What is a cult brand? And how to build a cult following
Learning how to build a cult following is a number one goal for countless entrepreneurs. After all, if you can inspire a cult-like obsession for your brand and products, you can leverage all the benefits of exceptional brand loyalty and growth. But what does it mean to build a cult brand?
The term “cult” has a few negative connotations, but in the branding world, it’s generally used to express a deep sense of loyalty or commitment to a company. A company with a “cult” following can connect with its audience on a deep emotional level.
Cult brands don’t have to worry about fighting with other organizations for market share because they know they already have a devoted set of followers. Not only do cult brands inspire more loyalty from their customers, but they can generate advocacy too.
“Cult followers” regularly reference the brands they love in conversations, leave glowing reviews online, and encourage others to try the same products and services.
Let’s explore the enduring appeal of the cult brand.
What is a cult following?
What do Starbucks, Apple, LaCroix, and Southwest Airlines share?
They’ve all successfully built their own “cult following.” The term “cult following” typically refers to fans who are highly dedicated to a specific idea, company, or movement.
The term “cult” has been associated with several negative concepts over the years. However, psychology study finds human beings are naturally drawn to “cult” experiences. They offer us a sense of community, comfort, and validation.
Cult followings are common in the media and music world. Artists like Taylor Swift have cultivated a massive cult following over the years. Movies like the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pulp Fiction have inspired similar devotion.
However, virtually any concept can achieve “cult status“. Cults are built around an appreciation or love of a certain idea, vision, or movement.
Apple inspired its cult following by appealing to consumers’ desire for individuality, simplicity, and innovation. Patagonia has appealed to “cult followers” by making consumers feel part of a world-changing movement.
A cult following is simply a group of people who dedicate themselves to a specific concept or entity. They show devotion and love while advocating for the concept whenever they can.
What makes a cult following?
Cults are built on a foundation of deep emotional impact. People don’t just enjoy the products or services sold by a “cult brand”; they view them as an essential part of their lives. Cult brands connect not only to the values and visions of customers but also to their perception of themselves.
For instance, consumers buy Starbucks drinks and upload pictures of them to channels like Instagram because they believe their connection with the brand makes them look hip and fresh.
People pay over-the-odds for clothing from Lululemon because they believe these products make them similar to the fitness gurus and influencers they idolize.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for how to build a cult following, most cult brands and their followers are defined by a few distinct factors:
People like to be perceived as unique and individual. A brand with a “cult status” isn’t just famous; it’s distinguished from the norm. It does something extraordinary.
The brands with the best cult followings appeal to a very distinct group of people. Not just anyone can be part of the crew. They have to have certain values.
Cult brands make people feel like they’re part of a like-minded community focused on a specific set of goals or values.
Cult brands show significant love and appreciation to their audience at all times. They invest in solid and consistent relationships.
Cult brands have a clear belief system, a purpose, and a set of values members of the cult following are expected to uphold.
Cult companies separate themselves from another existing “mass market” solution. Think Mac vs. PC or McDonald’s vs. Wendy’s.
Cult brands have a robust and human personality – something their consumers can connect with on a deeper level.
What is a cult brand? Understanding cult brands
We’ve already begun to answer the question, “what is a cult brand” but this concept can be relatively difficult to understand.
Cult brands are built on a sense of affinity between consumers and the companies they love. Once customers find an organization they resonate with on a deep, emotional, and personal level, they’re more likely to support and advocate for that brand consistently.
This is particularly true among the younger generations. Millennials, currently the biggest buying market in the world, actively look for companies to be loyal to. Around 62% of millennial consumers will prefer to stick to one brand they’ve already developed a relationship with.
Cult brands establish and retain a strong and unique connection with customers. They tap into the deep-seated human desire to not only identify ourselves but connect with other communities of like-minded people.
Is Apple a cult brand?
One good way to understand the nature of a cult brand is to examine some of the existing companies that have achieved cult status over the years. We’ll look at a few additional examples below, but let’s start with one of the best-known cult brands of all: Apple.
Today, Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world, and its consumers are some of the most devoted around. Some people camp for days outside of Apple stores just to get their hands on the latest phone or device.
However, Apple hasn’t always inspired this kind of dedication.
In the 90s, the company’s brand equity was seriously declining. Profits were dropping, and Mac sales had decreased by almost 40%. When Steve Jobs returned to the company to try and fix the problem, he simplified the product design and invested in a new age of marketing.
The brand began positioning itself as the ideal solution for innovative, out-of-the-box thinkers. As a result, it became more appealing to consumers who wanted to be seen as “modern” and unique.
Cult brand examples: What does a cult brand look like?
Cult brands exist in virtually every industry. In the technology landscape, we have Apple. In the food and beverage space, there’s LaCroix and Starbucks. Even the travel industry has Southwest Airlines. This suggests virtually every brand can achieve cult status with the right strategy.
Let’s take a look at some great examples for inspiration.
Southwest Airlines has had ups and downs through the years, like any airline company, but it maintains a compelling cult presence today. Southwest rebranded its organization in 2014 to improve its focus on customer experience and generate positive media attention.
When the company rolled out a PR campaign for its rebrand, it explained it wanted to form a deeper emotional connection with its target audience. The organization began focusing on messages like “without a heart, it’s just a machine.”
The company doesn’t just talk the talk; it delivers on its promises with unique customer service, exceptional services, and cheap fares.
A cheap furniture store might not seem like the ideal foundation for a cult brand, but IKEA has amassed a fantastic following over the years. The company’s vision revolves around building a better “everyday life” for everyone.
To achieve this goal, IKEA constantly learns about what its consumers want.
Design experts are sent to people’s homes to find out what’s important to them and respond to their pain points. The company has even done shopping for furniture in person easier, allowing consumers to stop for some food mid-way through their purchasing experience.
Plus, IKEA allows consumers to build products themselves or have someone else do the work.
An excellent example of a cult brand with a fantastic story, the Girlfriend Collective was launched by Ellie Dinh when she discovered she couldn’t find any environmentally-friendly sportswear. The company started simple, with a basic pair of black leggings, which were often given away for free.
The company’s commitment to giving back to its community earned it thousands of orders from consumers who wanted to show appreciation.
Girlfriend Collective has maintained its cult status by appealing to customers’ demand for more eco-friendly and sustainable products. Consumers can learn all about how each product is made on the Girlfriend Collective website.
This level of transparency creates a powerful foundation of trust, ideal for achieving cult status.
How do you become a cult brand?
Learning how to build a cult following can be complicated. Most “cult followings” aren’t manufactured overnight. They’re developed over time via consistent emotional experiences.
However, if we look at some of the most famous examples of cult brands throughout the years, we can see how they paved the way for their cult status.
Here are some of the critical steps involved in building a cult brand:
1. Have a strong brand story
Stories resonate with people. They help us to see the human beings behind a company and generate emotional connections. For instance, LaCroix built its story around becoming an “alternative” to the common mass-produced water companies like Perrier.
LaCroix wanted to appeal to consumers who didn’t appreciate Perrier’s “snobby” branding, so it positioned itself as a drink for any occasion and any consumer. The company’s story about inclusivity and diversity made it instantly more appealing to a huge range of younger consumers.
Using influencer marketing campaigns, LaCroix was able to build on its narrative and further demonstrate its diversity. When developing your own cult brand, ask yourself what the “purpose” of your company is, and use this to tell a phenomenal story.
2. Have a charismatic leader
Like more worrisome cults, cult brands generally have leaders people want to follow. Cult brands are built on emotional, human connections. People don’t fall in love specifically with the company or product but with the human identity they find within a business.
For instance, Steve Jobs and Apple had such a strong connection many wondered whether Apple would completely fall apart without Jobs as the CEO. Similarly, while Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, has experienced some controversy in recent years, he has also helped to develop an interest in the brand.
For some time, countless people across social media revered Elon Musk as a world-changing leader and innovator. A charismatic leader can make all the difference to a cult brand.
3. Be inspirational
Perhaps above anything else, cult brands are inspirational. They inspire people to buy products and services and live their lives in a certain way. Around 64% of today’s consumers are belief-driven buyers who believe brands should be helping to solve societal problems.
Cult brands like the Girlfriend Collective or Patagonia inspire people to shop with their conscience and encourage others to do the same. They build their entire image around core values, which their consumers typically share.
Cult brands also inspire people to talk about them almost consistently. Starbucks encourages its customers to constantly share pictures of their products on social media and even create their own unique coffee drinks from scratch.
How do you build a cult fan base?
Learning how to build a cult following starts with having an inspirational, story-driven company with an engaging, effective leader. However, perhaps the most critical part of any cult brand is its fan base. To achieve cult status, companies need to develop a community.
The good news is there are various ways to do this in today’s digital world. Companies can build their own dedicated online forums, like the Tesla Engagement Platform, or they can simply reach out to customers consistently through social media.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s cult brand “Goop” even hosts several live multi-day events for followers.
The key to success with cult branding is to make each follower feel like they’re part of a unique club. Returning to the “Starbucks” example, we can see multiple examples of how this company cultivates and maintains its cult fan base.
There’s a “secret menu” specifically designed to make loyal fans of Starbucks feel as though they have access to products other consumers simply can’t access. Followers who know about the secret menu feel special like they have exclusive, insider information.
Starbucks also has its dedicated “rewards system” designed to give back something to its followers.
Each member of this system gets their own dedicated card and app, allowing them to earn points for purchases and leverage unique benefits. For instance, members can access the coveted “red cup” drinks for the festive season earlier than other consumers.
Some of the best ways to build your cult fan base include:
Creating loyalty campaigns
Use loyalty campaigns to show love to your most committed advocates and give them something back in exchange for their support.
Building community environments
Connect with consumers through social media, dedicated forums, newsletters, and blog posts. Make people feel “in the loop.”
Provide consumers with a deep connection to the brand with exclusive benefits and offers to make them feel special.
Turn customers into advocates for your brand by creating referral programs. Reward your customers every time they send a new consumer to your store.
Cult brands need to connect with their community regularly. This could mean hosting events or taking part in ongoing industry experiences.
How do you retain cult status?
Learning how to build a cult following is just the first step. Once a company reaches this target, they also need to find a way of retaining the devotion of its customers. Ultimately, this simply means focusing on making every customer feel as special as possible.
Companies with a cult brand don’t focus all their attention on finding new customers and forget about their existing audience. They celebrate their current customers and focus on building long-lasting, valuable relationships. Zappos is an excellent example of this.
The online shoe store has built its brand around a commitment to customers. The CEO once said the company is a “customer service company,” which also happens to sell shoes.
Zappos is dedicated to supporting its customers in a way that goes above and beyond the efforts of a standard company. For example, the company sent free shoes to a best man who had yet to receive his footwear the day before the wedding.
The company has also sent flowers to bereaved customers and connected constantly with its consumers across social media to hone in on powerful relationships.
Retaining cult status requires companies to:
Show ongoing consistency
Consistency is an integral part of building a good brand, but it’s particularly crucial for cult brands. Consumers want to know they can trust the brand they support to share the same values and deliver the same experiences constantly.
Go beyond the basics
The best cult brands go above and beyond what consumers would typically expect. They treat every customer like a friend or family member, which helps build those extra-powerful relationships so crucial for a cult following.
Do things differently
Cult brands need to think outside of the box consistently. They don’t follow the heard but constantly challenge the status quo, focusing on the values their consumers appreciate. They’re not afraid to be seen as an outlier.
Obsess over your customers
Cult brands don’t just have obsessed customers; they have a customer-obsessed focus on customer service. They champion and support their clients in a way that makes every consumer feel special.
Listen and grow
Because cult brands rely on their customers’ love and appreciation for success, they also need to be willing to listen and adapt. Cult brands aren’t afraid to change and respond to customers’ concerns.
Building your own cult brand
Learning how to build a cult following can be tricky. Cult brands often take years to achieve their highly sought-after status. It isn’t easy to inspire deep devotion from an audience within just a couple of days – particularly now that the market is so competitive.
However, developing a cult brand’s components might not be as complicated as it seems. On a basic level, cult brands are defined by their strong connection to their audience.
They understand what their customers want and ensure their solutions and services align with consumer values. Cult brands treat every customer as precious while setting themselves apart from the status quo with meaningful movements and innovation.
Building a cult brand isn’t easy; maintaining cult status can be even more challenging. However, if you can successfully inspire a cult following, the results for your business can be astronomical.
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