Marketing Strategies of Cult-Brands


We are a society that is addicted to being followers.

In undertaking our habituation, we follow the lifestyles of our favorite social media accounts, we follow our favorite sports teams through their victories and defeats, and we buy the same products that our friends have. In an increasingly homogeneous world, we enjoy standing out among the crowd and do this through the brands and products that we buy into. These companies have found a way to deeply satisfy our human needs of belonging and instill a sense of individuality within us. Without realizing it, these products and services become a part of our identity that begin to signal who we are among the masses. In trend with our consumption habits, the brands and products that we identify with don’t just take our money- they take our fellowship. In doing this they amass large, cult-like followings of dedicated consumers. In analyzing these brands I’m looking to find the systematic approaches that they achieve to sustain their high level of consumer loyalty. Companies can have great success in profitable growth with strategies and operational features, but there is a distinction from companies who have repeat customers and the companies whose consumers sip their metaphorical Kool-Aid, turning them into lifelong believers.

Using the word “cult” in a business setting can be alarming, especially for individuals who are already skeptical about marketing tactics and their potential to brainwash a consumer. Benjamin Zablocki is a sociologist who has been studying cults for much of his career. He defines brainwashing as, “An observable set of transactions between a charismatically-structured collectivity and an isolated agent of the collectivity with the goal of transforming the agent into a deployable agent” (Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field).

Photo by Kayleigh.

This means that a figure of authority leading the cultic group would restructure the socialization and ideology patterns of an individual in hopes that they would recruit others into joining the group. This doesn’t sound too different than a consumer who loves their iPhone and highly suggests it to their family and friends, ultimately getting them to become iPhone users too. The difference between these recruitment methods is that one is destructive to the individual while the other is benign. There is a clear difference between a group of Star-Trek enthusiasts at a convention and the group of followers historically seen at Jonestown. Cult-brands are benign and offer a sense of community to other like-minded individuals. Benign cults are recognized as a mutually beneficial relationship with leaders and followers where both receive a sense of satisfaction from the relationship. They aren’t destructive or pose a risk of harm for the individuals who follow them.

The apparent harmlessness of these cult-brands can still be in question, especially in the ways that they motivate us to buy. Think about a time when you were younger and you wanted to ask your parents for something: money, to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover, or maybe buying something from a store. You probably knew your parents well enough to know exactly how to get what you wanted by asking them the right way, and in the right frame of mind. If your dad just came home from work tired and irritable, you knew that asking him for an advance on your allowance would yield a disgruntled “no”. So, you waited until dad settled into his favorite seat on the couch, watching his favorite show, after having a bite to eat. When you ask dad then, your odds of getting what you want are greater because you waited for an opportunity where he was in the right frame of mind to say yes.

$5 mixed bouquet vendor strategically placed in front of a jewelry store. Seen in Downtown Crossing, MA. Photo by Kayleigh.

Cult-brands know us well enough to have learned when we’re most likely to say yes to buying their products or services, but they also know how to create the right frame of mind for us to say yes. Depending on your epistemological beliefs, this could be interpreted as manipulation. If a company can shape a consumer’s mental attitude to motivate a consumer to buy but doesn’t deliver on their end, this is manipulation. If a company creates or waits for the right temperament of a consumer to a time when their most likely to buy and does deliver on their end, this is propositioning. Like the child who waited for their dad to become relaxed before asking for something they wanted, cult-brands know when to sell us things and how to deliver them in a way that we want.

It’s estimated that an average consumer will see approximately 5,000 advertisements throughout a single day, but certainly we don’t buy or feel connected to each of these brands that are being advertised to us. In the article “How to Evoke Consumer Motivation Through Strategic Delivery of the Brand Story and Promise” it opens with the quote,

“Marketers sell the drill. Consumers buy the hole”.

It goes on to explain how our human emotions are what make us the most receptive to the communication that brands facilitate with their consumers. Surprisingly, facts about a brand rarely motivate us to buy. Instead of boring us with information, cult-brands focus on feelings and emotions to develop new ways to fit into our lives. Brand stories are a powerful tool that many businesses use to get consumers to deeply believe in their products and services. offered a description of what a brand story should be, writing, “A brand story is a cohesive narrative that encompasses the facts and feelings that are created by your brand (or business, if you prefer). Unlike traditional advertising, which is about showing and telling about your brand, a story must inspire an emotional reaction”. All companies have narratives around their brands whether they created them or not. These narratives come from their consumers based on the experiences they’ve had with the brand, both positive and negative. Imagine a popular, local coffee shop that doesn’t spend much money on advertising. They’re popular because everyone in the area knows that they have, “the best scones in town”. This kind of narrative builds a story around the brand and attracts a higher volume of customers from positive word of mouth. What your customers say about your brand carries more value than the products you sell, the price you sell them at, or even your brands purpose. It’s important to build an engaging brand story that shares what your values are in an authentic way.

Patagonia has a rich history with building brand stories that tap into the businesses core philosophies. In 2013, Patagonia released a thirty minute video called, “Worn Wear” that supports their Worn Wear program that offers tips and tricks to customers on how to repair their old apparel. The program also buys back gently used clothing which is then repaired and sold at a lower price on their website. It seems counter-intuitive to have a campaign that encourages a clothing company to have consumers repair their old clothes instead of buying new ones, but this campaign has only made Patagonia more successful. In the autobiography of his life and the life of his company, the founder and owner of Patagonia Inc., Yvon Chouinard stresses,

“It would take seven earths for the rest of the world to consume at the same rate we Americans do. Ninety percent of what we buy in a mall ends up in the dump within sixty to ninety days. It’s no wonder we are no longer called citizens but consumers.” (Let My People Go Surfing)

Worn Wear was conceived through these exact sentiments, speaking to the importance of reducing our consumption as consumers.

In the video, it introduces Christo Grayling, a Patagonia evangelist who was attracted to the cult-brand as a like minded individual. Grayling lovingly shows off a pair of Patagonia board shorts that he thrifted at a second-hand shop. Since owning them, he has repaired them several times, once even by sewing in material from an old beach umbrella. “When I think of how many user-days, well in excessive of 1,200 user days, well, and I think it’s probably costed me less than a cent a use” Grayling said about the experience he has had with the board shorts. When consumers begin to account the worth of a garment by its lived experiences, that speaks as a testimonial to the impact of a brand story. Patagonia has instilled within their following that their clothes have a kindred spirit, that it’s the kind of stuff you can reach for when you fall.

Patagonia brand stories successfully led consumers in conversations beyond their apparel and into bigger conversations about the environment, ethics, and philosophy. Faithfulness in Patagonia transcended their buyers into cult-brand evangelists, or dedicated followers who personally identify with the brand in a myriad of ways. Cult-brands have specific ways of developing their most faithful cohorts and it starts by targeting your already loyal customers. Brands must listen and react to the wants and needs of consumers who are already attracted to the brand and should turn their suggestions into a reality. Many evangelists that sing in the choir of their cult-brands want a customer-community, a place to practice their faith. The book, The Power of Cult Branding, believes that church-like focal points are an important way for cult-brands to revitalize the brands faithful consumers.

In 1982 the motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson began a grassroots club that would further connect the brand to their consumers lifestyles. The Harley Owners Group, or H.O.G., was focused on turning their current riders into members through structuring H.O.G. chapters all over the country.

My dad at the Bike Week Rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Probably 1994.

This was widely successful among their customers because they were now members of a community where they could share their stories, meet one another, and schedule group rides. Seeing the success of these chapters, Harley-Davidson further capitalized on the customer-communities through mega Bike Week gatherings across the country. Rallies are held in New Hampshire, South Dakota, Florida and Nevada at different times of the year and draw thousands of riders and tourists from the surrounding areas.  Harley-Davidson uses these rallies as a time to celebrate their followers with unveiling new bikes and accessories, some letting members ride and try out the new motorcycles. Before building these customer-communities, Harley-Davidson was almost in financial ruin. H.O.G. was a way for the company to give back to their community to reward their best customers and excite a new generation of riders.

Being a part of a customer-community can feel exclusive, a human response to belonging and feeling as though you’re a part of something. We feel cool ordering drinks off the secret menu at Starbucks, or having a product that none of our friends could get their hands on. Customers feel deeply satisfied knowing that they’re part of the in-crowd. Although almost all cult-brands are inclusive, some take advantage of being an elite brand to help develop an aspiration that soon becomes ownership. American journalist Christopher Morley was quoted saying,

“There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning and yearning”.

Individuals are constantly made to feel as though they were part of a select audience for these exclusive memberships or exclusive offers, while the reality is they’re being bated with social currency.

The in-crowd. Photo by Kayleigh.

These well-crafted messages of exclusivity make consumers feel like the elite brand that they’re buying into will help them achieve their desired impressions and fulfill dreams. In some instances, having an elite social identity detracts from having a positive user experience. Saul McLeod writes about Henri Tajfel’s social identity theory asserting, “Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image. The central hypothesis of social identity theory is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image”. This in-group and out-group idea can be seen across a variety of different brands, like iPhones versus Android phones, or a Mac versus a PC. Each product is comparable with a variety of similarities, but the culture around being an Apple user is much more elite. In the book, Inside Apple, author Adam Lashinsky writes, “Apple thought of itself as more stylish than the beige world of Wintel PCs – the powerful combination of Windows software powered by Intel chips. Even after it regained its record for success, Apple retained the aloof, and often arrogant, bearing of an outsider”. CNBC claims that sixty-four percent of all Americans now own an Apple product, with an average of 2.6 Apple products per household. For a company whose central theme seemed to be organized around exclusivity, more than half of all Americans own one of their products. To remain elite, Apple continues to seemingly innovate their way to new products and features that leave their followers wanting more. It’s not enough to have an iPhone, you must have the latest iPhone. Oppositely, Apple can be identified as a very inclusive brand. Like all good cult-brands, Apple followers have diverse backgrounds that reach all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Apple doesn’t sell phones or laptops, it sells tools for connection that help to fulfill the passions and self-empowerment of their customers. A child feels masterly when they defeat a game they’re playing on their iPad, while grandma feels fun and ageless talking to her grandchildren on FaceTime. Rather than create specific customer personas to target, cult-brands are inclusive to all individuals and aim to fulfill the deep human need of connection that we all share.

Photo by Kayleigh.

A way that cult-brands needle their way into our lifestyles is through the psychology of fulfillment. Psychologist Abraham Maslow developed a series of values called “B-values” that help humans to realize personal growth and assist them in finding ways to utilize their full potential. Included in the B-values are truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness, aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, completion, justice, simplicity, richness, effortless, playfulness and self-sufficiency. Cult-brands utilize these values in different ways to better understand what their consumer values. Having an insight to what a consumer would or would not value can give cult-brands a competitive advantage over their counterparts. H.O.G. chapters embrace the values of uniqueness and aliveness, as they ride together on the same brand of motorcycle. Visitors to Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville identify with a playfulness that becomes their state of mind upon arriving. Consumers of Manolo Blahnik shoes crave the values of beauty and perfection. Melanie Wells wrote about the cult-brand in Forbes, insisting,
Photo by sunny yoyo via Flickr.

“What, besides cult-like devotion, accounts for the appeal of shoe designer Manolo Blahnik

[Manolo Blahnik], whose creations sell for as much as $3,400 a pair?

‘Once you get addicted, it’s hard to buy anything else,’ says Kim Kassel, a former New York fashion publicist who owns more than 100 pairs of Blahnik shoes.

Blahnik, 58, sounds a bit mystified. ‘Sometimes,’ he says, ‘I’m not able to understand all this madness and love’”.

Maslow also offered that these values are a way for individuals to temporarily escape during the self-actualization process. When cult-brands can transcend their followers into temporary escapism, it’s an invigorating experience compared to the nuances of everyday life. When these ideas and values marinate together within the consumer, the cult-brand has successfully begun to introduce that individual into their unique social group where they begin to feel as though they’re apart from the crowd.

Many companies have similarities in the products or services that they sell but cult-brands begin to differentiate themselves immediately within their marketplace. Cult-brands don’t create a reactive business strategy based on what their competitors do, they carve out a unique strategy all their own. These companies find untapped market spaces with unmet needs and create what are known as “blue oceans”.

Photo by Kayleigh.

To best understand blue oceans, one should first look at red oceans. Imagine an ocean filled with hungry sharks and only one food source. Presumably, each shark would fight its hardest to get a bite of the prey, leaving the surrounding waters red and bloody. No one shark is a true winner if each shark only got in a nibble, a single bite would not satisfy a hungry shark. This concept applied to business is known as a red ocean. The ocean is market space, the sharks are companies, and the prey is the product they’re trying to sell within the market. The constant competition red oceans face in their saturated market spaces show a shrinking demand for the product and a lack of profit for the brands. Contrasting the crowded red ocean, blue oceans are an ecosystem all their own. The authors of the book, Blue Ocean Strategy, wrote, “Blue oceans, in contrast, are defined by untapped market space, demand creation, and the opportunity for highly profitable growth…In blue oceans, competition is irrelevant because the rules of the game are waiting to be set” (Blue Ocean Strategy). Cult-brands use competition-based strategic thought to sail away from the red oceans to challenge the existing market with new innovations. An example of a cult-brand that developed a successful product through blue ocean strategy is [yellow tail] wine. While Jesus was crafting wine made from water, [yellow tail] was busy swimming out of the cabernet sauvignon soaked red ocean of the existing wine industry. There was a time when Americans thought that wine was unapproachable and pretentious, not having a palate for the complexity of its many flavors. Drinkers instead turned to beer, cocktails and spirits to avoid the prestige of drinking wine. Casella Wines, an Australian winery, used the blue ocean strategy of the four actions framework to create a wine that was fun and easy to drink. Relative to the wine industry, the business model follows:

Photo by Brian Auer via Flickr.
  • Which of the factors that the industry takes for granted should be eliminated?
  • Which factors should be reduced well below the industry’s standard?
  • Which factors should be raised well above the industry’s standard?
  • Which factors should be created that the industry has never offered? (Blue Ocean Strategy)

In assessing and finding solutions to each of these questions, [yellow tail] wine created a new value curve for the wine industry. Without traditional advertising or promotion, [yellow tail] began to out compete well known wine brands from all over the world. It created a new market for casual consumer wines that made it easy for drinkers who would have been otherwise apprehensive to drink wine, to drink [yellow tail]. “Casella Wines created three new factors in the U.S. wine industry – easy drinking, easy to select, and fun and adventure – and eliminated or reduced everything else” wrote Blue Ocean Strategy. Though cult-brands know the power of listening to their customer-communities and creating products or events based on their wants and needs, sometimes they can’t imagine the unimaginable. Cult-brands take matters into their own hands through innovating new goods and experiences. Not only does innovation benefit the brand and their consumers, but has the ability to shape society as a whole.

Cult-brands have become more than just businesses selling their products, they’ve become creators of a human experience. They evoke a high level of emotional resonance where their followers can’t wait to share their experience with friends and family.

It’s the surfer who fixed his board shorts with an umbrella, it’s letting your hair down at Margaritaville, it’s as simple as a glass of wine.

These companies have aimed to create lasting impressions on their consumers, helping them to transform consciousness into self-actualization. Cult-brands have identified the highest set of human needs and made them visible within their companies. Their goods and services have a clear advantage in use with benefits that outperform their competitors. They create design encounters that are simple and intuitively obvious, where the products are learned not through instruction, but through experience. Cult-brands instill unique identities into their followers and develop empathetic connections to go through time with them. Maybe it’s not the products or services that have made cult-brands so successful, but knowing how to adapt to our varying needs understanding that as the world changes, so must they.


Citations and special thanks found here.