The Culting of Brands
Turn Your Customers into True Believers
At first glance, companies like Apple and Nike have little in common with organizations like the Hell’s Angels and the Unification Church. But in reality, they all fulfill the main definition of a cult: They attract people who see themselves as different from the masses in some fundamental way. Contrary to stereotypes, most cult members aren’t emotionally unstable—they’re just normal folks searching for a sense of belonging.
Marketing expert Douglas Atkin has spent years researching both full-blown cults and companies that use cult-branding techniques.He interviewed countless cult members to find out what makes them tick. And he explains exactly how brands like Harley-Davidson, Saturn, JetBlue, and Ben & Jerry’s make their customers feel unique, important, and part of an exclusive group—and how that leads to solid, long-term relationships between a company and its customers.
In addition to describing a fascinating phenomenon, The Culting of Brands will be of enormous value to business leaders. It will teach marketers how to align themselves with a specific segment of the population, how to attract and keep new "members," how to establish a mythology about the company, and how to manage a workforce filled with true believers.
Once a brand achieves cult status, it becomes almost impossible for a competitor to dethrone it. The Culting of Brands will reveal the secrets of fierce customer identification and, most important, unbreakable loyalty.
What I was watching was ironic considering that I had just come from a meeting of anxious marketers who had been fretting that brand loyalty was dead. There were too many products, and they were too much the same. The consumer was king and marketers were servants reduced to begging for a scrap of attention to be paid to their brand before customers moved on to the next. These handwringers clearly hadn't met the consumers I was watching in that research room.
Where did that kind of cultlike devotion come from? How can anyone venerate something as banal as footwear? Can that kind of commitment be reproduced for other brands? Perhaps, I wondered, the answers to these questions could be found by studying the ultimate expression of devotion, the kind that is found in cults. If these people had cultlike devotion, then why not look at the original, cult devotion? How do cults generate such famously intense attachment? How do the few cult brands that exist create strong commitment? Are the dynamics of attraction essentially the same? And if so, are the techniques that create that degree of devotion transferable between the two?
I resolved that night to try and answer these questions by researching organizations that appeared to breed cultlike attraction, whether they existed in the sacred or secular realms. In the years that followed I met members of cults both famous and furtive; I met CEOs of companies and the brand addicts they had nurtured; I met with soldiers, Trekkies, fans, and cult deprogrammers. A Mac user told me that “PC users must be saved” and a young cult member insisted that his religion is a “brand.”
Let's look at the last point first. The worlds of the sacred and profane are coming closer together whether we like it or not. And much of this initiative is being taken by religious organizations. So-called Mega-churches (there are over seven hundred in America today with three million members), are building shopping malls so the unbaptised can browse their religion after browsing the clothing rack, or fitness clubs so they can have a spiritual workout after their physical one.1 Some of the flourishing evangelical churches employ classic marketing programs to attract new “customers” using advertising, mailshots, and e-mails. The same type of marketing data that Wal-Mart or Target might use to place stores in underserved neighborhoods is used by some religions to site new churches.
This move to employ secular and commercial tools is perhaps not surprising as the religious world looks jealously at the commitment brands are able to generate. Many religions would envy the “tent-meeting” that Saturn rallied when forty-five thousand owners turned up at the factory for the week long “Homecoming.” The volume of “Amens” and shouts of affirmation during one of Steve Jobs's speeches at Macworld suggests a meeting of evangelists praising the Lord rather than cries of enthusiasm for a new hard drive.
However the real point about merging the secular and the sacred became clearer the more research I did. The same dynamics are at play behind the attraction to brands and cults. They may vary in degree of strength (although not always), but not in type. When you consider this for a moment, it is not surprising. When research subjects were recounting their reasons for joining and committing, they were describing the profound urges to belong, make meaning, feel secure, have order within chaos, and create identity. This is the stuff of the human condition. When you are dealing with attraction and the act of buying into something you tend to be dealing in universal constants. All of my interviews, whether with a Mormon, a Krishna follower, a Harley rider, or a Marine, surfaced these essential human needs. The sacred and profane are being bound by the essential desires of human nature, which seeks satisfaction wherever it can.
And more and more opportunities for that satisfaction are being presented by the commercial world. We should not be surprised that as the world becomes more consumerist, so do the institutions that supply community, meaning, and identity.
Let's look briefly at the ethics issue. Is writing this book a morally dubious exercise? Should reading it make you feel ethically queasy? I emphatically believe that it is not, and you should not.
The position of this book is that cults are a good thing, that cults are normal, and that people join them for very good reasons. I invite you to suspend any prejudice that may have been derived from vivid pictures of mass suicides and burning compounds on the front pages of Time and Newsweek. The popular image of cults is that they are manipulative, destructive, and evil. Some are, clearly, and these tend to be the ones that dominate the headlines whenever they do something that offends our moral norms and our laws. However, the majority of the thousand or so cults in America today never blip the radar of social opprobrium. They get on with the job of providing community and meaning for their members, albeit in an unorthodox way.
And who's to say that unorthodoxy should be censured? Cults have existed for millennia as vital organisms of social evolution. All great religions were once cults. Christianity was but one of several Mystery Cults in the eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago. It can be argued that a great founding impulse of this country was provided by a cult. The Pilgrims who stepped ashore on Plymouth Rock (a classically mythologized event) were a splinter group of what was considered a dangerous cult in seventeenth-century England called the Separatists.
All great social and religious movements have started with bands of devoted followers chastised for being different. Who knows what small cult existing in America today will become the dominant cultural force in a few centuries' time? A highly controversial (and consequently persecuted) small community in New York State in the nineteenth century started what is now considered to be the next world religion. The growth rate of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints (more commonly known as the Mormons) is roughly equal to that of Christianity in its early centuries—40 percent per decade.
Cults are a normal, in fact an essential feature of a healthy culture, one that would atrophy without them. And normal people populate them. The insights we derive from cult members, and the techniques used to generate devotion amongst them are transferable to a more general context. The people who join cults are most likely to be like you. The popular image of cult members is that they are psychologically flawed individuals, gullible and desperate. While some do conform to this image the majority do not. Demographically they tend to be from stable and financially comfortable homes and are above average in intelligence and education. They are, in fact, a desirable target audience.
A moment's thought will suggest that successful cults (the ones we will study) cannot be populated by the socially inept and emotionally disturbed anyway. To grow their membership devotees will have to be attractive enough and have the social wherewithal to proselytize. People in significant numbers are not going to join an organization populated by social failures. They will be drawn to a religion such as the Mormon Church, and a brand such as Saturn, through word of mouth. That mouth has to belong to someone whom potential recruits will trust and respect.
Suspend your prejudice about cult brands, too. They are not necessarily small, niche, and populated by consumers unrepresentative of the larger market. The focus of this book will be on large or market-leading cult brands such as Harley-Davidson, Saturn, Mary Kay, and eBay. The only exceptions will be those brands and organizations that I believe are on their way to leader status by using cult techniques, such as jetBlue. Yes, you can have a large cult brand. Yes, they can be populated by “normal” consumers; no, they need not consist of just leading-edgers.
One person I interviewed spends his Saturdays at a computer store barging into sales assistants' pitches for PCs to sell the buyers Apple instead (he does not work for the store). What does he get out of it? It's clearly not just enthusiasm based on product features. Something else is driving such devotion (another I interviewed would dust off the Macs, switch them on, and move the PC models to the back of the shelf). There have been plenty of books about the service programs and product features that can generate loyalty to a brand. But there have been few that explain the emotional and psychological dynamics of attraction and commitment, the reasons we are drawn to a brand in the first place—without understanding the why, the what is harder to apply, and so we will study both.
I want to examine the universal needs (to belong, to make meaning, to create identity) satisfied by a large range of groups, and analyze the timeless techniques applied over centuries to satisfy those needs. My source material covers a whole spectrum of committed groups from the secular and social to the religious and commercial. I talked to members of secret cult organizations, established religions, fading cults, growing cults, sororities, fan clubs, current and ex-Marines, Wiccans, members of the Forum, Deadheads, AA members, people working in strong corporate cultures, and brand addicts whether student, senior executive, or homemaker. I interviewed members of Internet brand communities, service, product, packaged goods, and luxury brand cults. I consulted a leading cult deprogrammer (more properly known as an “exit-counselor”), CEOs of successful cult brand companies, and leaders of cult brand movements.
This is not the entire list. And of course the potential list is endless. I continue to interview what seems an infinite rank of candidates even as this book is going to press. Every time I mentioned this study to anyone they would suggest another source, another cult or cult brand that I simply must examine. However, within the first year or so (I started my research in 1997) it became clear that the insights I was uncovering were common across all the forms of devotion I studied, whether it was a community of Phish members or “The Fellowship of Friends” (a controversial cult based in California). After all, they deal with the stuff of the human condition. They are infinitely relevant and universally applicable.
It's actually helpful to define a cult by comparing it with a phenomenon with which it's often confused.
The University of Virginia, a leading academic source of information on new religions has a New Religious Movement homepage. This is from its mission statement:
Religions and human cultures are constantly being renewed and invigorated.... At some point, every religion was new. There are no exceptions. And every vital religion is more or less constantly experiencing movement from within and pressures from the outside to change and adapt.
If we are defining cults it would be an oversight not to include a leading anticult group's description. The AFF (the American Family Foundation) has a long history of anticult activity and was originally founded by parents concerned by their children's (often adult children's) membership of NRMs. Not surprisingly, it's a little negative. It corresponds pretty closely to that held by the general population, and reflects the view that these groups are dangerously aberrant (some obviously are):
Cult: a group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea or thing, and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families or the community. (my emphasis)
For our purposes, and perhaps a little cheekily, I will take this definition and adapt it to define the more typical cult, ones not associated in the popular mind with psychotic leaders and damaged members:
Cult Brand: a brand for which a group of customers exhibit a great devotion or dedication. Its ideology is distinctive and it has a well-defined and committed community. It enjoys exclusive devotion (that is, not shared with another brand in the same category), and its members often become voluntary advocates.
There are as many definitions as there are interested parties, but this will serve us well enough. You'll note that some key distinctions common to the brand and cult definitions are the ideas of community and belonging, ideology, devotion, and advocacy. All these will be explored in great detail in the following chapters.
Devotion to a cult brand also can require significant cost. Obviously, the degree of sacrifice is not the same as that of a cult member, but in the context of consumerism, joining a brand can be pricey, and not just in terms of cash. Why does a loyal devotee of jetBlue leave his home in New Jersey to drive past Newark and La Guardia airports, cross two Manhattan bridges and hack across the endless plains of Queens to take a one hour flight from the airline's home base at JFK? (If you don't live in New York just know that most residents would be incredulous at such an act.) Why does Sean, a student, who can't regularly afford his lunch, feel compelled to upgrade his Mac computer every time a new model is launched just because he wants “to support the company”? Why does the same hungry student buy directly from Apple so that “they get all the money”?
Cult members are manipulated by brilliant psychopathic leaders. That is the populist explanation. And it's as poorly reasoned, and as insulting to its members, as is the idea that cult brand members have been brainwashed by cynical corporations. It assumes that consumers of cults and brands alike are bereft of free will and the powers of discrimination. Perhaps they are flawed by poor emotional backgrounds and educational and financial impoverishment. It's almost inevitable that they'll join a cult because of their faulty upbringing and mental instability.
Research contradicts this interpretation—not only my own, but data collected by scientists and sociologists who have studied cult phenomena for decades. Included among the cult members I spoke with were a senior executive in an M&A firm, managers of corporations, homemakers and students, a clinical biologist, and a financial broker. They were on the whole smart, sane individuals, often in highly respectable jobs, well aware of the choice they had made and reasoned defenders of it to detractors. They were otherwise ordinary in every respect. As Steve Hassan, one of the leading cult deprogrammers in the United States admits: “Since my departure from the Moon cult, I have counseled or spoken with more than a thousand former members of cults of all kinds. These people have come from every sort of background and ranged in age from twelve to eighty-five. Although some of them clearly had severe emotional problems before becoming involved, the great majority were stable, intelligent, idealistic people who tended to have good educations and come from respectable families.”1
Studies of the populations of major cults by religious sociologists report that their memberships generally follow a similar profile. Eileen Barker, a sociologist from the London School of Economics, undertook a large study of the membership of the Unification Church (more famously known as the Moonies) at the height of its popularity.2 Her data confirmed that of other academics who had profiled other groups. The cult's recruits tended to come from “conventional and highly respectable homes in which traditional values of family life, morality, and decency were upheld. They tended to believe that their parents' relationships were happy or very happy.” In terms of demographics, she found that joiners were largely middle class, disproportionately more so than the general population and that they had good academic backgrounds.
So, these people tended not be damaged by broken homes, impoverished, or rendered gullible by ignorance. But were they sane? Were they ripe meat for the vultures that preyed on psychologically vulnerable souls? Barker continues: “[There is a suggestion that] those who become Moonies cannot really be said to be in their right minds because they are particularly passive, pathetic, or suggestible people. But the evidence suggests that, although a few Moonies might fall into this category, the majority do not; indeed, it seems that, while some such people may be drawn to the workshop, it is precisely those whom one might have expected to be the most vulnerable to persuasion who turn out to be non-joiners.”
Ah, but perhaps they were unfortunate enough to have been brainwashed. Anyone, whatever his or her mental state, can fall victim to the machinations of the perverted doctors of psychological manipulation. Even if you have somehow squared your conscience and have opened this book relishing the opportunity to brainwash your consumers, or potential cult members, I'm afraid you're in for a disappointment. The technique has long been debunked as a credible tactic to generate sustained commitment to anything, including cults.3
Mainly, those who join cults do not do so because they are emotionally, mentally, or intellectually flawed or because failings in their upbringing have propelled them into the arms of a more loving or supportive environment. Or because they have been victims of sinister mind control techniques. They join for reasons that you or I would recognize, find reasonable, and have acted upon ourselves.
Similarly, near total information, decades of collective experience, and vast product choice make it very hard to hoodwink the modern consumer even if you wanted to. Nowadays, it's not unusual to have your carefully crafted brand strategy played back to you by consumers in a focus group. Buyers nowadays tend to be very media and marketing literate (almost 20 percent of all undergraduates received a business management degree in 2000–2001). The techniques to “seduce” the consumer are mostly open to scrutiny by everyone. Even when the marketing techniques are especially clever and elicit extreme devotion, the seller is often praised by those who have been seduced. As one loyal consumer of Snapple said admiringly in a group interview, “We've been bamboozled by The Man and we know it.”
Some cult members have undoubtedly been attracted by the charisma of their leaders, and some brand purchasers are surely a little deluded and extreme. But the majority buy into their respective belief systems for very good, very normal reasons and are quite aware of the criteria that informs those decisions.
At the heart of the desire to join a cult, in fact any community to which you will become committed, is a paradox. It's the central paradox of cult belonging and the one that destroys this most pervasive of populist myths.
As one cult member unequivocally put it, “Belonging allows the individual to become more himself. You become more you.” This is an essential “why” (the central motivation to join and belong) that we need to understand before we apply the multitude of “whats” (the techniques to generate attraction and loyalty) that are derived from it.
How can this possibly be? The mass suicides of the People's Temple and Heaven's Gate cults suggest the destruction of the self, not its development. Even if we put these two extreme (and rare) examples aside, how can belonging to anything result in enhanced individuality?
Actually the paradox is something that almost everyone has experienced at some time. A community of like people implicitly and sometimes explicitly endorses the individual. It's a vital ingredient of the sense of belonging that most crave when they say they are looking for somewhere to “feel at home.” It can create an uncritical and even celebratory environment in which the individual can feel confident enough to find and express himself. There is a “safe space” as one cult member said to me, where the inhibitions normally felt among strangers are removed and the barriers to being you are broken with impunity. You may change the company you work for, your neighborhood, social club, and even your friends, to find a place where it is more possible to be yourself with people you consider to be more like yourself.
The Moonies grasped this concept to use as a recruitment tool during their introductory weekends. They effectively accelerated the paradox. If a prospect showed any interest in the group during a street encounter or any other social contact, they were invited to one of the Moonie camps for a weekend. The focus of the stay was to foster intense interaction between prospects and church members. They played games, sang, and prepared and shared meals together. If the recruit achieved anything (like singing a song) they were praised and complimented. The overwhelming feeling that participants reported was of unequivocal love, and absolute support in everything they did.
The cult paradox dynamic can be looked at in terms of these four basic steps:
For some, the sense of separation can be enough to prompt them to search for a place where they “feel at home” or where the meaning system is more in accord with their circumstances at the time. The person may have experienced some trauma: a bereavement, divorce, or accident that prompts them to fundamentally reassess their worldview. For others it can simply be a low- grade dissatisfaction with the status quo. One man explained why he joined a cult: “I believed that life without some other meaning than the day-to-day routine wasn't really worth it, or there just wasn't enough lasting joy and meaning there.... I believed there had to be more.” These less- distressed people may simply be open to an alternative when it crosses their path. Active searching or more passive openness are the two circumstances that create an opportunity for cult recruitment.
A woman I will call Joanna fell more into the latter camp. Joanna joined a secretive and currently controversial cult called The Work. She is a successful, attractive, intelligent woman, Catherine Deneuve–ish in appearance. She was fairly typical of many of her urban contemporaries: accomplished but dissatisfied. She had significant responsibility in a major corporation in New York City. However, after years of striving in her career she had begun to feel disconnected from the “the things that were important to me.” She had made a series of minor incremental decisions that had brought her to a point that she had never intended.
“I really didn't know how I got where I was,” Joanna explained. “I started out as an art major. I was going into the textile design world and then I ended up being a manager of a corporate business. How did I get there? I was not aware of the sequence of events which I think happened more by default than anything else, but I ended up in the spot that I was in.”
She realized that she had little in common with her colleagues and she had lost purpose, which for her was intellectual inquiry, ideas, and art. She was introduced to The Work by a girlfriend's boyfriend. The opportunity to reconnect with herself through a group of similar people was attractive enough for her to accept his invitation to attend a “class” in a downtown loft.
It focused on the philosophy of Ouspensky, who taught that most of us allegedly live in a state of “waking sleep,” and that man should undertake exercises to force the consciousness to a higher level of awareness. Joanna found the group and this concept intriguing and eventually joined. She stayed for sixteen years (at considerable financial cost and time commitment).
Outside the group was a tolerable but incompatible life. Inside the group, Joanna found “people who shared the same interests, the same values. That was important.” She felt a sense of “camaraderie or sense of community.” This sense of belonging had a very important effect. “So in this group, although it was structured rather oddly,” Joanna explained, “I felt understood, validated, supported. That the things that I was truly interested in were not just poppycock.” The “true” unexpressed side of her that had been stifled in a stiff corporate environment was able to flourish within the albeit tight confines of a secretive group.
Joanna's story simply articulates a universal experience. We all have an awareness of our own uniqueness and difference. We might feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied in an environment where it is not recognized and encouraged. Being welcomed into a group where that difference is validated and encouraged by people who are also different, but like ourselves, is a relief and even exciting. This process is recognizable as a human constant, that is, it is common to everyone and is played out daily in all kinds of circumstances whether at work, at a church, in a social group, joining the military or a fraternity, or even buying a brand.
This reveals a very intense connection to a brand. Note how his statement echoes the “you become more you” comment that we saw earlier. His association with the Mac fraternity has made him “more himself,” he claims. It has taken that part of his identity that he considers his most defining characteristic, his creativity, and accelerated it. That's a pretty important role he has ascribed to a mere brand.
The community that surrounds Apple is typical of contemporary neighborhoods. No longer dependent on geographic proximity, they tend to be defined by a state of mind, or collective conviction. The Apple community is not even defined by the product itself anymore according to one student, Sean, who said, “In a literal sense, it's based around this machine, but it's based around a certain way of thinking.”
Apple has built an enviably strong community based on a “certain way of thinking.” Apple brand members (and they definitely see themselves as “members,” not just buyers) would define themselves by their different attitude to life, and they align that attitude with that of the Apple brand and the others who buy it. Like Joanna, they have gravitated to a community of people that think more alike, and less like the rest of the world.
Apple has cleverly leveraged the feelings associated with the cult paradox described in the steps above to elevate that brand to cult status: alienation and rejection, followed by validation that in turn sets the stage for self-actualization.
Others echo the Apple ethos.
“It's okay to be odd. We're odd too.”
“Like, there's nothing wrong with you ... that you're not considered an asshole ... that people don't say you're doing that and we're all doing this. It's okay to march to the beat of a different drummer.”
Apple has long had a large community of consumers who pride themselves on their nonconformism. They've seen themselves as creative people in an uncreative world and have tended to find what refuge they can in the businesses of architecture, advertising, music, and film, Apple's traditionally strong business base (currently roughly 30 percent of its customers are graphic designers and artists). To these people, Apple's call to challenge the norm has elevated their attachment to the brand beyond the simple desire to buy a clever box of electronics.
“I spent twenty-six of my years not conforming. Why the hell should I start now? The Mac has played a big role in helping me not conform.” A loyal user said this when we were talking about the “Think Different” campaign running at the time. It celebrated famous individuals who had gone against the grain, who had been considered eccentric or even weird. Their ideas and their passion, however, had changed the world. The TV, poster, and print ads featured Picasso, Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Richard Branson, Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, and others. It was a public declaration that their customers were not alone. In fact, they were in a community of heroes. It represented a broadcast endorsement of who they were. As one person said, “It's okay to be strange ... it's okay to come up with stupid ideas, to be different.”
The campaign broadcast validation to those who had always felt different from and uneasy in a world of conformists (as they saw it). It was the mass media equivalent of love-bombing, the technique the Moonies use to overwhelmingly endorse the individuals who attended the recruitment weekends (except perhaps a little more intelligently done). It was a classic use of the modern means of community building for those groups where geography is a barrier to bonding.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs and his advertising agency had latched upon the inherent feelings of difference and alienation of people who had probably felt separate from the rest of their worlds for most of their lives, simply because they leaned more toward the creative or the intellectual. They were the ones picked on at school for not being jocks or cheerleaders, or at least for not wanting to be. The brand made a siren call to those that felt that way and offered a virtual community of like-others. Jobs publicly validated his membership by associating himself and his fans with those heroes of society originally castigated for zigging when the rest zagged.
Her road to becoming a Wiccan was long and arduous. Jordana had grown up as a Hasidic Jew, a milieu where there are rarely tighter bonds between family, cultural, spiritual, racial, and community identity. It was one in which, as she grew into a conscious adult, she wished to explore her own identity. Jordana first wanted to become a rabbi. She asked her teachers questions about the role of women in the Torah and the Bible. She probed about Lilith. “They considered these to be dangerous questions. I think I realized that as a woman my participation was [to be] very limited.”
Her community could not reconcile her ambitions for her spirituality with her gender. She interrogated her world and she did not fit. She could not belong. She could not be herself. The insult was profound enough to propel her to the edge of self-destructive behavior. Jordana said, “I was in a lot of trouble at the time. There were many places I could have turned, drugs, discotheques all night, whatever.”
1. The Great Cult Paradox: Why People Join
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