What makes cult brands special?

This past week I attended the Cult Gathering marketing conference in Banff, a meeting of CEOs and marketing directors from global cult brand leaders. Cult brands don’t just have customers, they have fans and brand evangelists who do much of their marketing for them through word of mouth online and off, and through earned media and publicity. In fact, most spend very little on traditional advertising at all, and they are flourishing in this age where the consumer increasingly owns our message.

Cult brands typically:

– Have above average brand attachment.
– Have above average word of mouth.
– Have above average margins.
– Spend less on mass media and ads.
– Do fewer or no promotional mark downs.
– Have above average internal productivity.
– Have the ability to demand desirable price points.

Sounds like a pretty compelling list doesn’t it?  So why aren’t there more companies behaving like cult brands? Quite simply because many companies are lacking some of the common practices required, or are comfortable playing it safe and achieving average results.

While learning the stories behind many cult brand examples at the conference, five common threads emerged:

1. Strong purpose. Cult brands stand for something
Without exception ALL cult brands have a meaningful purpose, one that can be broadly shared by many, with meaning that people care about. Airbnb’s purpose is to create a world where anyone can belong to anywhere. Lush’s purpose is to create a cosmetic revolution to save the planet. S’Well’s purpose is to rid the world of plastic bottles. Orange Theory’s purpose is the give people a long vibrant life.

2. Be a disruptor. Cult brands disrupt and defy category norms
Some cult brands disrupt promotion, some disrupt through distribution and their product. Others disrupt through their pricing and business structure. But all share the common thread that they challenge competitors in their category by doing things differently. Airbnb literally created a new form of accommodation globally through a sharing-economy based model. Uber disrupted the taxi industry with a sharing-economy based model too. Orange Theory disrupted the fitness space with a different approach to the typical gym offering and how it is sold. They offer boutique fitness and group personal training based on science informed workouts. It’s not sold by pushy sales tactics typical of the category. In fact, most sales come via member referrals. Some brands disrupt by taking a stand, sometimes politically. They know that by standing for something they will endear themselves to those that agree even more. While risking alienating some in the process, they realize that trying to be everything to everybody will never allow you to stand out. Lush’s recent Valentines campaign image featuring two women in a bubbly bath together, and their ongoing support for gay rights, drew media attention and some critics. But their fans loved them even more for it.

3. Have a story
All cult brands have a strong story that begs to be shared. Oftentimes that story is based around their brand purpose and bringing it to life in a way that allows customers to share the story for them. But they also regularly create experiences that customers share as their own stories.

4. Employee evangelists
Cult brand create a culture internally that has complete buy in from employees, often because they believe in the greater vision and purpose of the company, but also because leadership realizes their employees are their most valuable resource. It’s not a coincidence that cult brands also rank high for desirable places to work. S’Well employees work there because they want to help create a sustainable future, and believe the work they are doing has value towards that goal.

5. Be human and personable
Cult brands don’t shout at their customers and push ads. They create experiences and let their customers talk about them through word of mouth, both online and off. On average, 50% of social media for LUSH is customer created content and stories. 60-65% of sales for Orange Theory come through existing members.

In all cases, culture came through as so important, and that culture is based on buy in and leadership from the top. They also don’t neatly conform to the existing marketing department and ad agency model, which is what I find the most fascinating. In a conversation with Kendra Peavy, VP Global Communications for S’Well, she noted in 2018 they received 10 billion impressions and 1,600 pieces of earned content plus thousands of fan based social media posts, all for FREE. No agency, and the results were produced by a four person savvy communications department.

We can learn a lot from cult brands, because as consumers increasingly control our communications and message, they have already mastered a world based on this model.

I did a video summary while in Banff sharing a little more context around some of these insights. Watch it on Youtube above.

In coming weeks, I’ll be digging a little deeper into the back stories on some of these individual brand examples. And if you want to be on the insider group that gets these insights first and a lot more through my weekly Five-Minute Marketing Tips e-newsletter, you can SUBSCRIBE HERE. It hits your in box every Sunday morning – just in time for a coffee and quick learning while you relax. Or it will be waiting for you Monday morning, if that’s when you prefer to check in on your emails!

Mary Charleson


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