You Can’t Lead From Your Office

Get out of the office and experience the magic.

One of the most frequent questions we get from CEOs is what they can do to build an exceptional company culture. They usually expect the answer to involve costly consulting. But the best advice we can give is a simple technique that improves culture immediately without costing a penny.

Here it is: Get out of the office and experience the magic.

Get up and get out.

Go and talk to your team, connect with your advisors, speak to your people.

Talk to your customers, especially your Brand Lovers—they often know your brand better than the majority of people in the organization do.

It’s easy to get bogged down in everyday responsibilities and accountability, but in the end, it’s the small, simple things that end up mattering the most.

When was the last time you left your office and engaged with those you value the most?

The Power of Thank You

The simple “thank you” is one of the most powerful ways I know to engage people.

I noticed in my consulting work how much this means to leadership teams, to associates, and myself. I learned how at the end of a difficult project people leave with a smile because of a simple thank you. How the long, grueling days of building strategy melted away when each knows their efforts were appreciated (“Thanks, Luke, for your insights on the customer today.”). How the last interaction of the day became their most recent thought and made them look forward to coming in the next day, knowing that their contributions are helping the team get the result.

The most effective leaders I know work diligently to thank their people. The validation can come from the end-of-day departures and acknowledging extra effort on the fly, or even just thanking them for doing their routine work, giving input, or being positive throughout the day. These leaders know the value of their people, and by saying, “thank you,” they help feed the hunger people have for belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Take every opportunity to find a reason to say “thank you” as often as you can. Thanking your people for their joint efforts is a straightforward and easy way to make a powerful, lasting impression in your organization.

Try taking time today to say, “thank you.”  You will see how powerful it is at engaging people.

For those of you in the US, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving.

The #1 Way to Be Kind to Employees

Clarity is kindness.

Jack Barker: Growth. The more brilliant people we can get working here, then the faster we can get whatever’s in your head out into the world. Let me tell you a story. In 1999, Google was a little startup just like we are. And when they started bringing in chefs and masseuses, we thought, they’re nuts.But they were attracting the best possible people, and they were able to create the best product. And now they’re worth over $400 billion. And do you know the name of that company?

Richard Hendricks: Google, right? You said it at the beginning of the story.

Jack Barker: You’re right. I did that wrong. And the whole point is that all of this is a sound investment as long as we are able to get the best people and make the best possible product. Silicon Valley1

Talk of taking care of employees is popular. Whether it’s the recognition that many employees want more than just a paycheck, offering Google-like perks, or employees demanding a better life-work balance, many businesses are rethinking the company-employee relationship.

The problem is that many efforts are patchwork solutions: they provide benefits that hopefully outweigh the negatives of the work and, as a result, make the work more bearable. 

Instead, businesses should start by thinking about how they can actually make the work easier and more enjoyable. And, the single easiest way to do this is by providing clarity.

Bringing Clarity to The Workplace

CLARITY IS KINDNESS!Ellen Marie Bennett2

When someone isn’t clear about their role, work becomes stressful.

Clarity in a business can take two forms:

  1. Day to Day: Being clear about an employee’s roles and responsibilities.
  2. Long-Term: Being clear about where the business as a whole is going and what it is trying to achieve, beyond just profit.

Without long-term clarity, you can’t offer day-to-day clarity to employees. And, you can’t expect them to be motivated by the work or be able to make the best decisions for the business. 

Lack of clarity often starts at the top. Before a business can offer clarity to its employees, leadership must have clarity about where the business is going. Without that clarity, the bigger picture can’t be communicated to employees and it’s difficult to be able to tell employees what is important in their daily work that will help achieve a larger goal. 

This lack of clarity has resulted in the plethora of vague job descriptions, core values that just exist on a poster on a wall, and business environments the produce managers that constantly change their minds and behave as poor leaders.

To have clarity, leadership needs to have—and communicate—a vision of what it wants the company to be like in the future. 

Vision: Why You Need More Than a Statement

If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.Zig Ziglar3

To create a vision of the future, most companies create a vision statement. In the best-case scenarios, this gets repeated regularly. In the worst-case scenario, it gets buried in the employee handbook. In every scenario, it’s not enough.

Vision Statements are necessary because they point to a goal beyond profit. But, they’re not bound by time: they don’t tell anyone what a business with that vision should look like a year, or two years, or ten years down the line. 

Without a time-bound company vision, it’s impossible to connect today’s work to tomorrow’s outcome. 

A time-bound vision should be both something that can be seen but that is also motivating. In other words, it shouldn’t be so far in the future that you could never predict what the business will look like in that time, but it should be far enough in the future that it creates an ambitious goal—something that isn’t ambitious will never create long-term motivation.

For most businesses, we’ve found that creating a 3-year Company Vision best fulfills the balance between creating something that can be both imagined and ambitious.4

Creating a 3-Year Company Vision

And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”Talking Heads5

A 3-Year Company Vision should be detailed: it needs to answer the question of what should the company look like in 3 years, in as much detail as possible—it should run several pages.

Although what this looks like and what areas of the business need a detailed vision will be different for each business, we’ve found that there are four critical sections required for all companies looking to create a strong brand and clarity for their employees. 

These four sections derive from the three elements from our model of building a strong brand: vision, culture, and customer. In our model, leadership creates a vision that inspires employees who translate your brand—through direct interaction, marketing, and products—to your customers.

Section 1: Overall 3-Year Company Vision

This section answers: what are the big goals—in line with your vision statement—that you want to achieve in 3 years?

These should be goals that significantly transform the business. They can be numerical goals or qualitative goals. But, the key is that should make the business different than it is today and make the business a better expression of its vision statement.

Section 2: Culture

Part of the reason for creating a 3-Year Company Vision isn’t to achieve the vision. It’s to become the type of company that could achieve that vision.

This section answers the question: what type of culture do we need and want to have in place to achieve our Overall 3-Year Company Vision?

Section 3: Marketing

This and the following section split the customer piece of our model of brand-building into two sections based on Peter Drucker’s idea of the functions of a business. 

Peter Drucker wrote, “Because its purpose is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two—and only these two—basic functions: marketing and innovation.”6

True marketing involves understanding the customers’ needs and tensions and then translating how you solve those tensions and fulfill those needs back to them over and over again.

This section answers the question: what do we want and need our marketing to be like in order to achieve our Overall 3-Year Company Vision?

Section 4: Innovation

The final section is the second piece of the customer element of brand building: innovation.

This section answers the question: what do we want and need our products and/or our services to be like to achieve our Overall 3-Year Company Vision?


There are three kinds of relationships one can have with work: you either have a job, a career, or a calling.Chip Conley7

Perks are great, but they’ll never make employees stop thinking of their work as a job and instead embrace it as a calling. And, in most cases, they just cover up underlying problems like a stressful job due to a lack of clarity in one’s own roles and the business’s direction rather than solving the underlying issue by giving clarity to the entire organization. 

Creating clarity about the vision of the business is the best way to be kind to employees because it influences every part of their workday. And, having clarity allows leadership to be kind to themselves: it enables leaders to better understand what intitiatives will actually contribute to the long-term health of the organization. 

Creating clarity starts with creating a vision statement and then translating that Vision Statement into a detailed 3-Year Company Vision that is easily understood by the whole organization. It lets them know where they need to go so they can evaluate decisions in the context of how to best get there. It stops them from guessing because they have a better idea of how to connect today with tomorrow in a way that’s compatible with everyone else in the organization. 

That can reduce a lot of stress. It can even give your employees a calling. 

Be kind. Create Clarity. 


Make Business Matter: How Do Cult Brands Create Loyalty? (Part 2)

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Today, we release the seventh episode of our podcast Make Business Matter.

On this episode, I continue to explore how Cult Brands cultivate customer loyalty. And, I reveal our latest thinking on the remaining four of The Seven Golden Rules of Cult Branding. You can find the first four principles for building a loyal following of passionate fans in part one.

You can listen to the episode on the player at the bottom of this blog post (if you’re reading this in an email, you need to click on the link in the title to take you to the blog page to see the player) or you can listen and subscribe on the Make Business Matter website or on your favorite podcast app.

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Hello, and welcome to the Make Business Matter podcast where we help you turn purpose into profit and customers and employees into passionate fans. I’m your host, Aaron Shields, partner and director of research for The Cult Branding Company.

On this episode, I’ll continue to answer the question: how do Cult Brands, cultivate loyalty?

In the previous episode, we looked at the first three principles Cult Brands use to cultivate loyalty and create passionate fans. Principle one is Be Courageous. Cult Brands don’t follow the norms of the industry. They have the courage to take risks. Principle two is Solve Meaningful Tensions in Customers’ Lives. Cult Brands understand what primary tensions they solve for their customers and find ways to solve them over and over again. Principle three is Be Distinct. Cult Brands create brands that have no substitute and cultivate the formation of like-minded customer groups around their brands.

Now, we’ll look at the remaining four principles.

Principle 4: Sell a Lifestyle. This principle was originally The Golden Rule of Fun. Fun is at the heart of this principle, but the end result of creating fun is selling a lifestyle that the customers want to be a part of.

Cult Brands’ products and services put smiles on customers’ faces and make them feel better about themselves. They provide a temporary escape from day-to-day life. But more importantly, they help customers fulfill their passions.

Cult Brands help customers fulfill their need for self-actualization. They feed a customer’s inner need to become who they truly feel they are. In other words, Cult Brands don’t just sell products or services, they sell tools to solve tensions that enable followers of the brand to become their best selves, pursue their dreams, and celebrate the distinct lifestyles that come with being part of a member of that group. When customers solve their tensions, the feeling of fun results.

Cult Brands tap into customer passions. They intertwine their products and services with the customers’ passions and become a lifestyle. These lifestyles are created through a combination of self-empowerment and self-fulfillment. Self-empowerment: Cult Brands champion the freedom of the individual. They help empower their customers to feel they’re in control of realizing their aspirations. Self-fulfillment, on the other hand, makes the customers feel that they’re becoming all that they can be. When the customers feel both empowered and fulfilled, they associate these positive emotions with the brand and see it as supporting their unique lifestyle.

Selling lifestyles means the Cult Brands are pervasive in customers’ lives. It’s not just about periodically selling a product or service. They sell a lifestyle to the customer at as many touchpoints as possible. They think about the frequency: how can they get to the customer more often than their competitors, but also in a way that supports solving the customers’ tensions and building the lifestyle?

Take Jimmy Buffett for example, Jimmy Buffett, like every good Cult Brander, doesn’t just sell albums or concerts, he sells a lifestyle. His music offers a state of mind that passionate fans can carry around throughout their lives. This is what Parrot Heads are really buying: the opportunity to fulfill their passions with like-minded people through activities like a road trip to a concert, meeting with a local Parrot Head for a drink, or volunteering with other Parrot Heads at a nonprofit.

By buying Buffett’s products, they buy into a unique lifestyle that fulfills something deep inside themselves. As Billy Peoples, co-founder of the Parrot Head Web Ring said, “I like the laid-back lifestyle that Jimmy conveys. Everyone likes to envision themselves on a sunny beach, drinking a cold beer and relaxing.”1

How do you start applying the principle of Sell a Lifestyle? Look at all your customer touchpoints. Each touchpoint either reinforces your brand or dilutes it. There is no status quo. Think about how each of your touchpoints can reinforce the lifestyle that customers want, how they can solve the tensions in customers’ lives that enable them to be the best versions of themselves.

Principle 5: Give More Value to Customers Than You Get From Them. This was originally The Golden Rule of Contribution, which focused on how Cult Brands always find new ways to show their appreciation for their customers. What this really means is that unlike most companies that try to get more from their customers than they give, Cult Brands try to make their customers feel like they’re getting more from the brand than they’re giving to it.

To create the strongest bonds, Cult Brands give customers what they want the most. And, one thing customers of Cult Brands really want is a community of like-minded people they can belong to. This often involves putting aside short-term profits in order to generate powerful long-term goodwill for the business and the brand.

I touched on the need to belong in the previous episode when I talked about principle number three, Be Distinct. Fitting in is very important to human beings throughout our lives. We’re partly defined by the communities we belong to. And, we also identify with the communities we belong to.

We can join communities by our actions. For example, playing on a soccer team gives us entry into a community of soccer players. And, by extension, the larger community of athletes. We can join communities by sharing a common belief: believing that one must treat the environment well brings one into the community of environmentalists. We can join communities by making a purchase, which is what Cult Brands do. They use purchases as a way to give their customers entry into a community of like-minded individuals. These customers often do more than just make purchases, because they identify with what the brand stands for. They wear apparel with the company logo, they make pilgrimages to attend events, and some even tattoo themselves with their favorite brand’s logo.

The idea of creating a place customers can make a pilgrimage to is something all Cult Brands do. Just like any religion, organization, or movement, Cult Brands have at least one significant meeting space. Catholics may have the Vatican, but Cubs fans have Wrigley field. Every Cult Brand has some focal point for the regular meetings, socializing, and strengthening of their faith or their bond with the brand and community. The size of this place is much less important than having one. It could be the first store or a factory or the garage of the company’s founder.

Cult Brands also engage with their community in the support of causes that reflect what they stand for. This can benefit the community directly or by supporting causes that overlap with the community’s beliefs.

Taking a lesson from Vans, Vans started as a boat shoe company and Paul van Doren and his family just wanted to manufacture shoes and sell them to their clients directly when they opened their first store in 1966. But in the mid-seventies in Southern California, skateboarders started wearing Vans shoes. Unlike other shoe manufacturers and many companies that shun off customers that don’t fit their profile, Vans actually started supporting the skateboarding crowd and began to cater towards them. They actually began paying skateboarders when skateboarders like Stacy Peralta felt other companies seem to not even want them to use their products.2

And, they really put their money where their mouth is when they created skate parks to bring their fans together with the activity they love. Former president and CEO of Vans. Gary Schoenfeld said, “Our vision is not to hit our target audience over the heads with ads but to integrate ourselves into the places where they are most likely to be. Kids don’t relate to direct hard-sell advertising. They see through a company that’s just spending a lot of money to attract their attention. Our strategy is to integrate ourselves more into their lifestyle.”3

So how do you start applying the principle of Give More Value to Customers Than They Get From You? Building communities is a long-term project. Think about how you stay in touch with your customers: How can you use the way you stay in touch with your customers to build a sense of community around your brand? How can you use it to bring your customers together?

Principle 6: Be Inclusive. This was originally The Golden Rule of Openness. The principle is that cult brands are inviting and inclusive. They’re open to anyone who wants to join.

Cult Brands don’t discriminate. They embrace anyone interested in their company. All ages, races, creeds, and socioeconomic backgrounds are welcome. This isn’t to say anyone wants to join: because Cult Brands stand for something and solve meaningful tensions for a group of people, people will self-select—based on beliefs—whether or not they want to be part of a community, not because the company targets a certain demographic. Customers don’t have to earn their way into the brand. There’s no need for customers to prove they’re cool. Cult Brands just automatically assume they’re cool if they want to join. Everyone is welcome to their parties, making it easy for people to feel a sense of belonging.

Customers want honesty and authenticity. They want brands that value their suggestions and appreciate their business. They want brands that make them feel welcome. Many customers are tired of snooty brands that take them for granted and refuse to make their lives better.

If you want to create feelings of openness and inclusiveness, you first have to set your employees free and allow them to sound and act like humans rather than a talking, cold, corporate script robot. Harley demonstrates this inclusiveness very well with the Harley Owners Group, or HOG. You don’t need a brand new bike to join, you just need a VIN number from any Harley. even if it’s a 30-year-old bike, you bought in a box and put back together yourself.

Taking a lesson from Jimmy Buffett, Buffett’s tales of fishing, sailing, relaxing, and partying, and tropical destinations represent places, attitudes, and escapes that all ages can relate to. His songs appeal to a state of mind, rather than appealing to a demographic. As one Parrot Head club, Club Finz, put it: “Through his music and writings, Parrot Heads vicariously experience Jimmy’s lifestyle: the party, the ocean, the sunshine, and relaxed sense of freedom are a part of it. And that freedom is most appealing, it allows us to express our feelings and creativity in whatever manner we choose and allows us to escape from the rat race to our little tropical paradise, if only for a little while. Parrot Heads are everywhere: you probably know a few and don’t even realize it. Parrot Heads are doctors, sales reps, lawyers, pilots, police officers, college students, computer programmers, grandparents, and maybe even your neighbor. And through their common interest in Jimmy Buffett’s music, this incredible gumbo of people from all walks of life is able to join together to support community causes in Buffett’s name.”4

So how do you start applying the principle of Be Inclusive? Consider: is your brand already open and inclusive or have you focused only on targeting ideal customer segments? Why? How can you make it more inclusive to all demographics and have people self-select based on mindset?

Principle 7: Promote Personal Freedom. This principle was originally The Golden Rule of Freedom. Nobody likes to feel owned or controlled. Humans cherish their freedom. At its heart, the way brands promote freedom is by removing a barrier in their customers’ lives. Cult Brands help people to be who they want to be, not who they’re forced to be because of personal or professional demands.

Feeling freedom, according to Maslow, helps people achieve self-actualization—the desire to become what people feel they truly are—because it enables them to express their own identity without feeling that there will be consequences.

When customers interact with Cult Brands, they come away feeling like they can do more. Harley promotes freedom on the open road. Linux promotes freedom of information. Apple promotes the freedom to be creative. By solving tensions, Cult Brands remove barriers for their passionate fans and provide feelings of freedom. By promoting freedom, Cult Brands ultimately promote freedom from something. Put another way, Cult Brands are value-driven and stand for something. So, ultimately, they must stand against something: they have an enemy. One of the quickest ways to bring people together in a common cause and energize them is to provide them with an archenemy—something that stands in the way of them achieving their goals.

Sometimes the enemy manifests itself in the form of a company or a person. Think about the race to get the first person to the moon: would America have been as energized if our Cold War nemesis the Soviet Union wasn’t also at hard work on the same goal? But even in these cases, the enemy is what the company or person stands for: an opposing set of views, ideals, or philosophies that run counter to the type of freedom the Cult Brand’s fans want to achieve. The Cult Brand says, “Yes, you can.” to the enemy’s, “No you can’t.”

In the case of Apple promoting creativity and self-expression, they stand against anything that hinders creativity and painted Microsoft as the super-controlling, uncreative organization of sameness. They used a rallying cry of “Saving computer users from the Gates of Hell,” referencing Microsoft founder Bill Gates to position them as the opposing force. As Apple evangelist that helped the users embrace the rallying cry Guy Kawasaki said, “It was certainly a point of strength and unity. Every cult needs a grand opposition that it can fight on ideological terms, not mundane parameters such as market share.”5

So how do you start applying the principle of Promote Personal Freedom? Think about what you stand for. What values stand against that belief? Is there someone in the marketplace that embodies what you stand against?

To recap, you may have noticed there’s overlap between some of these principles. It’s because they’re all pointing to something that is at the heart of Cult Branding: It’s about belonging. It’s about forming a customer community that believes in the same values as the brand. These principles are how Cult Brands create trust, solve tensions, and build a community of passionate fans.

Principle one is Be Courageous. Cult brands. Don’t follow the norms of the industry. They have the courage to take risks.

Principle two is Solve Meaningful Tensions in Customers’ Lives. Cult Brands understand what primary tensions they solve for their customers and find ways to solve them over and over again.

Principle three is Be Distinct. Cult Brands create brands that have no substitutes and cultivate the formation of like-minded customer groups around their brands.

Principle four is Sell a Lifestyle. Cult Brands create a lifestyle by intertwining their products and services with their customers’ passions.

Principle five is Give More Value to Customers Than You Get From Them. Cult Brands make customers feel that they’re getting more in return than they’re giving. And, one way they do this is by investing in customer communities, so passionate fans can gather together.

Principle six is Be Inclusive. Cult Brands are open to anyone who wants to join. People will self-select—based on their beliefs—whether or not they want to be a part of that community, not because the company targets a certain demographic.

And, principle seven is Promote Freedom. Cult Brands remove a barrier in customers’ lives, giving them feelings of freedom in doing so. They stand against an enemy, some value system that prevents the customers from achieving the freedom they desire.

In this episode, we finished looking at how Cult Brands cultivate loyalty. In the next episode, we’ll answer the question: what is a company vision and why do most vision statements fail? If you’ve liked this episode, please help me out by subscribing to this podcast. And if you’ve already subscribed and like what you hear, please leave me a rating and a comment.

Thanks for listening. I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, I’m Aaron Shields and I hope you go out there and make business matter.

3 Steps to Level Up Your Leadership

What is required of you to lead by your values?
A question to help you improve your leadership.

Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung often would refer to the two-million-year-old self, even when speaking to a child. Jung understood that inherent in our humanity is the wisdom of the ages.   

Here are three steps you can take to start developing yourself so you can become the leader you want to be.

Step 1: Define Your Leadership

Decide who you want to be as a leader. Remember that at the heart of great leadership are deep values. Here are a few simple questions to help you start your new vision:

  • What are your top three values?
  • What is required of you to lead by your values?
  • How do you inspire others?

After you answer these questions, put pen to paper and do some journaling. Use emotive words to describe your leadership experience and how you will feel once you have become the kind of leader you want to be.

You are the creator of this experience. There’s no one stopping you from developing a vision of whom you want to be, how you want to be perceived, how you want to feel, and how you perform your role.

Step 2: Make Friends with Reality

Telling the truth is the tricky part. This move is second in the process for a reason. If you start with facing reality before you define your vision, you may get discouraged. Telling yourself the truth about where you are today takes courage.

As you look at what you want to create, assess where you are in comparison.

Step 3: Build a Plan to Close the Gap

As a leader, you need to be a good planner. There’s no better way to test and train your planning abilities than to start with yourself. Your plan includes shoring up your weaknesses, developing new skills, and building empowering habits.

What kinds of accountability systems do you need so you can measure your results, course-correct, and celebrate your accomplishments?


You were chosen to lead because of your character, your initiative, your work ethic, and other excellent qualities.

You don’t have to wait if you have an entrepreneurial mindset to commit to your leadership journey. No matter how much you invest in yourself, that investment is never wasted; it always gives you a return.

Sometimes the best insights can come from setting aside time away from the busyness to reflect on your own. Having a close group of trusted advisors is powerful but it should not be a substitute for introspection and reflection.

How Inclusive Is Your Brand?

Each new customer segment needs to be invited before they will do business with you.
Cult Brands Are inclusive and actively make customers feel welcomed

In Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia, the Macedonian King upset his military compatriots and childhood friends by marrying Roxana.

Roxana was the daughter of a minor Persian baron. That is, she was not from Macedonia; she was not of Greek blood.

This outraged Alexander’s men who felt that he was disrespecting his homeland. But, Alexander didn’t identify himself exclusively as Macedonian or Greek. This great military strategist had a grand vision to create an empire that united the world as one people.

Alexander understood one of the fundamental principles of Cult Branding: Be Inclusive.

Inclusive vs. Exclusive

Destructive cults are exclusive. You are either in the group or you’re not. It’s a classic “us versus them” mentality that plagues humanity with feelings of superiority, specialness, judgment, and prejudice. If you’re in the group, you’re special. If you’re not, you’re nothing.

Benign cults—and Cult Brands in the commercial world—operate in the opposite fashion: they are inclusive. That is, they are open and inviting to anyone that wants to join the fun.

This doesn’t mean that a Cult Brand is for everyone. Since Cult Brands are distinct in the market—another of the principles of Cult Branding—they stand for something. They have a core set of ideals. As such, they only appeal to certain people who resonate with the ideals.

Cult Brands Are Inclusive

The ideals of Vans shoes, for example, probably aren’t going to speak to you if you’re not in the skateboarding community.

The annual, week-long Burning Man event now attracts around 70,000 attendees to the Black Rock Desert each August. Anyone is able to participate. As written in their ten guiding principles, “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.”1

And the wide range of attendees—from artists to billionaires, hippies to Silicon Valley CEOs—demonstrates that Burning Man is true to its word.

Big businesses like Google and Walmart also understand the power of inclusivity. Google seeks global inclusivity, a drive that only gets thwarted at the level of national governments. Walmart is inclusive of every neighborhood it builds a store, finding ways of working with as many local demographic and ethnic groups as it can.

Every organization, like every individual, has its limits and boundaries set by its beliefs, opinions, and worldviews. Inclusivity is not easy and it’s a challenge for any organization committed to this path.

How To Be Inclusive

Brands with loyal customers don’t alienate customer groups. They strive to be as inclusive as possible, constantly learning how to reach new customer segments.

The more inclusive you are, the more customer groups you open your business to and the larger your market potential becomes.

To become a more inclusive brand requires diligence. Being inclusive means gaining insights into new customer groups and then collaborating with your teams to discover ways of relating these new customers to what your business stands for, and serving them with respect.

Each new customer segment needs to be invited before they will do business with you.

How inclusive is your business today?

How inclusive do you want your business to be tomorrow?


How Do Cult Brands Create Loyalty? (Part 1) on the Make Business Matter Podcast

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Today, we release the sixth episode of our podcast Make Business Matter.

On this episode, I explore how Cult Brands cultivate customer loyalty. And, I reveal our latest thinking on the first three of The Seven Golden Rules of Cult Branding. In part 2, I’ll cover the remaining four principles for building a loyal following of passionate fans.

You can listen to the episode on the player at the bottom of this blog post (if you’re reading this in an email, you need to click on the link in the title to take you to the blog page to see the player) or you can listen and subscribe on the Make Business Matter website or on your favorite podcast app.

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Hello, and welcome to the Make Business Matter podcast where we help you turn purpose into profit and customers and employees into passionate fans. I’m your host, Aaron Shields, partner and director of research for The Cult Branding Company. On this episode, I’ll answer the question: how do cult brands cultivate loyalty?

On episode five, the previous episode, I looked at why most loyalty programs fail and examined how most programs aren’t based on true loyalty and, instead, just trying to get more and more customers to spend more and more without rewarding customers with things they actually want. On episode four, I talked about a particular type of brand that commands a highly loyal following: Cult Brands. These are brands that have mastered the art of building meaningful relationships. The customer is not only king, but part of the family. They understand that the brand isn’t just what they say, but how the customer perceives them. They’re profitable even in adverse market conditions because of the relationships they formed with loyal customers. In other words, they achieve trust, which leads to true loyalty, while other brands struggle to get customers to engage in their loyalty programs.

Even if you don’t want to go to the extreme of these Cult Brands and cultivating loyalty, there’s still things that can be learned from Cult Brands about developing relationships and loyalty that can be applied to any business.

What these Cult Brands do can be boiled down to seven principles. Tackling all seven was a bit too much for one episode. So in this episode, I’ll look at the first three principles, and then I’ll follow up in the next episode with the remaining four in tomorrow’s episode. These principles were originally mentioned back in 2002 in the founder of The Cult Branding Company BJ Bueno’s book The Power of Cult Branding.

A lot has changed in the business world since then. One Cult Brand failed to live up to its principles and is no longer in existence. In the wake of an emissions fraud scandal, VW started to focus on electric cars the same year it pleaded guilty to the fraud. The emissions fraud, which involved the diesel models of the Beetle, tarnished its reputation and what the Beetle stood for. Scott Keogh, appointed president and CEO of Volkswagen of America in the wake of the scandal, said, “Did it have an impact? Absolutely. And the reason it impact[ed] is we broke the trust. And if you look at what the singular thing the Beetle was so fantastic at: trust. It took millions and millions of families to school across America, to Woodstock, on and on. And the fact that this fiasco broke that trust is absolutely the most unsettling thing.”1

VW ceased production of the Beetle—a car that seems ideal for early adopters of the electric car market—the year after Keogh took over, likely because once trust is broken so massively, it’s hard for a brand to recover.

Even brands that have done so well at building trust and loyalty can erode it when they ignore what they stand for and what the customer wants.

Even though a lot has changed in business, these principles for cultivating customer relationships, gaining trust, and creating true loyalty have not. Although back then we referred to them as rules, now we prefer the term principles because rules are imposed from the outside, whereas principles come from an inner desire. And, we’ve rephrased and reordered them based on what we’ve learned studying and working with companies over the last 19 years. But, the essence of the principles remains the same.

Principle 1: Be Courageous. This was originally referred to as The Golden Rule of Courage. If you don’t stand out, people don’t follow. And, it takes courage to stand out.

Sameness is comfort for a company. When you play it safe, what you can achieve is easy to determine, but it’s boring. It doesn’t stand out. People are tired of being bombarded with products and services that all look the same, feel the same, and act the same by being the same. You can’t stand out and you can’t attract passionate fans because how can someone be passionate about something that appears the same as everything else?

Leaders of Cult Brands have the courage to be different. They aren’t content with the status quo. They are willing to take risks and make their brand stand out, often in the face of conventional wisdom. They’re often followed by the same companies that compete in the sea of sameness: once Cult Brands prove it works, many try to follow. But, leaders of Cult Brands are already focused on how they can take the next leap for the business and their customers.

This isn’t just about trying to be different: leaders of Cult Brands actually are different. They truly believe in what they stand for, that their products and services contribute to their customers’ lives in a meaningful way.

Before the original Star Trek series in 1966, Hollywood executives didn’t think American TV audiences wanted a serious, adult science fiction show, but Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, took it seriously. They hired Harvey Lynn, a member of the renowned technology think tank RAND, to design the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. And, they never shied away from tackling controversial social issues: the first interracial kiss in TV history was on Star Trek in 1968.

The steadfast belief in Star Trek was with Roddenberry before an episode even aired. As I talked about in episode four, this commitment to Star Trek provided Roddenberry with the resiliency in trying to get Star Trek on the air. Briefly: He pitched it for six years before a studio took a chance on him. The show only lasted three years, but Roddenberry went on the Sci-Fi lecture circuit, evangelizing fans while it was in syndication. Six years later, he got a studio to take a chance on his dream of a movie. But, two years later they decided the budget of a TV format would make more sense. Eventually, after the success of other Sci-Fi movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters, combined with the fan base Roddenberry developed on the Sci-Fi lecture circuit, they believed in it enough to greenlight the movie, which launched the franchise into the success it is today.

Someone who didn’t deeply believe in what Star Trek stood for would have likely shelved the project at some point in its history.

To begin applying the principle of Be Courageous to your business, think about where your brand would be if it had no limits. It’s often easier to be courageous in the company of like-minded peers. So, if you’re working with other forward-thinking people, bring them in on the brainstorm. Don’t be afraid to dream big.

Principle 2: Solve Meaningful Customer Tensions. This was originally The Golden Rule of Human Needs, which really boils down to solving meaningful tensions in your customers’ lives.

Cult Brands focus on solving the primary tensions of the customers they have and they build products and services to continually address those tensions in better and better ways. They don’t get sucked into the trap of creating products and services that could hypothetically attract new customers that haven’t used them in the past or that have sworn off their services.

How do they know what tensions to solve? They listen. They look at the congregation of customers they already have; they respect the choir; they value their opinions; they listen to them; and, they reward them.

They never ignore an enthusiastic follower, no matter how odd they may seem. Companies that ignore enthusiastic followers of the brand—ones that may seem too extreme—usually don’t understand the tensions they are solving and the needs they’re fulfilling. Companies that don’t understand their customers’ tensions tell stories that don’t resonate with the customers.

Understanding customers can be tricky for many organizations because customers are the element of the brand that isn’t actually part of the organization. As we discussed with brands, leadership creates a vision that inspires employees, whose behaviors—through direct interaction and marketing—translate your brand to your customers. These elements influence each other and collectively create a perception about the company. That perception is the brand. The customer is the element that you have to make the extra effort to interact with and the one that you have the least control over.

Cult Brands don’t try to convert pagans—people that don’t believe in what the brand stands for and don’t value the tension the brand is trying to solve. Instead, they preach to the choir and try to satisfy the people that are already happy with them better than anyone else. These customers already listened to their messages, already know their products and the brand. They are much easier to get to buy than ones that have never interacted with a brand.

Guy Kawasaki, former Apple Chief Evangelist, said, “Revise your product or service for the people who are already adopting it, not for the people who say, for example, ‘if you only had a better quality print driver, I would buy a Macintosh.'”2

Cult Brands, listen to their customers’ discontent and create solutions that build strong enduring loyalty.

Take Amazon for an example: By listening, Amazon discovered that the high cost of shipping interfered with how often their customers made purchases. So, in 2005, they launched Amazon Prime, giving members unlimited free two-day shipping in return for a yearly fee. It’s an initiative that has been more successful than analysts predicted. And, they’ve kept improving the service to better meet the customer needs for convenience. Now there are over 200 million Amazon Prime subscribers and the typical member spends four times the amount as a non-member.3 And, they’re willing to pay for a membership.

A brand like Apple takes listening to their best customers even further by being their best customers. This is where many companies start but fall off somewhere along the way as they grow in size. In a 2008 Fortune interview, Steve Jobs said, “It’s not about pop culture, and it’s not about fooling people, and it’s not about convincing people that they want something they don’t. We figure out what we want.”4

Contrast this with most companies where employees don’t even use the products unless they’re forced to.

So how do you apply the principle of Solve Meaningful Customer Tensions? If you’re going to grow your brand, you first need to understand what main tensions you solve for your customers. Then, spend some time each day, even if it’s just a few minutes, viewing your company’s brand through the eyes of your best customers: will the direction the company’s going provide value to the customers by solving their tensions in a way that’s better than how you’re solving them today?

If you need help getting into their mindset, luckily customers aren’t shy about sharing their feelings, thoughts, and impressions about your brand on social media.

Principle 3: Be Distinct. This was originally The Golden Rule of Social Groups, which related to customers wanting to be part of a group that’s different. But what we realized is some people mistake it for being different just for the sake of being different. Instead, it’s about standing out in a way that’s meaningful in a way that makes your brand distinct from other companies in the same space.

This is really about giving your customers a license to be weird. Rick Ross, the cult expert, not the rapper, said, “I think that with many of these groups, such as diehard Elvis fans hanging out in Graceland, that becoming a member of these cult followings is kind of like receiving a license to be weird. You go out and find your kindred spirits—other people that would like to ‘be weird’ also—and then you can be weird together and basically feel weird no more.”5

Humans are social animals. Look at how addicted our society is to staying connected: phones, emails, social media. We have a perpetual need to interact. We want to belong to a community.

But, humans also want to stand out from the crowd and be seen as unique. People want to be weird, but they don’t want to be the lone weirdo. So people identify with and join groups that see some part of the world in the same way they do—groups that they see as unique. They get to fulfill both the need to belong and the need to stand out, often outside of the mainstream society.

Cult Brands help fulfill these needs in people’s lives and create groups based on their values, what they stand for, and the tensions that they solve for like-minded people. Since these groups are tied to relieving some tension in people’s lives and ways customers fill their needs and meaning in their lives, they often see these groups of surrogate families built around the products and services for like-minded individuals.

For companies that want to develop into true cult brands, they must start with a product or service that is distinct from the competition—one that seemingly has no replacement. In the mind of the social animals that are your customers, there can be no substitute for your brand and must stand in a class by itself. Your best customers—your Brand Lovers—must believe that no other product or service can come close to offering the same benefits.

In 1994, Oprah announced that she was going to abandon the sensationalism that pervaded talk shows at the time. She would no longer include tabloid topics and exploit guests. Instead, she would only offer solutions, not problems.

Many competitors probably thought she was crazy. Her ratings had begun to slip as she had started to look tame compared to other talk shows. So, the common wisdom would have been to make the show more extreme in the way shows like Jerry Springer were doing. But, she was determined to buck the trend and turn her ratings around by standing out from the crowd, rather than playing into it. She offered self-improvement instead of sensation.

In 1996, she helped build her community by starting the Oprah Book Club to nurture her fans and make them also feel unique. As pop-TV expert Dr. Robert Thompson said, “What she brought with the Book Club was this appetite people had out there to feel that they were engaging in something intellectually stimulating. Oprah acknowledges that you’re different and unique, but at the same time embraces you into this larger family of Oprah.”6

So how do you begin to apply the principle of Be Distinct? Start to look at how your customers are coming together naturally, and think about how you can make it easier and better for them to come together.

To recap, we looked at the first three principles Cult Brands use to cultivate customer loyalty. Even brands that are not looking to go full Cult Band can apply these principles to cultivate their customer relationships and build their brands.

Principle one is Be Courageous: Cult Brands don’t follow the norms of the industry. They have the courage to take risks.

Principle two is Solve Meaningful Customer Tensions: Cult Brands understand what primary tensions they solve for their customers and find ways to solve them over and over again.

Principle three is Be Distinct: Cult Brands create brands that have no substitute and cultivate the formation of like-minded customer groups around their brands.

In this episode, we looked at how Cult Brands cultivate loyalty. We’ll continue this exploration in the next episode and look at the other four principles Cult Brands use to create passionate fans.

If you’ve liked this episode, please help me out by subscribing to this podcast. And, if you’ve already subscribed and like what you hear, please leave me a rating and a comment.

Thanks for listening. I look forward to hearing from you. Until next time, I’m Aaron Shields and I hope you go out there and make business matter.

How Fairy Tales Can Help You Improve Customer Communication

When we know what stories are near and dear to our customers' hearts, we know how to BETTER communicate and connect with them.

What are fairy tales? Simple stories to keep children entertained in the nursery, perhaps—tales of giants and princesses spun out of simple fancy and wayward whimsy? Perhaps, they’re something more. 

Fairy tales are some of the oldest stories in existence.  These are tales that have been told since the beginning of time. In one form or another, these stories have been told time and time again to entertain, but also to teach.

The details vary from culture to culture: Europe gave us Hansel and Gretel using their wits to get away from a ravenous witch, whereas Brer Rabbit and his tricky antics originate in the antebellum American South. But, the underlying messages remain the same: there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome if we’re smart, steadfast, and not above being strategically committed to objective truths.

Brand Lovers and their Cultural Stories

Another way to refer to fairy tales—and other old, eternal narratives—is as cultural stories. Although we seldom articulate our connection to cultural stories—the rare exception, perhaps, being the prom or bridal dress shopping experience that leaves us “feeling like a princess”—the truth is that these tales play a pivotal role in our decision making.

Cultural stories connect us to our ideal selves. These are symbolic road maps we use to navigate our way through life—strategic touchstones to reference as we move forward from where we are to where we want to be.  Cultural stories provide the framework we see ourselves in, both as individuals and in relationship to others.

It’s critical for brand managers to read this narrative and understand that our customers do the same thing. Consciously or otherwise, the tales we learned as children play a pivotal role in guiding our responses to things that we can’t understand.

Why Fairy Tales Are Important

We use cultural stories to help us understand life experiences.  We also use these cultural stories to guide our actions to better navigate what life throws at us.  This is where cultural stories guide purchasing behavior.

For example, the man who feels trapped and without choices in a complex world may identify deeply with and long to be the rugged hero who rides out and takes on the unexplored frontier, ready and able to meet the challenges of the world, always confident and capable. 

In an effort to alleviate internal tensions—feeling powerless, yet being desirous of change—he may “take on” aspects of this strong hero, in the hope that following the example may endow him with some of the qualities he most admires. Lighting up a Marlboro may deliver a satisfying smoke, but it also lets the zero become the hero. There are twenty opportunities in every pack to be bold, to be fearless, to be the agent of change in one’s own life, to step into the spotlight and star in the story.

What are the cultural stories that most influence your customers? When we know what stories are near and dear to our customers’ hearts, we know how to better communicate and connect with them.

Behaviors That Influence Cult Brands

Leaders may struggle to create brands that are still relevant in today’s culture due to the high but ambiguous expectations they must achieve. Consider the tried-and-true method of identifying and aligning around a compelling brand promise. This is critical when comparing your brand’s performance to its objectives. The “should” behavior of a brand may be established across all touchpoints, although there may be inconsistency. 

It’s much easier said than done.

Pointing to a single feature of the brand and expecting results isn’t going to cut it. Despite this, corporations spend billions of dollars on training programs as an obvious “cure” for brand behavior. According to HBR, $160 billion is spent in the United States alone on ineffective training programs. Bad conduct endures in the absence of proof that these interventions improve organizational performance.

Blaming it on external circumstances is also not an option.

It is not the customers’ fault if the brand fails to deliver on its promises. If the market changes and customers do not respond as they did in the past, the brand’s behavior must be adjusted.

To truly ignite change, a thorough approach that examines behavior both inside and outside the business is required.

1. Obtain an outside viewpoint

Change in brand behavior occurs from within, but top-down change is extremely impossible to ignite from within. According to a recent HBR article on leadership development, “HR managers and others find it difficult or impossible to approach senior leaders and their teams with an uncomfortable truth.”

Using an outside agency to help identify the shifts in behavior that the brand needs to make and establish a clear strategy can ignite the behavior change in a far more productive way than if the job is tasked to internal leadership.

2. Begin at the top

Begin by engaging with senior management to identify the brand’s values and strategic direction with the help of an external team. Then, identify the shift in behavior in your leadership team and commit to making changes that are in line with the strategic direction. The brand’s promise should act as a guidepost in determining the type of behavior that needs to be altered.

3. Examine and reorganize roles and responsibilities

This must occur at all organizational levels in order to represent the brand’s promise and encourage change. It is vital to ensure that the brand has the infrastructure in place to support its promise. A brand that is built on its exceptional customer service, for example, must have the right team and people in place to execute.

4. Evaluate day-to-day behaviors

Evaluating day-to-day actions outside of job descriptions assists workers in identifying the specific things they can do to better reflect the brand. At the end of the day, the simple things that a brand performs should reflect its promise.

5. Measure Change

Setting new behavioral expectations is one thing. Another is to hold the individuals behind the brand accountable for the new conduct.

6. Alter and adapt

In order to sustain new behavior, it is critical to constantly adjust and adapt your processes and procedures. Set a timetable for change and commit to reevaluating what works and what doesn’t within that time frame. There is always room for advancement.

If the brand needs to change its behavior to improve its reputation, following these six stages will assist to ensure that the change is widespread and long-lasting. When done correctly, it can boost employee engagement, sales, and people’s perceptions of your brand and organization.

How Retail Therapy Helps Customers and Retailers

Every organization has the opportunity to identify points where they can let their customers do the driving.

What do you know? It turns out you can buy happiness.

Okay, I might be overstating the case—but only a little. Nearly a decade ago, researchers Scott Rick, Beatriz Pereira, and Katherine Burson found that retail therapy—going shopping specifically to lift the mood, a behavior typically characterized as negative by the majority of observers—may actually have a therapeutic benefit.1

It is by delving into the unconscious psychological and social factors that influence customer behavior that we, as retailers, learn how to better please our shoppers. Rick, Pereira, and Burson have given us valuable insight into some of the factors that influence customers who come into our stores specifically for retail therapy.

What are these shoppers searching for? Over the years, many theories have been put forward, including the thrill of the hunt for the novel item or bargain price or a more basic alleviation of boredom. What Rick, Pereira, and Burson’s research shows is that retail therapy customers are motivated by a desire to restore some element of control to their lives.

The act of choosing between various types of merchandise empowers the customer—even if they have no intention whatsoever of making a purchase. The time the customer spends shopping is time that the customer occupies a powerful position: ultimately, they’re in control of the transaction. They are the decision-maker.

Let us contrast this experience with the rest of our customers’ lives. The evening news broadcast is consistently full of headlines designed to evoke feelings of powerlessness. There’s an invisible enemy causing a global pandemic. War and revolution are everywhere. Crimes against the most vulnerable continue to escalate. The planet’s getting warmer, the ice caps are melting, and from the weather report, it looks like Mother Nature is doing her best to kill us all. There is nothing—not a single solitary identifiable action—that an individual can do to solve any of these problems. It’s a frustrating situation that forces one to confront their own position in the universe; a position that all too often resembles complete irrelevance.

Retail’s Mysteries Revealed: Toward a More Humanistic Business Model

If you had to choose between feeling like an all-powerful, omnipotent decision-maker or a frustrated, powerless spectator to overwhelming series of distressing events, which one would you pick?

Your customer thinks the same way. If we want to attract the retail-therapy-seeking customer into our stores, we need to find ways to fulfill their need to be in control. Every organization has the opportunity to identify points where they can let their customers do the driving.

An empowered customer is an enthusiastic customer.

That’s how retail therapy helps retailers. If you want to see how this is working out in your store, keep an eye on the headlines and your sales numbers over a designated period of time—two weeks to a month would be ideal— and see what identifiable patterns emerge. The decision to actually make a purchase is the ultimate power held by the customer. The points when they feel most powerless or overwhelmed is when they’re most likely to self-medicate with retail therapy, shopping, and buying more.

Putting Customers First means understanding the world our customers live in, and how the events that take place there impact their everyday purchasing behavior. If we can do that, we can build brands that thrive.