Rife with sex, deception, corruption and tragedy, stories of cults are equally concerning and captivating. The extreme beliefs cults perpetuate – and extreme believers cults attract – provide an endless source of intrigue. The more salacious the details, the greater our fascination. When you hear about women being branded with their “leader’s” initials, the grisly slaying of a pregnant movie star and her unborn child, men surgically castrating themselves or people throwing back cyanide-laced Kool-Aid with over 900 of their “friends”, you have to wonder—what kind of a person gets mixed up in that?
The answer is: somebody just like you. Contrary to popular belief, it’s been shown that cult members tend to be well educated, psychologically normal, and come from stable, loving, middle-class backgrounds. It’s a terrifying thought…unless of course you’re a marketer.
The insight that normal folks like you, me or your neighbour Joe can become so deeply and enthusiastically committed to a leader or cause is a compelling one. It might seem a little creepy that some marketers are peppering their playbooks with cult theory, but look to the thousands of people who hunker down in sleeping bags on the (arguably quite filthy) streets of New York City every time a new iPhone is released and you’ll understand where they’re coming from. Beyond moving a lot of product, at the premium prices such well-loved brands can command, cult brands benefit from numerous other perks. Chief among these is customer loyalty in the extreme. Your customers don’t just like your brand—they adore it, they worship it. They are fans of nearly everything you do, eagerly await new releases and rarely, if ever, consider straying to competitors’ offerings. Of course, when people love something this much, they’re bound to gab about it to anybody who’ll listen, making your customers your biggest advocates and, effectively, an unpaid sales force.
They’re also emotionally invested in your brand and have a sincere desire to help you succeed. Given the opportunity, they will gladly share their valuable experiences and insights to help you find new ways to innovate, improve and market your products. If you make some mistakes along the way, no worries, your biggest fans trust and care about you enough to stick with you through some ups and downs. They may even help defend your honour if you’re going through a rough patch. Cult brands also attract the best and brightest employees who are motivated and culturally aligned to do great work and deliver exceptional customer experiences. Externally, cult brands are media darlings who garner tons of free publicity by being the poster children for good business and for being at the centre of social and IRL trends. Cult brands across every industry have mastered the art of building meaningful, long-term relationships with their customers. Brands as diverse as Tom’s Shoes, IKEA, Martha Stewart, LEGO, and the veritable religion that is Oprah have enjoyed their cult status for years, with no signs of defection. And all without overt mind-control, blackmail or pharmaceutical manipulation . As far as we know. So then how?
Cults – and their leaders – tap into universal human needs and desires for such things as attachment, security and belonging. But creating a cult (or a cult-like following) isn’t about assembling an army of identical, like-minded drones. Interestingly, cults are built on the paradox that we feel most like ourselves when we’re part of a group, says Douglas Atkin, marketing expert and Global Head of Community at Airbnb. “The common belief is that people join cults to conform,” Atkin wrote. “Actually, the very opposite is true. They join to become more individual.”
The enigmatic task of modern marketers – we’re going to assume that we’re speaking to you, not to aspiring Jim Joneses – is to find ways to serve this contradictory human need to be unique and to be part of a group at the same time. Atkin spent years researching both full-blown cults as well as companies that use cult-branding techniques to write his seminal work on the subject, The Culting of Brands, in 2004. He interviewed countless cult members to find out what makes them tick and explains how cult brands make their customers feel unique, important, and part of an exclusive group—and how that leads to solid, long-term relationships between a company and its customers. This powerful sense of community is one thing actual cults and cult brands have in common, and it’s no accident. Cult Collective, a marketing engagement agency in Calgary, points out in their ‘8 Points to Become a Cult Brand’ manifesto that cult-minded leaders seek out creative ways for their fans to assemble together. Whether it’s supporting third party-initiated activations or developing desirable destinations for followers to partake in elevated branded experiences, they make it easy for followers to gather and revel in their togetherness. For the Reverend Jim Jones that meant taking his followers to Guyana, while for many modern brands it means taking the experience online, often in an engagement or co-creative community.
Today, People often opt to interact (and transact) with brands that bring value into their lives by providing entertainment, helping their customers do something better, making them smarter, or boosting their happiness. People engage with brands that make their lives better in some way and empower or enable them to achieve personal goals or project a particular image. Many brands are utilizing online communities to facilitate this two-way engagement. And it isn’t so different from what most cults promise—it’s just less sinister.
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Cult Collective outlines other ways leading brands can leverage cult theory including creating ‘insider’ rites and rituals, personifying human attributes and bringing a relatable persona to life across all phases of the customer journey, and using co-creation to solicit input, gain actionable insights and amplify word of mouth. All things that branded online communities are exceptionally good at facilitating.
Brands may even weave in other tactics like “love bombing”, the term originally coined by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church to describe the process of showering prospective recruits with attention. Would-be Moonies are seduced through courtship-like tactics such as weekend retreats, shared meals, deep conversations, flattery and affection. Over time, this trains their brains to associate the cult with love and acceptance. Pimps and gang leaders use similar techniques to gain loyalty and obedience. On a different street corner altogether, the popular millennial-geared sparkling water brand La Croix is all about the love and attention. Through an impressively proactive Instagram strategy, the brand grew its followers from 4,000 to 30,000 over just 8 months in 2015. Today it has 180,000 followers. LaCroix is generous with their attention, reacting or responding to anyone who tags the brand or comments about LaCroix—no matter their number of followers. They are said to aim for 100% consumer involvement by acknowledging and responding to fans on a daily basis. Post a great photo and they might even gift you a case of Peach-Pear. They regularly target micro-influencers with free products and other perks in exchange for featuring LaCroix in lifestyle images.
As much as we may want to believe that cult-think and fanatical behaviour are relegated to the fringes of society, it’s really a much more natural and normal human inclination.
Although cults have gained notoriety through tragedy and scandal, the intrinsic human needs they tap into aren’t inherently problematic. We know that all people crave connection, acceptance and a sense of belonging: the stuff of close-knit families.
Ultimately, brands can benefit from creating this kind of supportive, tribe-like atmosphere in which mutually beneficial relationships can develop and loyalty can flourish. An online community may be just the ticket. But remember – the goal is to create a family, not The Manson Family.