company’s real origins and the dubious source of some of her ingredients came to light, it was seen as a big breach of trust.

Naturally, this not only had severe negative repercussions for the business but also put a damper on many of her ground-breaking achievements, her legacy and on her contribution to society as a whole.

8. Stand out from the pack (in a good way)

Let’s be honest here, not many brands are really that much different from their closest rivals.

The key here then is to play on the strengths of whatever it is that makes yours different (and hopefully much better). To do this you first have to identify your brands ‘X Factor’ i.e. that extra special thing you give to your customers.

It may be your attention to detail and design or perhaps your ethical position on a certain key issue, but whatever it is, find it and capitalise on it to the absolute max!


Whether or not you think your brand will be the next Apple, Beyonce or Coca-Cola, thinking about it in terms of developing a benign cult appeal is a really great idea. For one thing, it will be a good point of reference for future marketing strategies, plus it will make you think about the brand, who your loyal customers are and what you can give back to them in return.

It will also allow you the opportunity to nurture a sense of community and belonging between your product and the people who you want to invest in it!

There are many other important factors and strategies we could mention in this continuously evolving and complex field. Areas such as consumerism, religion, technology, design and even the psychology of addiction all clearly play a role to some degree in brand creation too. Plus, to complicate things even further, branding is also an art as well as a science, so personal expression and some level of relativism may also need to be considered.

What are your thoughts on cult branding? What would you add into the mix?

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