Can You Create a Cult Brand?


Reproduced is a portion from a 23 July, 2014 article by Leesa Smith in Mail Online – “Fights, armed hold-ups, customers sleeping overnight and thousands of dollars in parking fines – it’s just another day at Australia’s newest Krispy Kreme donut franchise.

Police have been called to the outlet more than 20 times since the store – the first in South Australia – opened last week.

As well as breaking up brawls between impatient customers who had queued for hours and investigating a robbery during which two teenagers were robbed of their donuts at knifepoint, the local council in West Croydon, Adelaide, has issued 145 fines totalling $21,000 to drivers who parked illegally to get their hands on the sugar-loaded treats.” You can read the complete article here.

Wow! All this for donuts? But this is not a stray case as far as Krispy Kreme is concerned. Every time the company opens a new store, something similar happens. Krispy Kreme has, without doubt, got a cult following!

Steve Jobs – rest his soul – created a brand with a fanatical, loyal, almost evangelic set of consumers. Even today, when Apple has become far more prevalent, it retains a set of consumers for whom nothing comes close to an Apple product.

Volkswagen Beetle is a cult brand. As is Harley Davidson. Starbucks. Air Jordan Nike. Cults have been created in every sphere of life, including religion and politics. Hitler created a cult following. Oprah Winfrey has a cult following. As has Narendra Modi. The Beatles, during the Beatlemania phase and after, had a cult following. So does the Grateful Dead. Quentin Tarantino. Manchester United.

So how does one create a cult brand, a brand with a super-high set of loyal consumers? Did the brands or people above know beforehand that they were going to become cult brands? Or was it just serendipity?

Of course, there are a lot of advantages of a brand reaching cult status – its loyal consumers become its spokespersons and, in today’s digital era, that can be a huge, huge advantage. The loyalists buy everything that the brand has to offer and cajole a number of other people to do the same.

While there is no, on the surface, similarity between the cult brands outlined above, they do have some commonalities:

  1. The brands are all different from competition in some significant way. It is this differentiation that attracts a certain group of people to these brands.
  2. The people behind cult brands have themselves a fanatical determination to do things differently and establish their vision on the world map.
  3. Cult brands allow their tribe to enjoy. Almost all cult brands provide a great deal of pleasure to their tribe members.
  4. Cult brands start small, with a small group of evangelists. The brands concentrate on these evangelists and look to this tribe to bring in other members.
  5. Cult brands create tribes or communities. Almost a 100,000 Apple fans attend the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco. Harley Davidson has its own rider clubs and events and merchandise.
  6. Cult brands are inclusive. Luxury brands, due to their necessarily exclusion strategy, are certainly very desirable but don’t necessarily reach cult status.

However, it is DIFFICULT to start with the assumption that you can create a cult brand. That is because there is a certain uncertainty and spontaneity involved. Yes, you could keep the above six (or more) points in mind while launching a new brand but there is still no guarantee that you would end up creating a cult brand. Having said that, do follow these points for your brand because they are likely to help your brand achieve popularity, even if it falls short of cult status.

However, cult brands have their downsides as well. To know more about the upsides and downsides of cult brands, you should read Melanie Wells’ excellent article on cult brands, written in 2001 in Forbes. You can read it here.

Do note that a cult brand is not the same as a fad – the latter is popular for a short period of time and is generally unsustainable as in the case of Hula Hoops and Razor scooters.

Sources: Marketing Management, Philip Kotler; Melanie Wells, Forbes, 2001.

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This article was written by andy

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