Cult Brands

A cult is a religion with no political power.
Tom Wolfe

Cults are good in the context of marketing, though not so much in real life. Religions are slightly more respectable, though each views the others as large cults. Yet the mechanics of cults, religions and matters of faith are informative in shaping a corporate brand.

The difference between fanbois and followers is thin.

In the early iPhone era, Apple customers were called a cult. Early adopters of iPhones were evangelical to the point of annoying. Regardless of personal motivation, iPhone fans fawned and proselytized the new portable computer. While their numbers were small and their zeal was large, the cult moniker was apropos. With relatively no market (political) power, the iPhone faithful were as bedeviling as Jehovah’s door knockers.

Today, iEverything is a religion because the masses have adopted most, and sometimes all of the doctrine.

Cults, religions and brand loyalty are all based on faith. Granted, good products build faith through experience, but it remains an article of faith about the value delivered by the product. To build brand religion requires first cultivating a brand cult, then establishing enduring doctrine concerning core values. It is impossible to leap from and unbranded product to a brand religion without first forming a brand cult.

Attempting it will brand you as a false prophet, and we know what happens to those folks.

Harley Davidson is an example. For whatever reasons, post WWII soldiers lacking domestic thrills rivaling shooting Nazis sought motorcycles, whiskey and women. These were the early bikers, who were positively tame compared to today’s MC members. They preferred Harleys and no “real” biker would be caught riding a Triumph or Indian, and mentioning Honda, Yamaha or Kawasaki with reverence would get you beaten. Thus, images of people who shunned societal conventions and lived on the wild side were Harley’s first cult. This cult image was amplified when the American Motorcycle Association claimed that 99% of all motorcyclists were law-abiding citizens and the “real” bikers started calling themselves the one-percenters.

Later in history, aging baby boomers who could afford a Harley without spending their kid’s college fund donned biker garb and hit the highway. These Rolex Riders expanded the Harley brand cult into brand religion. Yet potbellied CPAs would never have given Harleys a second glance had not the mystique of the one-percenter cult driven the Harley brand image.

The marketing strategy here is tricky, but if you understand the brand-cult-religion progression, it is manageable and can be expedited. New products often have identifiable early adopters who are anxious to promote your wares. Identifying all their drivers — but most importantly the values that have deep emotional bases — is your starting point. Cull from the short list of deeply emotive cultish motivations those that appeal to the wider population. These become the core values of your brand. Saint Peter may have preached many things, but saw that the doctrine of a loving God was more marketable than the ornery fellow found in the Old Testament.

Peter found the common value that took Christianity from a cult into a religion.

Brand religion is the marketing strategist’s Holy Grail. To obtain that blessed state you must cultivate your cult, find what the fanatics have in common that also applies to the wider population … and pray.


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