5 Ways Cult Brands Bridge the Gap in the Customer’s Mind

It’s easy to spot the brands who seized the imagination of a small group and then taught that group how to spread the word, make converts and turn their fringe offering into a mainstream way of seeing the world.

It is another thing to understand how to use the cult branding formula made famous by BJ Beuno in his landmark book, The Power of Cult Branding. This article aims to build on these theories, modernize them and offers strategies you can implement starting today.

Before we begin, I need to simplify and update the opening statement that Doug Atkins makes in his book The Culting of Brands:

Special Thanks to STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST

How to Build the Bridge Between Customers I Need and I am

First let’s understand that this article refers to I need as tactical and I am as how one identifies themselves within the context of that need.

It’s a non-linear process but this is what happens in the human mind:

I need to lose some weight,
I am not competitive.
I need to start jogging.
I need running shoes.
I am a light-hearted, non-conformist.
I am a Brooks runner.

Top running shoe brands and their achetypes. Courtesy of The Hero and The Outlaw by Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson.

1. Know why your brand has stark-raving fans

Understand what needs your brand fulfills in your best customers. Know who loves your brand and why. Be specific. Let’s look at some brands that really understand who loves them and how their brands can return the favor.

REI and Nike

REI provides the knowledge and confidence to explore and discover new adventures for people of all levels, but for those whose identity is Outdoor Enthusiast, Cyclist, Climber, Hiker, or Skier, REI is Mecca. REI knows its followers are active, environmentally concerned and eager to share their passion for the outdoors with others. The co-op returns their love in ways that create stark-raving fans by providing opportunities to contribute to the brand in multiple ways: joining the co-op, taking an oath to “leave no trace”, community education and outreach programs, and even a garage sale.

Phil Knight said, “Nike’s culture and style is to be a rebel. The company was built on a genuine passion for sports and maverick disregard for convention, hard work, serious sports, and performance.” But there is more to the story. It wasn’t just gear – Bowerman and Prefontaine were the genesis of life coaching.

Nike cares about its customers’ lives not just their bodies. It doesn’t just promote sales, it promotes sports for the benefit of all. Nike coaches you to deepen your passion for whatever sport you choose, relying on education, lifestyle management and inspiration rather than selling gear. As a stark-raving fan, my experience quickly moves from “I am a runner” to “I need gear so that I can go faster, be stronger and rush into the waiting arms of the goddess of Victory”. Over the course of time it has evolved to become “I am Victory’s lover, I need to be worthy.”

2. Identify your brand’s archetype

The use of archetypes in branding has become its own phenomenon. An archetype is a universally familiar character or situation that transcends time, place, culture, gender and age. It represents an eternal truth. Books and articles abound. The reason for the popularity is simple: By using the concept of the archetypes, management can protect itself from developing a brand that is inconsistent. Archetypes make it possible to deepen the customer’s relationship with your brand because doing so fulfills an unconscious ambition that is linked to who they get to be when they are with your brand. Using archetypes in your brand development helps delineate the marketing process while helping to keep your brand’s value system firmly intact.

The most common archetype used in sports and outdoor is, no surprise, The Explorer, but comes under many names, including Seeker, Pilgrim, Wanderer, Pioneer, Individualist, Iconoclast and Adventurer.

Explorers are authentic, fulfilled, curious, individual, unique, ambitious and always true to themselves. Their goal is discovery, to experience a more authentic and fulfilling life by using their freedom to explore the world.

The Explorer is a perfect archetype if your brand helps people be free, is pioneering, is rugged and sturdy, is used on the road and in the wild, helps people express their individuality, can be purchased and consumed on the go or if you want to differentiate yourself from a more conformist brand. This might explain why it is the most common brand archetype used in the outdoor industry.

The Explorer isn’t limited to outdoor brands.

Starbucks leverages the Explorer archetype to great effect. Think green logo and Siren as sea goddess. They also emphasize choice and customization for every customer. Even the name was taken from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – Starbucks is the name of the first mate on the Pequot. Even their packaging and retail experience reference exotic places where coffee is born. Yes born, not grown, but that, Dear Reader, is another tale altogether.

Starbucks leverages the Explorer archetype to great effect as demonstrated in their first India location.

There’s no rule that a brand can’t have multiple archetype personalities. And in a space where nearly all brands are leveraging the same archetype I encourage adding a second archetype to bring distinction and clarity in how you write, design, and communicate for your brand.

Go ahead and try it with your brand management team. Unorthodox combinations are a great starting point for brand strategy and communication.

3. Create a single brand voice

Establish a single brand voice that allows for many to chime in, transmute, interpret and re-forge your vision. Focus your efforts on ways to share that vision with like-minded people and keep your message consistent. Knowing what your business stands for (besides selling things) makes it easier for people to commit to your brand.

Lululemon is quickly becoming a Beloved Brand, with an extremely loyal following that loves not only how the brand makes them feel (healthy, comfortable, free) but also love the product which is reliable, ethical and high quality.

Lululemon‘s manifesto has quickly become a guide to life for the modern woman.

Centered in the core values of traditional yoga, their manifesto is translated for our modern world with statements such as “this is not a practice life, this is all there is.” The core of Lululemon’s DNA is Yoga. And all of the voices in their choir are singing from the same songbook.

4. Create places for your brand to build community

Use the insights gained from your customers’ attraction to the brand as inspiration for developing programs to support community. If you are just starting a brand I might suggest the best way to reach people is to look for topics and causes around which they are already gathering and align one’s brand with those topics or causes. Since most of us are already on the path, I suggest the following:

  • Sponsor events that reflect your brand’s mission.
  • Acknowledge the community. Strong communities provide a sense of identity to their members and become an integral part of their lives.
  • Support the community to reinforce the affinity customers have for your brand.

Don’t be a control freak. Communities aren’t focus groups.

Don’t waste energy trying to control the community. Instead, participate as a co-creator. View communities as a chance to stay close to your stark-raving fans. Look for ways to innovate around their needs and to help them fall deeply in love with your brand.

Nike+Fuelband is the poster child for branded community.

Nike Fuelband not only encourages customers’ active lifestyles, it encourages community engagement. It allows people to track performance through a wristband and compete with friends by climbing up the leader board. Users share their success on facebook and call out friends when they lose. Nike knows that their stark-raving fans are highly competitive individuals so they built a community to leverage this using social media to strengthen their brand.

5. Know thy enemy to deepen the brand rivalry

Differences help define group identity. Watch your competitors to see how they can be leveraged to reinforce the culture of the community. Nothing unites a group like having a common enemy. In the words of Scott Bedbury, “Everything Matters”.

Brand rivalry means competition, and competition means never-ending improvement of service, products and brand relationships. This leads to more transparency, more collaboration, better socially responsible and environmentally responsible actions and a greater incentive towards good in all industries.

Case in point: Puma and Nike have been meeting each other’s sustainability standards, and are producing more and more goods and services that are for good. Nike encourages social responsibility and sustainability through their ‘Better World’ manifesto.

Puma edged ahead recently by being named the world’s most sustainable large company. Puma is the first company in the world to put a value on the eco services it uses to produce its gear, signaling a radical change in the way business will account for its use of natural resources. Puma committed that half its collections will be manufactured according to its internal sustainability standard within four years. Clearly the rivalry is good for innovation and mankind.

What can you do you leverage your brand’s rivals to make the world better and create stark-raving fans at the same time?

Get on the path to constant and never-ending brand improvement

The path to elevating your brand to cult status is not linear, but I’m giving you tools that you can experiment with and put into practice today. My goal isn’t to claim this territory as my own, but to simplify and modernize it so that more people can believe in and be empowered by belonging to something bigger than themselves.

What are you doing to elevate your brand’s cultability?

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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