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The Culting of Brands

Turn Your Customers Into True Believers

By: Douglas Atkin

Reviewed By: Ramona Sukhraj

How would you like to have a brand that inspires loyalty in its customers like Apple and Nike? These cult-like following certainly didn’t happen by accident.

In The Culting of Brands: Turn Your Customers Into True Believers, Douglas Atkin (Head of Community at AirBnb) shows you how to extract the same principles major brands, religions, and actual cults use to get people excited about your brand and turn them into lifelong customers.

The Culting of Brands is packed with case studies from brands like JetBlue, Harley-Davidson, and Ben & Jerry’s. In each scenario, Atkin shows us how these brands make their customers feel special, important, and part of a unique group, fostering a type of loyalty that most businesses can only dream of.

Despite the negative connotation of the term, most brand “cult followers” are simply regular consumers looking for a group to fit in with. Although some certainly could use these lessons to manipulate people, the objective is really to create a marketing message and brand that resonates so deeply with people they fall in love with it.

The Culting of Brands goes beyond brand-building and teaches marketers how to tell better stories and make products, services, or even people, larger than life.

Once a brand reaches cult status, it becomes impossible to ignore and forever sets itself apart from the competition. Here’s how you can do the same.

10 Easy Steps for Successful “Culting” of Your Brand

Atkin outlines a simple ten-step formula for elevating a brand to cult status based on the shared strategies found in all cults, religions, and cult-like brands.

Here is the step-by-step plan:

  1. Difference – Distance your cult from the establishment or norm. Form your own niche. People love to rebel against the norm.
  2. Connectors – Recruit successful, attractive, and sociable souls to spread the word and drive growth. These are your influencers.
  3. Exclusivity – Limit entry to your group. Not anyone can join or the members wouldn’t feel as special or enticed by it. (Learn more about exclusivity and how your brand can do it right here.)
  4. Solidarity – A clear sense of belonging to the group creates loyalty and word-of-mouth.
  5. Ideology – A clear belief system outlines the values that the group is expected to uphold.
  6. Lovebomb – Overwhelm your customers with love to let them know how appreciated and welcome they are in the group.
  7. Paradox – Make joiners feel that they become more individual, despite the fact that they are joining a group. Make them feel like they are discovering a new sense of self, or finding a new way to express their individuality.
  8. An Enemy – Define what you are and are not to rally your group against the competition. (Think PC vs Mac.)
  9. Contact – Splash your ideas onto the right people.
  10. Let go – Don’t be a wide-read, psychopathic, control-obsessive cult leader or you risk losing everything you’ve built. Allow the vision you built to grow and evolve on its own.

Now, let’s look closer at a few of those steps that usually have the biggest impact: connectors, paradox, and a sense of community.

Targeting Connectors

Before people will buy into your ideology, they need reassurance. That’s why you need to first recruit connectors to help facilitate this. Think of this like Influencer Marketing.

Connectors are people who thrive in social environments and people trust. They are attractive, give the aura of success, and given the environment of your brand, they are advocates.

These are the people your target customers like, want to be like, and listen to. They are also the people you want to hire for customer-facing positions, while also encouraging your connectors to recruit more connectors.

Once you’ve populated your internal organization with the right connectors, you need to create opportunities for them to meet nonmembers.

In the world of digital marketing, this could be through webinars, Snapchat, Facebook Live, or in person at meetups and industry events.

Whenever new people join the group, you and the other members should then shower them with love (lovebomb) to reaffirm their decision and make them feel welcome. This is the first step in fostering lifelong loyalty.

Although you should always reward members for promoting your brand, you should never force them to do so. A “brand cult” is more alluring when the members are passionate enough to become advocates on their own.

The Cult Paradox

The cult paradox is perhaps the most intriguing (and confusing) aspect of creating a cult following for your brand.

On one hand you are promoting your customers as unique individuals, but on the other hand, they are all part of a big group.

According to Atkin, the cult paradox is often the result of a person’s circumstances leading up to their introduction to the group.

Perhaps a person feels like they are different from others or even alienated. This leads them on a search for a better environment. Once they find an environment (hopefully your brand) where their difference is seen as a virtuous quality, instead of something negative, they feel a sense of belonging and security.

In a nutshell, this is how a brand cult brings together people who are usually celebrated for being individuals.

Create a Community Around Separation

The two most important steps for promoting individualism while building a cult following for your brand is by separating your values from the status quo and rallying around a common enemy.  In other words, you need to create a mutual sense of separation by doing the following:

  1. Determine what sets your brand apart from the establishment. (What’s your USP?)
  2. Create your own doctrine, values, and language.
  3. Separate your brand from the outside world.
  4. Demonize a common enemy.

There are countless examples of brands using these techniques to their advantage.

Apple, for example, has set out to be everything that a normal computer company is not since day one.

With most people experiencing computer problems at some point in life, and Microsoft being the most common operating system, making their organization and PCs, in general, the enemy seemed like the most logical move.

Nike has used the same strategy, but instead of making a specific company the enemy, they have demonized the mindset of “not doing it.”

This works phenomenally because it can apply to an infinite amount of circumstances. “Just do it” is the opposite of laziness, procrastination, failure, giving up, and anything else that athletes (their target customer) hate.

As an inbound marketing agency, we rally against traditional, outbound marketing and most of our customers can get behind that because they have burned thousands of dollars on strategies that are no longer effective.

How can you set your brand apart from the status quo in this way? What common enemies do your customers have? What common values? Answer these questions and you’re well on your way to creating a cult following for your own brand.