What Can Businesses Learn From Cults?

On March 19th and 20th, 1997, 39 people drank a mixture of apple sauce, vodka and lethal doses of phenobarbital (seizure medication), shortly before tying plastic bags around their heads.

The 39 bodies were discovered in identical shirts, trousers and Nike sports shoes, with exactly $5.75 in their pockets.

But, why did they do it?

The group, known as ‘Heaven’s Gate’ believed that the only way they could reach ‘the next level’ and be taken to another world by UFO’s was to ‘abandon their human bodies’.

To any level-headed person, this sounds totally absurd, but to somebody who understands how cult followings begin, and then escalate, it’s perfectly understandable.

What Is a Cult?

The word instantly evokes imagery of people in white gowns, praising a man who calls himself the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, but the truth is, cults are all around us. And I bet that somewhere in your life, you’re part of one too.

The dictionary defines a cult as being, ‘a person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society’.

(I hate dictionary definitions, but please let me off this one time!)

Are you an avid fan/follower of a particular sports team? Musician? Fashion label? Food company? Car manufacturer? Celebrity?

I’m guessing that you probably are (if not, you’re most-likely part of a cult following in a different area of your life!)

And I can guarantee, that the root of your ‘cult following’ is exactly the same as everyone else’s. Shortly, I’m going to share that reason, and explain how you can apply it to your business (hopefully, without the mass suicides)…

…but first, let’s discuss the benefits of ‘cult branding’.

Cult Branding Benefits

Brands with cult followings have incredibly loyal customers. That means a wave of seriously cool advantages:

  • Low (to zero) price sensitivity- you’re able to increase prices, without seeing sales fall.
  • Snowball advertising- your customer base promotes and shares your brand for you.
  • Forgiveness- your mistakes are easily forgotten, both large-scale public errors, and individual lapses.
  • Zero Competition- every industry has its competitors, but a cult brand’s customer base will not look at a competitors products. In fact, they often see it as a betrayal.
  • Increased sales- as a result of all of the above.

To put it simply, by creating a cult brand, you’ll be free from price-wars, competitors product releases, bad reviews killing your company, excessive marketing spend AND, you’ll make more money.

This cult branding thing doesn’t sound too bad, eh?

The Common Denominator

To understand what cult brands all have in common, let’s take a look at a few:

  • Apple(the world’s first company to be valued at $1 trillion) cultivates a MASSIVE cult following. All of their products only seem to work with each other, and they often require add-on purchases, but despite this, they’ve become the biggest technology business in the world.
  • Harley-Davidsonthey manufacture motorcycles, no different to Honda, Suzuki, Ducati and Yamaha, and yet, there’s a different aura around them. Harley’s bikes are more expensive, and (sometimes) more cumbersome for day-to-day use, but that doesn’t matter to their customers. They’re happy to pay more, for a less suitable product.
  • IKEA again, these guys are just a furniture company based out of Sweden, and yet, people love them so much, that they decorate their entire houses like IKEA showrooms. Many of their neighbours have the exhaTact same furnishings, but this still doesn’t stop IKEA’s huge cult following doing the same.
  • GoProat their simplest level, GoPro produce cameras that attach to the body, but to their customers they’re so much more than that. Their technology has been ripped off by plenty of pretenders at much lower prices, but still, they continue to grow. In 2013 they raised their marketing spend to $91,000 (from $50,000), and saw an income jump of $28 million.

So, now you’ve seen some examples of brands with cult-followings, can you tell what they all have in common?

Is it their advertising? Product range? Target market? Customer service? Marketing strategies?

Nope.

The secret is this:

Cult brands do not sell products. They sell lifestyles.

Can you see the lifestyle in every single one of those brands? None of them sell similar products or target the same markets, and yet, they’ve all been able to turn their product range into lifestyle choices. And, when their customers are in, THEY’RE REALLY IN.

How to Sell Lifestyles Like a Cult!

Separation

The first stepping-stone is separation. You must pinpoint a norm, consistent theme or sense of establishment in your industry, and then go against it.

People love to rebel against the system, and when that aligns with their beliefs, they quickly become avid fans.

Apple’s mantra, ‘think different’ has helped them become viewed as a ‘creative company’, whilst the other big-hitters in the industry, like IBM, Toshiba and Dell, are almost seen as just another boring computer company. All of these brands create computers, and yet, Apple have been able to separate themselves from the rest.

Exclusivity

You want everybody who purchases to stay as repeat customers, right? The best way to do that is to make your brand feel exclusive. In other words, you must create barriers to entry.

When people find it difficult to achieve a specific result (e.g. buy an IKEA bed), they value it so much more when it’s achieved. This creates a group-like effect on those who’ve achieved it, because they all relate to the same adversities.

IKEA have just 19 stores in the entire UK, and only 413 stores Worldwide. That means, the majority of us have to commit to a long journey just to get to their store! It would’ve been easy for them to open smaller stores in more locations, but they haven’t. If you want in on the IKEA club, you’re (probably) going to have to take a long drive.

Harley Davidson also take advantage of the exclusivity factor. The only people who can join their lifestyle club, are those that’ve bought their (very expensive) motorbikes. You can’t join the Harley club if you’ve got a matching hat and keyring. And you certainly can’t join one of their motorcycle clubs on a Yamaha.

Learn more about exclusivity on our Northern Lights Article.

Love

Now that the ‘club’ or ‘cult’ feel is starting to grow amongst your customers, it’s time to amplify their devotion by showing some love.

If you’ve got the exclusivity factor correct, you’ll know that the journey hasn’t been straightforward for your customer. You’ll also know that they deserve some love.

Striking with a deal, a limited edition gift or access to a closed group, is a great way of showing love, as long as you make it EXCLUSIVE TO CUSTOMERS. If you don’t, you’ll create the reverse effect.

Harley Davidson owners are allowed to join HOG (Harley Ownership Group). This groups their cult followers together, making marketing incredibly easy and strengthening the bond of their customer base.

Ideology

Nothing ties and divides people quite like ideologies.

Throughout history, people have gone to war purely because somebody else holds a different belief to them. If an ideology can make people sacrifice their lives, it can certainly help you achieve some cult branding benefits.

If you’re struggling to find your ideology, look at your business’s WHY. When you know exactly why your business exists, amplify it in everything you do. This is the CORE of the lifestyle that you’re selling.

Not sure of your why? Our Why’sing Up blog can help!

Apple’s ideology is to ‘think different’. This WHY goes through everything they do, from staffing to product development, and their customer’s buy their stuff because of it.

Harley Davidson say ‘we deliver dreams of personal freedom.’ And ‘all for freedom, freedom for all.’ This targeted ideology of liberation from the everyday, is something that has driven people to spend their last pennies on a bike, sell their houses, leave their jobs, join motorcycle gangs…

Us vs. Them

When a strong ideology is in place, it naturally creates an ‘us vs. them’ affect in your customers. Think of warring football followers, celebrity fans arguing on social media, Apple customers refusing to buy tech from anybody else.

If you achieve this factor, your customers will only associate your industry with your brand, effectively wiping all the competition out the window and reducing price sensitivity.

The easiest way to do this, is to keep plugging your ideology, alongside factors that your brand has and your competitors don’t. Continually strengthen your customers belief that they’re ahead of everybody who has bought from somebody else. And try to group them together in one (probably digital) location, e.g. closed access group.

Don’t Destroy It

The final step is discipline. The cult brands that have gone on to create huge followings are those that have nurtured, not dictated, or controlled.

Listen to your followers, as all the other cult brands do, and give these ridiculously loyal followers what they want, when they want it. It’ll strengthen your ties even further.

Conclusion

The steps above sound easy, but like anything worth having, they’re not.

Implementing an ideology that separates you from the rest and creates strong bonds with your customers is tough, and can’t be manufactured. It has to be real.

If you want others to believe, you have to believe first …

…but most importantly, the lifestyle you sell has to be something worth believing in.

If you truly want to achieve a customer base that is always growing, doesn’t react to price rises and constantly shares your company, you need to perfect your WHY and go from there.

What do you think of cult branding? Can you think of any other cult brands?

Share your thoughts!

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Josh Barney

Josh Barney

Founder of We Imagine Media, creator and marketer. 😎