Brands today face fierce competition, strict velocity hurdles, and a retail landscape that’s been called “apocalyptic.” Brands that stand out are those that attract a tribe — a group of admirers who embrace not just the product but the ethos.
It’s nice to be loved, but why does this kind of consumer fervor matter to your business? Because these are your no-matter-what, forever-and-ever buyers.
Tribes aren’t focused on a product’s features and benefits; they know that the brand’s values ensure that the product will meet their needs and expectations. They aren’t worried about price; they’ll pay more for brands they’re personally aligned with. They aren’t interested in other products in the category because they’re card-carrying members of the tribe. That’s why even your direct competitors aren’t your enemies. Not really.
Us Against the World: A Powerful Message
These successful cult brands forge an “us vs. them” mentality among their loyalists that isn’t pitched against other brands in the category—the traditional business view of competition—but against some perceived ideology they consider adversarial.
As humans beings and social creatures, we are hardwired to split up into groups. (If you need proof of concept, just consider religion, politics, and sports.) Humans love the classic us vs. them struggle, and we instinctively polarize ourselves into groups based upon our ideologies and the badges associated with them. (Think: religious symbols, red state/blue state, and team jerseys).
This works for brands, too. But in order for a brand to overcome price resistance and become a category of one, leadership needs to move beyond thinking that companies are enemies (as in sports rivalries) and instead view ideas as enemies (like religion).
At Retail Voodoo, we recognize the power that people feel when they’re united in a common purpose. So we advise clients to make ideas, beliefs, and wrongness in the world their enemies.
How Lifestyle Brands Prosper Against Ideological Competition
Identifying an ideological enemy for your brand’s tribe to rally against will…
Trigger emotions, both among your employees and among your customers. Know that these strong emotions can be positive and negative; you may repel as many people from your brand as you attract. And that’s OK. Cult brands aren’t for everyone.
Create a platform for meaningful storytelling and character development. The hero’s struggle is a classic narrative archetype that you can apply in your communication.
Produce unexpected allies. It opens the door to logical partnerships with like-minded brands and organizations. Patagonia, for example, donates 1% of annual sales to support environmental groups around the world and funds get-out-the-vote efforts.
Strengthen the bonds people already have with your brand. In a world where it’s easy for individuals to feel they don’t have much impact, aligning with others who collectively support an ideology makes them feel empowered as part of a group.
Transcend sales position. People like to root for the underdog. But when a brand leads its category, it loses that “little guy” appeal. When the enemy isn’t others in the marketplace but a larger wrong in the world, it doesn’t matter of the brand grows to dominance.
Brands that Fight the Good Fight
Let’s look at several cult brands that have thrived by uniting their followers around a shared ideological competitor:
Audience: rugged “guys’ guys”
Enemies: The Man, corporate life, social conformity, suburban niceness
How it plays out: Harley Davidson’s messaging is all about freedom, individuality, and power. It doesn’t sell product; it sells a lifestyle.
Audience: modern women
Enemies: the stress and imbalance of modern life, self neglect, the dual responsibilities of work and family life, being too busy to have friends
How it plays out: Lululemon’s appeal is not reliant on activity; everyone can relate even if they’re not die-hard yoga practitioners. Looking at the athleisure category, Athleta is competing against Lululemon; Lululemon is competing against life itself.
Enemies: losing (the opposite of winning) because of under preparing; inequality in class, gender and race
How it plays out: Nike’s core message, “Just do it” empowers fans to believe that if they work hard enough — in spite of any physical or societal obstacles — they’ll be capable of winning, whatever that looks like. After 40 years, the brand still captures attention.
If your brand is competing with the other players in your category, you’re competing on features and benefits. That’s a losing game because you’ll inevitably cave on price. Without a meaningful brand promise, you lack ways to connect with people’s emotional state.
Modern cult brands thrive because they’ve reconsidered their competition and reframed how they talk about it. They’ve focused on how humans think and behave instinctively, creating a tribe united around righting a wrong. “Us against the world” creates an unbreakable bond between the brand and its fans.