Genius marketing or just pure luck? We explore the traditional view of cults and how they parallel with modern day brand fanaticism.
It's shortly after 9 a.m. on a Wednesday and a line had already formed on Wooster Street in New York's fashionable Soho neighbourhood.
The crowd is mostly women, many of them late for work, and they're impatient. A suited bouncer at the door and a bag check are slowing everything down.
This isn't the launch of Apple's latest iPhone or a limited-edition, collectible Nike trainer.
It's SoulCycle's warehouse sale.
The scene above is emblematic of the indoor-cycling chain's success. Its devotees shell out huge sums for the classes and the logo-adorned clothes. They're its biggest advocates, and, when the company's pseudo-yogic platitudes are criticized, its fiercest defenders.
Yes, this has drawn comparisons to a cult.
What is a 'cult'?
When most of us hear the word "cult," we see a bunch of brainwashed individuals feeding their children cyanide-laced fruit drink, mass murders, or a burning compound in Waco, Texas; it's not a pretty picture. But is it a true picture? In the age of superbrands, what exactly is a "cult” anymore?
The cults that make the news and drive fear through the hearts of parents sending their kids to university are the exception, not the rule. At its most basic, a cult is simply a small, unestablished, non-mainstream religious group.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "cult" this way:
1) A religion or religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false, with its followers often living in an unconventional manner under the guidance of an authoritarian, charismatic leader.
2) A system or community of religious worship and ritual.
The first definition is closer to the common usage of the term today, but you'll notice there's no mention of brainwashing, murder or mass suicide. There is no meaningful difference between a cult and a religion in terms of faith, morality or spirituality. The primary difference is that a "cult" operates outside of mainstream society.
Modern day fanaticism.
So how does this traditional view of cults parallel with modern day brand fanaticism? Well, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that ‘cult brands’ like F45 tick a fair few boxes in regard to our traditional definition of a ‘cult’.
1) A system or community of worship/ritual (tick).
2) A sect considered to be extremist in their behaviour (tick).
3) A significant portion of their followers live in an unconventional manner (tick).
But that’s only one brand, and if we want to put this phenomenon into context, we need a checklist that signifies a true cult brand in the 21st century.
A cult brand, unlike regular brands, has customers who feel a sense of ownership or vested interest in the brand's popularity and success. Cult brands have achieved a unique connection with customers, and are able to create a consumer culture that people want to be a part of. The list is endless; Whiteclaw, Rapha, F45, LuluLemon, Peloton, Gymshark, Aperol, Game of Thrones, Apple. I could go on.
For devout followers of a cult brand, their relationship with the brand is a mixture of both love and madness. The brand symbolizes a specific lifestyle and becomes more of an identity. To cult brand buyers, buying a product enables them to fit in with a certain group, or culturally as a whole.
They tend to be distinctive, meaning that they provide an alternative style or feeling that differs from existing brands. They help people differentiate themselves.
Finally, cult brands also tend to represent a cultural shift, often starting with a small group of dedicated followers who spread their message. As such, cult brands also tend to have a compelling, persuasive story behind them, such as an origin story. They also have enough recognition and respect that they are able to create trends. You’ve most likely listened to some early adopters waxing lyrical about Monzo joint accounts or someone telling their mate about how they’ve just had the best sleep of their lives on a Casper mattress or a gaggle of girls Instagramming the latest Glossier pop-up in Covent Garden.
So what does all this mean?
Of course, having a distinct ideology, a worldview, that creates brand loyalty also means alienating some people, but the benefits far outweigh the negatives; think infinite free word of mouth marketing, filled with jargon loaded language and a loyal group who think their ideology trumps all others.
So, if ‘cult’ status sounds like your cup of tea, here are 7 principles to get the ball rolling:
You need to distance your brand from the establishment or norm. Form your own niche. People love to feel like they’re swimming against the current; think Bulb energy for the renewable amongst you, or a more historic example, St.Pauli football club in Germany.
You’ll need to recruit (or target) successful, attractive and sociable souls to spread the word and drive growth. These are your influencers; the example that comes to mind is Red Bull and their employment of student ambassadors.
Limit entry to your group. Not anyone can join or the members wouldn’t feel as special or enticed by it; Monzo golden ticket anyone?
A clear sense of belonging to the group creates loyalty and word of mouth; fitness brands like SoulCycle, F45 or OneRebel create an environment which means their product is more about the group than simply a workout.
Overwhelm your customers with love to let them know how appreciated and welcomed they are once admitted; Gary Vaynerchuk’s videos and interviews with his fans build an immediate rapport and following (rightly or wrongly).
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; Patch plants offers customers a chance to express themselves, whilst also being part of a new London-centric collective.
Define what you are and what you are not to rally your group against the competition. You have to accept you will not get 100% of the population. You want the people who love you and that means you have to be discriminating. You have to put a stake in the ground; we stand for this and not that. The obvious example is Mac vs PC, but more recently, Oatly’s stand against cow's milk.
Brand fanaticism is more prevalent than ever.
These brands draw odd similarities to cults.
Cult-like status garners significant benefits, notably unwavering consumer loyalty.
There are some hypothetical methods to get there.
What we don’t know is how much of the success mentioned above is down to genius marketing, or just pure luck?
We’re sure Monzo will have something to say about it.