Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Is Yours a Cult Brand?

I read an article yesterday on Business Insider about 16 Brands That Have Fanatical Cult Followings. I love this concept because, ultimately, I think every brand wants to achieve this status. Don't you want to have raving fans? Evangelists of/for your brand? People who can't live without your brand or will accept no substitute? Yea, I thought so.

I wrote about Raving Fans as the ultimate stage in the Customer Experience Lifecycle a few months ago. Back then I said that you should "consider those brands where customers feel they are part of something bigger, where they show an outward expression of their devotion to the brand: they tattoo their bodies with the brand logo or even name their children after the brand!!" 

Here's a look at what others say about raving fans, evangelism, and cult brands.

Brains on Fire advocates a Fan Cycle. They talk about creating fans because fans have a vested interest and defend "their brands" passionately. When they join a movement, they do so to help it grow. They have a sense of ownership and want to see your brand succeed.

Customer evangelism and the culting of brands are strongly linked, and not just because of the labels and analogies drawn from their non-CX, non-brand meanings. And I love how the folks at Brains on Fire define evangelism, which they go into more detail about in their book:

It’s not about influence, because influencers can be MADE. But passion can’t. And it’s not about evangelizing your brand. It’s about your brand being the jumping off point that allows people to evangelize what’s important in their lives. ... all of which leads to ownership.

In the book, The Culting of Brands, author Douglas Atkin defines a cult brand as:

A brand for which a group of customers exhibits a great devotion or dedication. It is normally innovative in its ideology, can be identified by having a well-defined community that exhibits an acute sense of belonging, enjoys exclusive devotion (that is, not shared with another brand in the same category), and often enjoys voluntary advocacy on the part of its members.

He goes on to say that the belief is that people join cults to conform, when in reality, they join to become more individual. "You become more you."

Think about Trekkies, for second. Do they feel more like themselves when they are with a group of people who have no interest in Star Trek, or are they more themselves when they hang out at a Trekkie convention with "their kind?" They become a part of something bigger so that they can be themselves.

Supporting this thought are the authors of The Power of Cult Branding (Ragas, Bueno). They write:

Cult brands aren't just companies with products or services to sell. To many of their followers, they are living, breathing surrogate family, filled with like-minded individuals. They are a support group that just happens to sell products and services.

They also describe cult brands as follows:

... developers of customer communities. They provide their customers with unique identities. They dare to be different. They sell a lifestyle, not just a product.

It's all documented in their Seven Golden Rules of Cult Branding:
  1. Consumers want to be part of a group that's different.
  2. Cult brand inventors show daring and determination.
  3. Cult brands sell lifestyles.
  4. Listen to the choir and create cult brand evangelists.
  5. Cult brands always create customer communities.
  6. Cult brands are inclusive.
  7. Cult brands promote personal freedom and draw power from enemies.
So let's go back to the reason I started to write this post: those 16 brands with fanatical cult followings. I wanted to look at these 16 brands to see how they/their customers embodied the word "cult."

Wegmans: Musical theater students in Massachusetts created an entire musical based on the brand. People write love letters to the company, begging them to open stores in their neighborhoods.
Lululemon: They have a lululemon ambassador program; ambassadors are people in their store communities who embody the lululemon lifestyle and live their culture.
Linux: Not only did they create evangelists, but their evangeliests affect the product and the brand because of its open source.
Zappos: There is probably no need to describe this one, but their customers are drawn to their massive shoe collection, customer service practices, and off-beat culture.
Surge: This product has a solid following, even 10 years after it was pulled from store shelves! Their fans are  campaigning for a comeback.
Mazda Miata: This brand has 77 meetup clubs worldwide.
Vans: Vans is a lifestyle, bottom line.
Yuengling: This beer is part of Pennsylvania's local culture. It has such a strong following that when it started selling across the border, in Ohio, people camped out at liquor stores, waiting for it.
Dos Equis: The fanaticism of this brand comes from their brand character, The Most Interesting Man in the World.
Mini Cooper: People are on a waiting list for their customized cars.
Harley-Davidson: This is a true lifestyle brand; everyone knows that HOG is the ultimate brand community or brand membership.
Trader Joe's: TJ's provides a unique shopping experience; it's like shopping at your local Farmer's Market. This brand's customers are truly fanatical, and like Wegman's, people all over the country petition to have a Trader Joe's in their communities.
Vespa: There are currently 43 North American meetup groups focused on Vespa and the Vespa culture.
Mexican Coca-Cola: You say, "What?" Yea, me too! But, there is such a thing, and it has a lot of rabid fans who love it, most likely because it is made with real sugar and not with corn syrup.
Volkswagen Beetle:  This car has been around a very long time, with early photos of it from the World War II era. Its storied history supports this brand.
IKEA: IKEA has a huge following of people looking for a good deal to help them decorate their homes; it's chic value.

The article mentions Apple, Starbucks, and Whole Foods, but doesn't specifically call them out as one of the 16. They question if companies that have grown into huge and successful multinational corporations can still be cult brands. I think the answer is, "Yes." And what about Nike? Star Trek? Gold's Gym? Southwest Airlines? Barbie? Hot Wheels? Red Bull? In-N-Out Burgers? What others have they missed?

[Update: Tom Fishburne is a great marketoonist. In his recent cartoon/post about brand loyalists, he provided a great compilation of brand tattoos to show off cult brands with raving fans!]

Why are raving fans so important to their cult brands and to the creation and success of cult brands?
  1. They want to see the brand succeed and grow.
  2. They are happy to provide feedback, good or bad, to ensure that happens.
  3. They are less price sensitive.
  4. They choose the brand over the competition.
  5. They can't live without the brand, accept no substitutes.
  6. They are advocates; no, stronger. They are evangelists. They spread the word about your brand.
  7. They openly recruit new members to the community.
"If you really want to 'own' a customer, if you want a booming business, you have to go beyond satisfied customers and create Raving Fans." -Ken Blanchard

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