Religious Devotion to Cult Brands . . . Can I Get an 'Amen'?

Are there some brands you can’t live without? Are you dedicated to a specific brand of car? Do you line up outside the Apple store every time a new iPhone is released? Is your house filled with easily assembled furniture with names like viktigt, hurdal, slahult, and balungen? Do you laugh maniacally when someone suggests that Star Wars is better than Star Trek? Do you passionately argue that Coca­Cola is better than Pepsi (even though they taste the same)?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions then you, my friend, are a member of a cult. This isn’t the kind of cult where you meet in dark secluded places, stop shaving, wear togas, and eventually drink the Kool­Aid. You are a loyal follower of a ‘cult brand’.

WHAT IS A CULT BRAND?
The true definition of a cult brand is a product or service that has an energetic and loyal customer base. Followers of a cult brand can be described as enthusiastically loyal, borderline fanatical, and have a vested interest in the brand’s success. Followers of cult brands will defend their brand no matter what and buy­in to consumer culture that often contributes to defining an individual’s personality. Examples of cult brands include Harley­Davidson, Vespa, Apple, Microsoft, Nike, Pepsi, Ikea, Walt Disney etc.

Like any other brand, a cult brand is represented by a specific logo, symbol, phrase/tagline, or word. However, a cult brand is more recognizable than non­cult brands. If we said ‘_______ give you wings,’ you’d likely recognize it as Red Bull’s tagline. Or is we asked you which popular brand encourages you to ‘Just Do It’, you’d know we were referring to Nike. Microsoft and Apple are distinguished by the famous windows symbol or the Apple logo. These are household names that have gained cult brand status through the use of various strategies that have built brand recognition and equity.

“Brand building is about building a deep emotional connection with your customers. It is not just a name or a logo, it is about an innate emotional response from your guest when they think about your brand. When a brand has an authentic and honest relationship with its consumers, its potential becomes unlimited.” ­ Robin Chakrabarti, Empresario Capital

But don’t confuse a cult brand for a fad. While a fad gains a massive following over a short period of time, the engagement is temporary and interest tends to disappear as quickly as it appeared, whereas cult brands constantly endure.

Here are a few examples of cult brands and how they attained and maintain their status

 

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AMAZON.COM launched in 1994 as a convenient online shopping experience. By offering fast shipping, competitive pricing, free returns, and customer feedback, Amazon quickly took out all the competition and grew to be the largest online general retailer. They pioneered an online initiative centred around ‘the customer is always right’ and solidified their position as a cult brand. Amazon continues to be more customer­centric than most other online companies and has gained itself a customer base of over 30 million people.

Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos is consistently ranked as the #1 outperforming CEO according to the Harvard Business Review and spearheads Amazon’s customer­obsessed framework: “If you’re customer­focused, you’re always waking up wondering, how can we make that customer say, wow?” says Bezos. “We want to impress our customers—we want them to say, wow. That kind of divine discontent comes from observing customers and noticing that things can always be better.”

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APPLE’s growth over the past decade has risen what started out as a computer and software development firm into something that actually resembles a religion. The cult brand status was already achieved when Apple became a household name in computing but was firmly cemented with the creation and announcement (by Archbishop Steve Jobs) of the iPod and, subsequently, the iPhone. With the growth of the digital revolution and mobile phones becoming integrated into our everyday lives, Apple has become a mainstay in mobile communication with almost 50% of users adopting the brand. Apple has become synonymous with building products that fans love.

Their secret isn’t actually in the products but in how the gather customer feedback. They run events all over the world, including Macworld Expo, and operate Mac User groups within all their online communities. The difference here is that Apple truly listens to their customers and makes changes accordingly. By doing this, they’re constantly delivering products and upgrades that people want to see.

 

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STAR TREK is a different kind of cult brand because it doesn’t provide a tangible product or service. Instead it’s a ‘fandom’ that’s skyrocketed over the past 50 years and has smoothly transitioned from generation to generation. It took director Gene Roddenberry six years of shopping his idea for a drama set in space around Hollywood before it was picked up. The show struggled with ratings for two seasons before being cancelled but by then it had picked up a modest following. In 1967, the fans of the show began a letter­writing campaign to get the show back on the air. NBC was inundated with letters from distraught fans and the show was brought back on the air.

That undying devotion of the brand’s beloved ‘Trekkies’ turned Star Trek into a cult brand and has resulted in nine motion pictures, five television series (with a sixth on the way), dozens of books, tons of merchandise, yearly conventions, and hundreds of millions of dollars for Paramount pictures.

 

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IKEA isn’t just about cheap swedish meatballs and weirdly named furniture. Every time a new store opens, people camp out and line up to be the first to get their hands on the new hurdal and slahult (yes, those are real) lines of furniture and accessories. It’s the attention to details that has separated the swedish furniture manufacturer from the competition. With stores all over the world, IKEA was able to recognize that living space needs differ from region to region. Whichever country they sell into, they actually make a point of visiting people’s homes to evaluate the way they live and what their needs are when it comes to space, storage, comfort, and style. For example, they determined that North Americans stored more of their clothing in drawers (as opposed to Europe where people hang a lot of their clothes). The result was larger and deeper drawers for the North American market.

That attention to detail has continually paid off and made IKEA a household name. Households that are largely filled with IKEA products. From 1997 to 2005, IKEA doubled its market share and tripled its sales becoming the seventh largest furniture store in the United States.

CREATING A CULT BRAND
Unfortunately, creating a cult brand isn’t an easy thing to accomplish. It has to grow slowly and consistently, it has to continually cater to its customers, it has to fill a niche in the market, and it has to build a loyal following. Cult brands provide a great example of how you should run and operate your business. It’s important to listen to your customers and cater directly to your audience.

That ability to listen and adapt could be the difference between your business or service becoming a cult brand or just being referred to as a passing fad.