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Aaron Shields

Top 5 Cult Branding Blogs of 2022

Cult Branding's Top Loyalty and Crisis Blogs of the Year

Below are the 5 most popular blogs of the year.

They cover everything from social media to customer trust to the power of gratitude.

If you’re reading them for the first time, we hope you find new insights. If you’re reading them again, we hope you find a valuable reminder that you can put to action in the new year.

We wish you and your family a happy, healthy, and fantastic New Year.

Is Your Social Media Strategy Really A Social Media Strategy?

The social media landscape changed a lot in 2022. But its core function hasn’t changed. In “Is Your Social Media Strategy Really A Social Media Strategy?” we look at the core function that many businesses miss.

Three Vitally Important Lessons I Learned About Trust While In a Filthy Gas Station Bathroom

A lot is written on customer loyalty. But most of it ignores the precursor to loyalty: trust. Without trust, you can’t get to loyalty.

In “Three Vitally Important Lessons I Learned About Trust While In a Filthy Gas Station Bathroom,” we look at how easy trust is to break and how competitors can use another company’s failure to gain trust to wow their own customers.

Can Customers Trust Your Brand?

Another article on trust. We expect to see a lot more articles written next year on trust (and we plan to write a few ourselves).

In “Can Customers Trust Your Brand?” we look at how brands are outpacing governments in their ability to create trust.

Where Is the Love? Understanding What Went Wrong for Netflix

Even big brands with a lot of customer data can make big mistakes (just look what happened to the ones featured in Good to Great).

In “Where Is the Love? Understanding What Went Wrong for Netflix,” we look at some of the missteps Netflix has made lately and how it could affect customer loyalty.

Four Ways to Make Gratitude a Daily Practice

There’s plenty of research out there showing how adding daily practices of gratitude can improve your well being.

In this “Four Ways to Make Gratitude a Daily Practice,” we describe four ways to easily incorporate gratitude into your daily life.

Is Your Social Media Strategy Really A Social Media Strategy?

how can you use your brand to help customers tell their stories?  how can their stories help you tell your story better?

Native American Proverb

Pull up almost any major corporation’s Facebook page and look at how they respond to negative feedback. Often, it’s ignored. When it’s not, it’s usually a copy-and-paste response that reads like it spent several weeks losing its humanity in the legal department: “Sorry you didn’t have the perfect experience we’re committed to delivering. Please call 1-800…”

In the latter case, not only does the customer have to make the effort to call, but they also have to re-explain the issue. And, they’ll likely get put on hold. This is hardly a commitment to a great customer experience.

This isn’t just reserved for negative posts; positive posts usually get the same responses: no answers or cookie-cutter answers that aim just to try and make the algorithm see a boost in engagement. 

Behavior like this should be shocking at this point: experts have warned companies for well over a decade to use social media to primarily communicate rather than broadcast. Yet, most still predominantely use social media as little more than a glorified broadcast platform.

Whether this usage stems from ignorance or inability (or both), ultimately the issue is that companies are ignoring the true nature of branding: authentic brands are co-authored experiences with customers, employees, and the brand; authentic brands are not broadcast experiences.

In October 2012, I attended AdAge’s Social Engagement/Social TV Conference in Los Angeles. The most interesting thing I heard there was an offhanded comment by Kay Madati—then the Head of Media and Entertainment for Facebook who later worked for Twitter and LinkedIn and now works for FIFA. He said that internally Facebook refers to posts and their threads as stories.

In that context, most of Facebook’s moves—even the controversial ones—over the last decade make sense: how do we allow our users to better tell the stories they want to tell and see the stories they find meaningful?

But, social media isn’t just great for customers to tell their stories; it’s great for brands to tell their stories too. How much different would your brand’s Facebook page be if its only goal was to tell the story of your brand in a way that’s meaningful to your customers’ lives?

If customers are trying to tell their stories, how can you use your brand to help them tell their stories? And, how can their stories help you tell your story better?

Next time you consider your social media, think about the platforms as tools for co-authorship and storytelling.

What Are the Top 10 Business Books I’ve Read in the Last Few Years?

Without new input, it’s hard to create truly new ideas

Without new input, it’s hard to create truly new ideas, since you draw on the same bank of knowledge. Starting at my #10 and finishing on my #1, here is my list of the top 10 books I’ve read in the last few years that influenced my thinking about business the most:

10. Dream First, Details Later: How to Quit Overthinking & Make It Happen! by Ellen Marie Bennett


While she was a cook, Ellen Marie Bennett set out to make a better apron so cooks would be inspired by what they wear. Dream First, Details Later traces the early stages of her career to the current day, as she created the world-renown kitchen-gear company, Hedley & Bennett. This book offers the wisdom of an entrepreneur finding their way and encouraging all those that want to run their own business—or are already running it—to not hesitate, to dream what they want, and then figure out how to get it done along the way. 

9. You’re It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When it Matters Most by Leonard J. Marcus, Eric J. McNulty, Joseph M. Henderson, and Barry C. Dorn

“The transformative leader finds patterns in a situation and then takes action to generate new patterns, initiating a fresh and different order.”

Influenced by the pandemic, in 2020 we dove deep into the literature and personal consulting experience and published a blog on how to navigate a crisis or any period of change. While researching the article, the most comprehensive book I found on crisis management was You’re It. It’s a bit academic, but all leaders are bound to face a period of change in their careers and this book offers great insight into how to manage it with case studies on how others have managed it too.

8. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight

“Like books, sports give people a sense of having lived other lives, of taking part in other people’s victories. And defeats. When sports are at their best, the spirit of the fan merges with the spirit of the athlete, and in that convergence, in that transference, is the oneness that the mystics talk about.”

In Shoe Dog, Phil Knight takes readers on a wild ride through his youth into building Nike into the powerhouse it has become. Phil Knight faced a constant barrage of obstacles in building Nike and this autobiography provides inspiration on overcoming any obstacle you may face. 

7. The Surprising Science of Meetings: How You Can Lead Your Team to Peak Performance by Steven G. Rogelberg

“There is compelling evidence suggesting that we are poor judges of our own leadership skills when it comes to meetings. Namely, we have an inflated view of our skills.”

One of the biggest complaints I hear—and I’m sure you do too if you work in a large organization—is how much time is wasted in meetings. In The Surprising Science of Meetings, Steven G Rogelberg examines meetings through the lens of the academic literature and offers a guidebook on how to improve meetings (and to know when to cancel them). Anyone responsible for creating and running meetings would benefit from reading this book. 

6. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker

“But here is the great paradox of gathering: There are so many good reasons for coming together that often we don’t know precisely why we are doing so. You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.”

As humans, we gather together a lot. In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker takes a look at how to organize and run important gatherings—whether it’s a family gathering or a negotiation or a workshop—to provide maximum effect and meaning for all participants, making everyone feel they spent their time valuably. For anyone running events, this book is a great guide for making sure the event achieves its purpose—and has a clearly defined one in the first place.

5. Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World by Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace

“Big data tells us who people seem to be, but not who they really are; surveys tell us what they keep on their shelves, but not what they keep in their hearts.”

There have been a lot of books published over the last few years about incorporating the dynamics of storytelling into creating powerful messaging. Storynomics is the most comprehensive book I’ve found on the subject. In the book, story-structure expert Robert McKee and marketer Tom Gerace examine the biological function of storytelling, the structure of storytelling for connecting with customers, and how that structure differs from more traditional examples of storytelling. Storynomics is a valuable read for anyone involved in customer insights or advertising. 

4. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear

“Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.”

When we think of accomplishments, we tend to think of something big. We often forget or don’t realize all the little steps it took to achieve something big. In Atomic Habits, James Clear offers a comprehensive guide to creating big change by just getting 1% better every day. This is the most comprehensive and practical book I’ve read on creating change by building new habits that stick. A great book for anyone that wants to create change in their life.

3. Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? by Michael Schrage

“Customers don’t just adopt innovations; they alter them, adapt to them, and are changed by them.”

Schrage builds on the work of Peter Drucker and Theodore Levitt and provides a great question all business leaders should ask themselves: who do you want your customers to become? Innovation changes customer behavior and companies can use those behaviors to not only make customers better customers of the brand but also more fulfilled people. This is a short and overlooked must-read for anyone in marketing. 

2. Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling by Edgar H. Schein and Peter A. Schein

“Don’t jump in telling answers until you know what the other person really needs to know. Don’t assume that the person with the question has asked the right question.”

Edgar Schein is arguably the GOAT of organizational consulting. In Humble Inquiry, I found a kindred spirit in Edgar Schein. He lays out his philosophy on how human interaction and problem-solving are improved by inquiry instead of just skipping to making assumptions and giving an answer based upon those assumptions. Schein has other books that elaborate on the concept of humble inquiry for specific contexts—Humble Leadership and Humble Consulting—and one that places humble inquiry into a larger context—Helping—but Humble Inquiry is the best introduction to the idea. A valuable read for anyone, especially leaders and managers.

1. Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle

“Every sports team needs a coach, and the best coaches make good teams great. The same goes in business: any company that wants to succeed in a time where technology has suffused every industry and most aspects of consumer life, where speed and innovation are paramount, must have team coaching as part of its culture. Coaching is the best way to mold effective people into powerful teams.”

Outside of Silicon Valley, Bill Campbell was an unsung hero. Inside of Silicon Valley, Bill Campbell coached people like Larry Page and Steve Jobs. In Trillion Dollar Coach, ex and current Google leaders Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg, and Alan Eagle reveal the wisdom of Bill Campbell that made him a sought-after executive coach and the secret sauce behind many of Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. This book is an expert-level course in leadership, management, and coaching. But, at the same time, it’s accessible to everyone. It takes my top spot and is a must-read for anyone in any leadership or management position. 

Top 5 Cult Branding Blogs of 2021

Cult Branding's Top Loyalty and Crisis Blogs of the Year

Taking into consideration your opens, shares, and clicks, below are our five most popular blogs of 2021.

We thank you for your continued readership. We wish you and your family a happy, healthy, and fantastic New Year.

BJ, Salim, and Aaron

Make Business Matter

In August, we launched our podcast, Make Business Matter with two episodes:” What is the Purpose of Busines?” and “What is Branding?”

We will return with more episodes in 2022, including some episodes featuring guests that we’re fans of.

The Power of Thank You

In a year that refocused many people and organizations on what is meaningful, it’s not surprising that our post “The Power of Thank You” was one of the most popular of the year. Sometimes simple gestures can have meaning that far outweighs the effort.

Seven Easy Ways to Make Customers You Meet Feel Important

Customers are increasingly looking for businesses that value them and their business. In “Seven Easy Ways to Make Customers You Meet Feel Important,” we reveal seven ways anyone in an organization can make customers they encounter feel valued.

How to Start a Cult … Brand

If you want to do something well, it helps to study the best. In “How to Start a Cult … Brand,” we discuss 5 things Cult Brands do to create high levels of loyalty that can be applied to any business (even if you don’t want to go full-on Cult Brand).

How to Put Archetypes to Work in Your Business

Archetypes are like software programs that come preinstalled on your computer (mind). You may not know they exist, but they are always either running in the background or ready to run after a single click.

In this blog, we show how you can mimic great brands and use archetypes to create and keep customers.

How To Achieve Audacious Goals

We made the impossible possible by our teamwork. Good leadership is also required to achieve success.              —Mingma David Sherpa

In 2019, Nirmal “Nims” Purja set out to climb all 14 of 8000+ meter mountain peaks. The previous record was 7 years. He set a goal of doing it in 7 months. 

Everyone thought it was impossible. He couldn’t get any sponsors and had to remortgage his house to fund the expedition. 

He completed his climb in 6 months and 6 days.

If you haven’t watched the documentary 14 Peaks: Nothing Is Impossible, you should: it’s a great lesson in leadership and what it takes to achieve audacious goals.

Here are five leadership principles that enabled Nims and his team to make the impossible possible.

1. It Takes A Vision

In life, you have to keep doing what you believe. You have to ask yourself, do you really want this from your heart? Is it for the self-glory? Or is it for something bigger? Sometimes, the idea that you come up with may seem impossible to the rest of the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to you. And if you can inspire one or two people in a good way, then you can inspire the world.Nims Purja

Without an inspiring vision, you can never achieve audacious goals. 

The vision must be driven by something deeper than just profit or competition. It must be driven by a purpose that seeks to create a positive change in the world. 

A vision points the direction of change. It says how you believe the world should be in a way that can be meaningful to everyone in the organization. 

Think about the changes you plan to make this coming year and consider if they are truly meaningful. If they are not, how can you replace them with something that is?

2. It Takes Grit

Nims: Giving up is not in the blood, sir. It’s not in the blood.
Don: That was the first daylight for me about his project. This guy believed that they were going to do it. And they pushed through.Nims Purja and fellow climber Don Bowie

To achieve an audacious vision, you need to have an unwavering belief that you will actually achieve it with enough confidence to make your team believe it too. 

Any roadblocks you run into shouldn’t make you waver from the larger vision. 

Great leaders show daring, determination, and grit. 

3. It Takes Constant Improvement

In early life, I always used to compete against other people. I never knew how to back off. When I joined the Gurkhas, the biggest thing I learned was I have to compete against myself. To be better than who I was yesterday.Nims Purja

Great leaders have the desire to constantly become better, even if it’s just 1% each day. 

This is in contrast to many people in leadership positions who get stuck in the day-to-day and don’t set aside the time for improving both themselves and their ability to lead others.

Constant learning and setting aside time for reflection are hallmarks of leaders who can achieve what others believe is impossible.

4. It Takes Compassion

In the military, I have never left anyone behind. I wasn’t gonna do that on the mountains. So we gave the climber our oxygen. And we made the radio contact on all the camps saying, “Hey, guys, we need help.” … It’s not in my blood to leave a person behind.Nims Purja

In business, we’re often taught that success is a zero-sum game. But, when you’re motivated by a vision that’s greater than yourself, achieving it can’t solely be driven by the ego. 

Just because you pause to help others, doesn’t mean you can’t still achieve what you set out to do, even if what you set out to do seems impossible. In fact, sometimes if you want to truly live up to the values it will take to achieve that goal will require you to pause, offer help, and bring others along with you.

5. It Takes A Team

So many Western climbers have climbed with a huge help from the Sherpa. What I have herd most of the time is, “My Sherpa helped me.” And that’s it. That is wrong because he has a name. What they should be saying is, “Mingma David helped me.” … Or, “Gesman Tamang helped me.” … If not you are a ghost.Nims Purja

Nothing great can be achieved alone. It takes a talented team. 

A leader needs to set the vision and inspire the team. But, they also need to both believe in the value of the team and give credit to all the team members.

A team that feels uninspired and underappreciated will never achieve greatness. And, if the teams can’t achieve greatness, an organization can’t make an audacious vision a reality.


We made the impossible possible by our teamwork. Good leadership is also required to achieve success, and Nims demonstrated that very well.Mingma David Sherpa

The combination of vision, grit, constant improvement, compassion, and teamwork can transform what is seemingly impossible into something possible over and over again.

In 2021, Nils and his team became the first team to summit K2 in winter. 

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)

Make Business Matter Logo

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.

Listen on Apple Podcasts
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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.

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.

Why Do Most Loyalty Programs Fail? … Find out on the next episode of Make Business Matter

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

On this episode, I examine the main reasons why most loyalty programs fail and how this results in companies continuing loyalty programs just so customers don’t get upset by their points disappearing. I show how businesses can create an effective loyalty program and what an effective loyalty program should do. Finally, I give five steps that can lead your business to create true loyalty.

You can listen to the episode on the player at the bottom of this blog post or you can listen and subscribe on the Make Business Matter website or on your favorite podcast app.

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What Are Cult Brands?: The New Episode of Our Podcast Make Business Matter

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

On this episode, I revisit some of our foundational material on Cult Branding and reinterpret it for the current times, giving principles that any business can draw upon to build a loyal following (even if they don’t want to develop a full-on Cult Brand).

You can listen to the episode on the player at the bottom of this blog post or you can listen and subscribe on the Make Business Matter Website or on your favorite podcast app.

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