Cult Branding was founded on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs. Maslow’s hierarchy offers a simple framework for understanding customer behavior: humans have inherent needs that they try to fulfill—consciously or unconsciously—in everything they do.
Although Maslow’s hierarchy offers significant explanatory power, it does not provide a complete explanation of brand loyalty. A more complete explanation involves taking a step back from Maslow and understanding how humans react when something happens to them.
Cause and Response: How We React to Stimuli
In biological terms, a stimulus is something that can evoke a physiological response. When we detect a stimulus, a chain reaction occurs: A change happens at the cellular level that manifests itself as a change in our body. We become aware of this change. And, when we become aware of the change, we feel something.1
These changes can be beneficial (resulting in positive feelings) or harmful (resulting in negative feelings). It is this recognition of whether a stimulus produces a positive or negative feeling that affects future behavior: after a child touches a hot stovetop, they have a negative response and are likely to avoid it in the future.
Maslow referred to the needs as instinctoid—they operate as the equivalent of an instinct; these needs, then, are ways to categorize the innate biological responses to stimuli.2 Achieving fulfillment in each level of Maslow’s hierarchy can be understood as containing the types of behaviors that lead us to encounter stimuli that produce positive feelings.
The needs operate at the deepest levels of biology and serve as the foundation for motivating human behavior.
Each company, by the nature of its products, will fulfill different levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to different degrees. No company will be great at fulfilling all of the biological needs.
How these biological motivators manifest in the psyche and become psychological motivators explains how brands derive loyalty. To understand this, we need to take a look at what Carl Jung called archetypes.
Jung developed the concept archetypes to explain patterns of behavior. These archetypes, in Jung’s words, “are simply the forms which the instincts assume.”3 In other words, the archetypes are the ways the instincts manifest themselves in patterns of human behavior.
When Jung speaks of the Warrior Archetype, for example, this archetype is all the ways a warrior can manifest, from the general on the battlefield to the athlete.
Archetypes organize experience.
There is an infinite number of ways the archetype can manifest but only a certain number of responses to them. These responses are limited to the categories described by Maslow.
These responses are either positive (fulfilling the need): the winning warrior who both achieves safety through the protection of the self and the members of the group he belongs to and achieves esteem through conquest and mastery; or negative (not fulfilling the need): the warrior who fails to protect his tribe and win the war.
As archetypes are ways of patterning behavior, every brand will play into some archetypal pattern but it is up to the brand to ensure whether there is a strong relationship between the archetypes they use in their advertising and the ability of the company to fulfill the biological needs that the archetypes support.
This is where businesses often fail: executives don’t understand what needs their company fulfills and what archetypes should be linked with the company. As a result, they execute unrelated tactics and campaigns that often constantly tap into different archetypes in the hopes that something sticks. And, most of these archetypes have no relationship to the needs the company fulfills.
By not having a strong link between the archetypes and the needs the company has the ability to fulfill, they create a weak brand; by constantly changing archetypes with each campaign, they create confusion.
How Brands Associate with Archetypes
Attempting to link a company to an archetype unrelated to the needs it has the ability to fulfill is exactly what happened when Infiniti released the Q45 with its Zen campaign—a series of ads displaying Zen-like imagery.
Not only did Infiniti fail to show the car in any of the advertising, but they also failed to attach the product to an archetype that has anything to do with driving. Their campaign tapped into the archetype of the sage and its associated attributes of inner peace and serenity. A vehicle may help the owner achieve a sense of safety that may make driving calm. But, a car helping you achieve inner peace? Hardly.
Contrast Infiniti with Nike, an expert at doing it well. Understanding that athletes are a manifestation of a warrior archetype, all of their advertising supports the archetype and its manifestation as a victorious athlete (no one would want to be associated with a losing warrior).
Nike capitalizes on the archetype of the warrior using battle imagery with its athletes to the extreme—only the ultimate champion survives. Remember the silver is for losers campaign?
Strong branding uses archetypes that relate to innate needs the brand fulfills and delivers the archetypes consistently and frequently.
This is exactly what Nike does: Nike’s advertising is focused on finding creative ways to represent the same (consistent) archetype that is tied to the needs their brand fulfills (innate) over and over again, year after year (frequent). And, they’ve done it so often with the swoosh in full view that seeing the swoosh is now enough to recall all the archetypal associations of the brand and the biological needs it fulfills.
Decoding Your Brand’s Archetypes
In short, strong brands, and especially Cult Brands, work at the basic biology of humans, and they achieve this by tapping into the archetypes related to the needs their company fulfills. And, they support these archetypes through every touch point with the consumer on a consistent and frequent basis.
So, ask yourself: Do I know what my brand’s archetypes are? How do they relate to the innate biological needs my company can fulfill? And, how consistent and frequent am I in representing my brand’s archetype across all touch points?