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BJ Bueno

How to Start a Cult … Brand

Cult Brands provide insights for building loyalty that can be applied to any business of any size.

Heaven’s Gate, Jonestown, Scientology, Manson Family … destructive cults abound.

Destructive cults manipulate their members and do not care about their well-being. It’s no wonder why “cult” has become a dirty, four-letter word.

Not all cults, however, are destructive. At their cores, cults are groups that demonstrate a strong commitment towards someone or something.

Many cults are benign, harmless. In fact, they can be helpful to their members’ well-being. Some cults even have the power to elevate and inspire their members.

When a benign cult is centered around a brand, we call it a Cult Brand.

Businesses that harness the power of cults—cultivating evangelical customers and cohesive brand communities—possess an uncommon competitive advantage.

These Cult Brands enjoy unprecedented customer loyalty, word of mouth, and profitability.

Is Cult Branding Right For Your Business?

Perhaps you think your business isn’t cult-worthy. Maybe you’re just not ready yet. Or, maybe you’re just not interested in the hard work it takes to develop and maintain a passionate fan base.

But, whether you’re poised to establish a Cult Brand or not, there’s a lot you can learn from the psychological dynamics of cults and how they form that can be applied to any business of any size.

For example, they instruct you on how to:

  • Build meaningful connections with your customers.
  • Be chosen more often than your competitors.
  • Get your customers to build awareness of your business for you.
  • Cultivate customer loyalty that impacts the bottom line.

Clearly, there’s a lot we can learn from cults. Let’s dive in.

5 Reasons Customers Join Groups

Before we lay out a strategy you can use to create a cult around your business, let’s briefly explore five reasons why customers join brand communities and movements in the first place:

1) Humans want to belong

From Abraham Maslow, we learned that love and belonging is a fundamental human need. Customers instinctively look for social groups they can feel a part of.

2) Humans need a sense of identity

Another psychologist, Erik Erikson, pointed out that humans reach a point in their development where they begin to form their own identities.

At this Fidelity stage, as Erikson called it, people develop the capacity to maintain loyalties and allegiances to valued institutions and ideals.

To help form identity, people associate with social groups, including brand communities, that bring importance and meaning to their lives.

3) Humans rally around shared values

Values and ideals are at the core of what people congregate around. Maslow called these values being values. They include ideals like truth, goodness, aliveness, uniqueness, simplicity, justice, playfulness, and self-sufficiency.

Different people resonate with different being values. Brands that clearly express specific being values act like homing beacons to customers who naturally seek out brands who have the same values they do.

4) Humans want peak emotional experiences

Emotions give us a sense of aliveness. Although modern humans tend to rely more on thoughts and reason, emotions give life texture and provide meaning.

People gravitate to groups that provide them with emotional experiences they can’t get on their own. (Try replicating, in the privacy of your living room, the elation fans experience at a Jimmy Buffett concert or a Star Trek convention.)

5) Humans seek hope

Life is difficult. Customers seek out groups that provide relief from life’s challenges.

Cult Brands create movements that provide the promise of a better tomorrow. Star Trek offers hope of a peaceful future. Harley-Davidson offers hope of freedom on the open road. Life is good offers hope and optimism for the good life.

7 Steps to Create a Cult, Tribe or Movement

The main thing you need to understand about customer communities is that your customers create them on their own. That said, here are seven steps you can take to increase the likelihood:

Step 1: Determine what needs your business fulfills

Figure out which human needs your business naturally fulfills. Then, determine how your brand fulfills these needs for your customers in a way no other business does.

Step 2: Identify your symbols

Determine what your business symbolizes in the minds of your customers. These symbols are also called archetypes.

The Harley icon, for example, showcases a flying eagle, a dynamic symbol of power, choice, and freedom.

Step 3: Discover your emotional targets

Uncover how your customers are emotionally connected to your brand. When the symbol enters their mind, what do your target customers feel?

Nike’s swoosh symbol may evoke feelings of determination, competitiveness, and triumph for its customers. Apple’s symbol may evoke feelings of creative self-expression, possibility, or truth.

Step 4: Clarify your brand values

While core values are internal to your organization, brand values are external. Your customers may never know your corporate values, but if you are effective, they will have a clear perception of what you stand for (your brand values).

All Cult Brands have clear brand values that attract like-minded people to their business.

The Life is good Company stands for optimism. Oprah stands for self-empowerment.

Step 5: Design your messaging

Ensure that your messaging promotes the fulfillment of your core needs, highlights your symbol, triggers your emotional targets, and captures your brand values.

That is, leverage these customer insights to develop more effective media.

Consider how companies spend billions on advertising without clearly understanding any or all of these psychological insights that drive advertising effectiveness.

Step 6: Target your messaging

Make sure your messages are in the appropriate market channels. Cult Brands know their customers, which means knowing where they hang out and what they like to do.

Energy drink Red Bull, for example, initially avoided traditional media, opting for grassroots marketing by handing out samples on college campuses. Then, they began sponsoring extreme sporting events where their target market congregated.

Step 7: Set up your environment

Provide people the tools to form their own groups. Whenever possible, create a space where your customers can meet and interact with one another—either in person or online.

Establish social events that reflect your mission. Star Trek conventions, Jimmy Buffett’s concerts, and Harley’s HOG Rallies are excellent examples.

Set up conditions for a fun, playful environment where friendships can be forged. The stronger the bond members have to one another, the stronger the bond members will have with your business.


Remember, never attempt to control your community. Instead, participate as a co-creator.

Okay, now it’s your turn to go start a movement, establish a tribe, create a Cult Brand.

How Cult Brands Create a Magical Experience For Their Customers

Turn Shared Values into a lifestyle.

As human beings, we have many different kinds of relationships. The relationship you have with your boss is probably very different than the relationship you have with your romantic partner, and both of these relationships are different from the relationship you have with your favorite baseball player and the kid who was your best friend in third grade.

We not only have relationships with other people, but also with ideas and philosophies. Identifying yourself as a skeptical person or an Evangelical Christian, for example, will impact the way you view and interact with the world.

We also have relationships with inanimate objects, such as cars or roller coasters. You’ve surely heard people proclaiming how much they love (or hate) their cars. Space Mountain, one of Disney’s flagship rides, is so beloved by some people that they have their weddings there.

Brands are a unique combination of a set of ideas and inanimate objects that serve as an ideal platform for relationships.

A Cult Brand is born when a group of individuals rally around a brand’s beliefs and values and the lifestyle that supports those beliefs and values. These brands spark a magical participation with their customers.

When people feel bound to a group or community of shared beliefs, at least part of their identity is tied to the group.

Allowing Customers to Express A Deeper Part of Themselves

You can be a corporate attorney running frantically from meeting to meeting, but when you enter a Jimmy Buffett concert you morph into a Parrot Head; litigation, conference calls, and the stress of daily life slide into shadow.

Now, life is all about taking it easy. The most important things on your agenda are burgers, cocktails, and connecting with friends in the paradise of Margaritaville.

Cult Brands are successful because they allow people to be who they want to be—not the person they’re forced to be to meet the demands placed on them personally or professionally.

Cult Brands provide a route to self-expression that feels natural and intuitive to their Brand Lovers.

Cult Brands provide an experience and a community where Brand Lovers feel like they belong.

Providing The Means for Self-Expression and Belonging

Now, as a result of the pandemic, people are hungry for ways to connect with each other. Bringing customers together has always been important—it’s arguably the hallmark of a Cult Brand—but the need is even greater at the current time.

Keep in mind that finding ways to help customers express themselves is vital to your cause.

Below are a few fun ways to cultivate brand loyalty for your business by helping you attract great customers and build lasting relationships:


Not all your customers have the time or energy to gather together, but some of your customers would actually enjoy gathering together to share ideas, learn, and be together. Apple, in its humble beginnings, hosted Mac user groups where programmers would band together to form small companies to develop software for the startup.


Once you have reached a critical mass of Brand Lovers, it might be time for the festivity. Harley-Davidson hosts annual events that bring together over 1 million bikers from around the world. Many people are familiar with event marketing, but if you take that concept to the next level you may be destined to have your own festival, and possibly a unique story will emerge about you in your customers’ minds.


A very interesting fact about Cult Brands is that they tend to share food with their customers. This fact is most likely connected to the idea that if you’re going to have people come together, humans need (and love) to eat. But this simple act of doing what we do each day has a hidden power of influence that makes us like those people that we eat with. Some researchers have shown that judges are more lenient on the offenders after their lunch break. So if it works on those of us with the strongest opinions, it can work for your Brand Lovers who already like you too.


What beliefs and values do your customers identify with?

How can you build a community to reinforce a lifestyle aligned with those beliefs and values?

When Branding Works

A major misconception is that only the marketing department is responsible for building and managing the brand.

In 1901, Ivan Pavlov rang a bell and a dog began to salivate.

His famous experiment explains much of the mystery behind branding: connect a product or service with the customer’s need and branding occurs.

Said another way: create an association in your customer’s mind between what you offer and what they desire, and magic happens.

Despite the simplicity of this concept, most businesses fail in their branding efforts for one reason: they assume that branding is created exclusively through marketing efforts like advertising.

When Branding Fails

A major misconception is that only the marketing department is responsible for building and managing the brand.

The core of a brand, however, doesn’t exist in an advertising campaign, but in the company itself. When a brand fails, it means the customers never embraced the whole business, going to the competition to meet their needs instead. Brands fail at an organizational level, not because of a single department.

Customers buy the whole business—not just the pricing, distribution, or even the look and feel of the brand. Branding is only a word used to describe the customer’s experience.

When Branding Works

For your organization to achieve long-term success, the entire organization must be an expression of the brand.

Each member of your organization is either building the brand or weakening it. To ensure positive momentum, each team member must clearly understand how he or she contributes to the customer’s experience.

Four Critical Questions for Brand Building

The key to effective brand building, then, is to align your entire organization with your brand’s vision. Before you do this, however, you must have clarity and direction.

Be sure you know the answer to these four questions:

  1. Where is your business today
  2. Where does your business want to be tomorrow?
  3. How does your business define success?
  4. What has to transform in your company in order for your products and services to embrace your best customer?

While these four questions seem simple, they can be difficult to articulate and can always be refined with greater clarity and insight. These critical questions must be clarified by any business committed to cultivating their brand.

Five Strategies on Selling-in to Your Organization

Here are five ways to help forge a stronger connection between your employees and your customers.

Inspire through conversation. If you want to grow quickly, start having meaningful conversations about your customers with your people—formally and informally. Soon you will find those conversations will fill everyone’s mind with inspiration.

Educate your teams. Some executives write important messages down in a memo and expect their people to do something with them. Every brand needs advocates—people who defend it and teach it. Make sure you are teaching your brand to your people and not just hiding it in the printed word.

Bring the brand to life. Create a video, post pictures of your best customers around your office, pass on compliments from customers to the entire staff, and so on. The more ways you have for bringing your brand to life and illustrating its growth, the more connected your team will be to the brand. When they’re connected, they will know what to do next.

Bring your customers to life. Get in the mindset of your customers and try to understand a day in their lives. Show everyone on your team what it might be like to be the customer. Have everyone imagine this day and how your product plays a part in their day. Next, ask each person to think about how he or she affects the customer’s day, even though oftentimes the customer doesn’t know it.

Create a customer definition. Define the customer your business best serves. By giving your customers a face—with feelings, needs, tensions, and aspirations—your team can have more empathy for them. Once everyone in your organization is consciously serving your customers, much of your branding efforts happen spontaneously.

A Living, Breathing Vision for Your Brand

To be effective at selling in to your organization, you must create a vision to which your entire organization is willing to give their passion.

When you sell in, you are setting up the most important part of your marketing plan: having your people ready to serve your customers and create a brand that means something to them.

5 Ways to Cultivate a Collaborative Organization

Each employee has knowledge and information that can serve the organization.

Management guru Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in 1959.1

He differentiated knowledge workers from manual workers, forecasting that new industries will employ mostly the former.

Late in his life, Drucker wrote, “The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of KNOWLEDGE WORK and the KNOWLEDGE WORKER.”2

Knowledge work emphasizes the need to solve an ever-changing host of problems. This non-routine, problem-solving ability requires an individual to be a creative thinker who can assimilate new information and share it with others.

Today, every employee can and should be perceived as a knowledge worker—part of the creative class. Each employee has knowledge and information that can serve the organization. Everyone has ideas that can uplift the whole.

A Shift Toward Collaborative Cultures

The traditional organizational structure with clearly defined positions and a hierarchy of command-and-control, however, inhibits the free exchange of ideas. Here, some individuals are paid to think while everyone else is paid to carry out orders.

Without broad input—without the sharing of knowledge among the collective—decisions are made in a vacuum. And, as a consequence, value creation suffers.

The goal, then, is to create a collaborative culture that promotes the sharing of knowledge. Here, information flows in multiple directions simultaneously and all employees are skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge.

An organization that is successful in accomplishing this difficult feat will have an unprecedented edge over the competition.

5 Ways to Promote Learning in Your Organization

To accomplish this goal, leaders must establish and foster the conditions necessary for supporting their knowledge workers and become learning organizations.

Here are some of the necessary conditions for an environment where knowledge workers thrive:

1. Promote Employee Autonomy

Self-determination theory highlights that human beings are driven to be autonomous. This means fostering an environment where employees are self-directed and self-managed.

The responsibility for productivity must fall on the knowledge worker. As Drucker suggests, “Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.”3

2. Commit to Constant Learning and Improvement

Knowledge is perishable. “If knowledge isn’t challenged to grow,” Drucker explains, “it disappears fast.”4 Unlimited information access and full transparency are necessary but insufficient. Knowledge workers must also be empowered to leverage the free exchange of information, transforming it into higher understanding and the creation of new knowledge.  

How can your organization design an environment that promotes new knowledge creation and collaboration where employees challenge each other (in nonconfrontational ways) to build on each other’s ideas?

3. Establish Psychological Safety

A consistent theme in humanistic psychology is that positive mental health and creativity are cultivated in environments where individuals feel psychologically safe. When employees fear being cut down or marginalized for disagreeing with a colleague or a manager, learning stops. When people are afraid to ask naive questions or own up to their mistakes, they shut down.

Corporate cultures that unconsciously promote a fear of failure can not develop a learning organization. Individuals must feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings about their work. (Tools like the Six Thinking Hats Method can be helpful in this regard.)

Addressing this issue is no small task. Fear of conflict runs rampant in most organizations. The importance of building trust among employees and cultivating emotional intelligence are prerequisites that can’t be overstated.

4. Celebrate a Beginner’s Mind

This concept from Zen philosophy reminds us to adopt an attitude of openness to new ideas. Leaving preconceived notions and beliefs at the door when you enter into a dialogue or brainstorm with colleagues, helps individuals seek out new ideas and novel approaches to problems.

When employees are encouraged to adopt a beginner’s mind, they are more prone to explore the unknown and take risks.

5. Enable Time for Reflection

Learning and change can only occur when your people are given time to reflect. They need to have the time freedom to experiment and tinker around with new ideas and perspectives.

In a society that obsessively promotes “bigger, faster, better,” such reflective time is rarely valued. Instead, employees are overwhelmed or overstressed by deadlines and other pressures, which impairs both analytical and creative thinking. As a consequence, opportunities are missed, problems are misdiagnosed, and learning is compromised.

The 21st Century Learning Organization

You have an organization of knowledge workers. Taking steps to promote a learning organization will allow your company’s greatest asset—your people—to shine.

Today, it’s an imperative initiative for any business leader committed to competing and thriving in the years ahead.


The Secret to Creating Customer Loyalty

loyalty programs may support loyal customers,  but they don’t create them.

All brands want more loyal customers. The reasons are clear: more repeat business, more positive word of mouth, and greater customer lifetime value.

Customer loyalty for many national brands is in decline. Switching brands in the digital age is easier than ever before.

But, that’s not the real reason loyalty is on the decline. More likely, loyalty didn’t truly exist where many believed it did.

Many executives believe that loyalty programs (think branded credit cards or loyalty points) are a primary strategy for building loyalty. Although loyalty programs may support loyal customers, they certainly don’t create them.

THow Cult Brands Win the Loyalty War

All major brands try to get their customers to be loyal to their brands. This should be called brand loyalty.

Cult Brands focus on being loyal to their customers. This should be distinguished as customer loyalty.

Do you see the difference?

Brand loyalty and customer loyalty are often used interchangeably, but they truly refer to two very different orientations.

Cult Brands focus on serving their customers; they earn their customers’ loyalty by creating superior experiences for their customers. The more devoted an organization is to its customers, the more loyal its customers will likely be to the brand.

Loyalty is a result—a consequence—of better serving your customers than anyone else. You don’t need to create new loyalty initiatives. Instead, you need to align your organization with the needs of your customers.

THow to Create a Customer-Centric Organization

But how? How do you align your organization with your customers? How do you inspire your people to want to build and grow the company around your customers?

You begin by adopting the right mindset.

You can’t do it with a transactional mindset. With this mindset, your organization’s focus is exclusively on making another sale. Promotions may drive sales for the next quarterly report, but they don’t affect loyalty.

A relational mindset, in contrast, helps you appreciate the subjective state of your customers. Relationships are based on emotional connection. If you aren’t connected with your customers on an emotional level, it’s not possible to create loyalty.

A relational orientation toward your customers also helps you break free from the short-term focus on the financial markets. Loyalty doesn’t follow a quarter-over-quarter agenda. Loyalty is a play for the long haul.

TFour Strategies for Fostering Customer Loyalty

Here are four strategies that can enable you to build an organization that creates loyal customers:

1. Cultivate a Humanistic Organization

That is, focus on the human element. Your employees are people. Your customers are people too. Start there. All of a sudden, principles like respect, dignity, and core values become relevant and meaningful.

A life-supporting work environment that promotes vibrant individuals takes center stage. Freedom, humor, trust, and mindfulness spontaneously become practical management discussions that can transform an organization.

2. Get to Know Your Best Customers

They are the lifeblood of your business. They are already the most fiercely loyal customers. In their eyes, you’re already doing a lot right. You should learn about them and how they perceive you. It can clarify a great deal for you.

Talk to them, and above all, learn to listen. Customer insights about your existing Brand Lovers are perhaps the most powerful business assets that most chief executives never access.

3. Tap into Hidden Needs and Higher Values

This a secret of all world-class Cult Brands. Any business can meet a customer’s basic human needs. It takes a special enterprise to dig deeper into the unrecognized higher-level needs of their customers.

And these organizations don’t just do that for their customers, they support the higher-level needs of their employees too.

4. Find Ways to Serve Them Better Than Anyone Else

It takes a special kind of organizational culture to be able to exceed the expectation of today’s demanding consumer.

A competitive marketplace challenges us to consistently look for ways to innovate and improve our products and services, to wow and delight our customers. Only a company with a thriving culture can play for loyalty—inside and outside the organization.

TThe Fruits of Loyalty

Loyalty is attainable. You can create a partnership with a special breed of customers: your Brand Lovers

And when you succeed, your business will join the ranks of an elite few who enjoy the fruits of this worthy endeavor that transcends “business as usual.”

It is possible to create loyal customers, but not through conventional practices. It requires a different mindset and a special kind of organizational leadership.

Two Human Needs Every Cult Brand Masters

higher needs motivate and inspire humans to grow and reach their fullest potential.

Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs?

Biological needs. Safety and shelter needs. The need to belong and to feel loved. Self-esteem and the need to feel good about oneself in relation to others.

These are basic human needs. Every human being has them.

Every customer is constantly looking to meet these needs. And every business—consciously or not—attempts to help their customers meet at least some of them.

Meeting customers’ basic needs is the starting point. Your company needs to constantly develop new and superior ways to meet these needs.

But, meeting customer needs and base level desires isn’t enough. Your competitors can probably meet your customers’ basic needs too.

There are two areas of Maslow’s hierarchy that differentiate Cult Brands from other businesses. And it is these two areas that hold the secret to customer loyalty and prosperity.

The Need to Belong: A Driving Force in Human Motivation

From the moment we are born, we are partly defined by the communities we belong to. Even the smallest baby is part of multiple communities: she is part of a family, an ethnic group, even a nation.

As we grow and develop, we make choices that expand our identity. One way we do this is by joining or associating with various communities or social groups.

We join communities by our actions. We join communities by sharing a common belief. Joining groups makes us feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

Cult Brands tap into this driving force by giving their customers the sense that they belong. The values and beliefs of the brand become part of their customers’ own identity.

The need to identify with a group and feel a sense of belonging is so strong that some customers go so far as to “brand” themselves with the logo of the company they identify with. Brand tattoos, then, provide membership into a social group.

After interviewing Brand Lovers of many of the world’s quintessential Cult Brands—like Apple, Linux, Vans, Harley, Life is good, Star Trek, Oprah, and IKEA—a common theme we hear is the feeling of family.

Cult customers feel like they are part of the collective. Cult Brands make their Brand Lovers feel included, important, special.

Higher Needs: The Key to Everlasting Loyalty

Now we jump to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. Above, we listed all of the basic human needs. But Maslow’s real brilliance was in how he articulated that humans have needs beyond the basics.

We have higher needs, or spiritual needs.

Higher needs include:

  • Cognitive (meaning, knowledge, and self-awareness)
  • Aesthetic (beauty, form, balance)
  • Self-actualization (personal growth and development)
  • Transcendence (spiritual values)

All of these needs are human too. Everyone has them, but only a small minority of companies seek to help their customers meet them. Those that do tend to create legendary businesses.

These higher needs motivate and inspire humans to grow and reach their fullest potential. The more time we invest meeting these needs, the happier, mentally healthy, and creative we become.

Want to link positive emotions and associations between your customers and your brand? Help them reach their higher needs.

There are many ways to do this:

  • You can help them express themselves like Apple does.
  • You can help them achieve their most important goals as Google does.
  • You can help them celebrate a sense of aliveness and playfulness like Jimmy Buffett and Star Trek do.
  • You can inspire them with the call for freedom like Harley-Davidson and Oprah do.  

How can you elevate your customers? How can you help them become greater versions of themselves? How can you help them reach their highest goals?

This is the gift you can offer your customers. Loyalty and higher profitability is what they give you in return.

Embrace the Hero’s (Customer’s) Journey

When we know what stories are near and dear to our Brand Lovers, we can build stronger relationships with them.

The hero starts out in an ordinary world before venturing into a special world.

He meets friend and foe. He undertakes quests. He faces challenges.

Winning a decisive victory—realizing his final goal—the hero returns from the adventure, transformed, bearing wisdom and new powers from his journey.

This hero’s quest is ancient. It can be observed in many religions including the stories of Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Jesus Christ. It’s also the formula for every modern epic adventure including Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit.

Why the Hero’s Journey Won’t Go Away

Why is the Hero’s Journey so powerful and pervasive in every culture? Why is this structure so effective in storytelling? And most importantly, how can it help you grow a stronger business?

When we engage in the story, our brains make us participants, not spectators.

The hero’s journey is ultimately about us. And we are fascinated with ourselves.

We identify with the hero, the protagonist, in the story.

The hero is a universal archetype that represents the ideal of child psychology. The hero’s journey is, ultimately, a journey of personal transformation of the adolescent psyche into mature adulthood. (Many modern films, however, don’t portray the completion of a hero’s quest. James Bond and Indiana Jones, for example, don’t ever change through the course of the story; they stay in child psychology from beginning to end.)

Each person, in fact, performs the lead role in a production of their own life story. And that includes both your customers and your employees (and you too).

The Primary Ingredient Behind Every Hero’s Journey

Your brand’s mission is to support your customers’ quests, to provide aid when needed.

To do this effectively, you need to know what fuels their story.

Compelling stories come down to one thing: problems.

The protagonist faces a problem and tries to overcome it. This is the essence of drama and the key to good storytelling.

Without problems, without troubles and tensions, there’s no story. There’s nothing to engage us.

The hero must face his problem, surmount his fear, resolve his tension. In so doing, he advances forward in his development toward greater competence and maturity.

Two Ways to Use Stories in Your Business

Brand messaging is the most common way to use stories in business. Advertisers use stories to communicate to customers on the subconscious level through emotions, images, and symbols.

The other use of story is far less known, but even more valuable when used appropriately. Instead of telling your customers your stories, try listening to theirs.

You’ll be amazed at what you can learn and discover.

Our personal stories are individual expressions of cultural narratives and universal themes of the collective unconscious of mankind. Our stories are part of what bind us together in the human family.

We each have our own stories to live and tell, some personal, others cultural.

These personal and cultural narratives are gateways into your customers’ psyches. When interpreted correctly, stories can be a powerful source of customer insights.

Your Hero-Customers Are Counting On You

The archetypal hero’s journey is hard-wired into your customers’ psyches. Learning how that story expresses itself in your customers’ lives provides powerful insights for better serving them.

All of your customers have stories. They are all in the process of becoming—starting at one point in space and time, looking to go to another, better place in the future.

You might be able to help them get there, but first you have to know where they are and what’s standing in the way of their transformation.

Businesses that help elevate their customers—that find ways to support their personal transformations in even a small way—hold a special place in the hearts and mind of their customers.

When we know what stories are near and dear to our Brand Lovers’—our best customers’—hearts and minds, we know what’s driving them. Then, we are better equipped to connect and build stronger relationships with them.

What are the stories that most influence your best customers?

Effective Advertising: The Three Acts of Your Customers’ Journey

Effective Advertising: Understand The tension. Agitate the tension. Solve the tension.

Brian is a 40-year-old executive at a software company. He’s married with two kids. Between work and family life, Brian hasn’t had much free time. But, Brian has a warrior in him screaming for actualization. He wants to train and complete a triathlon.

Brian is married to Laura. Laura has been a stay-at-home mom for the last fifteen years. It was a rewarding experience but Laura studied entrepreneurship in college. Now that both her kids are in high school, her inner entrepreneur is commanding her to start a business.

Both Brian and Laura are aligned with the archetype of the hero. They are both at the beginning of a hero’s journey.

The Significance of the Hero’s Journey

The hero is a powerful and pervasive archetype in our culture.

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell takes this single archetype of a hero and illustrates the universal adventure that all heroic figures share.

While the stories or faces of the hero may vary—depending on the particular culture, society, or era—the fundamental archetype remains the same.

Campbell held heroes with significance because they communicate universal truths about self-discovery and the individual’s role in society.

He believed that understanding the hero’s journey provides meaning for contemporary people by revealing the unifying nature of the human spirit in its aspirations, abilities, vicissitudes, and wisdom.

Customer Tensions and the Call to Adventure

Brian and Laura are about to leave their comfortable and familiar world and enter an unknown, special world.

This is often scary. As humans, we tend to seek the known and familiar. We like to feel comfortable. And, the unknown is uncomfortable.

For Brian, the unknown might be the state of his physical condition. Will he be able to condition his 40-year-old body with the stamina and endurance needed to complete a triathlon?

For Laura, the unknown might be her passion, creativity, and perseverance. Will she have what it takes to conceive of an idea and follow through in execution to profitability?

Because of the fear of the unknown, many heroes refuse the call to adventure. We delay. We set aside. We procrastinate. We make excuses.

But something brews inside of us. A tension builds. It’s small at first, but it grows strength in the darkness.

Tensions are those opposing forces at play within the individual. This internal conflict creates disharmony.

Humans don’t like disharmony, and so tensions catapult us out of the familiar. The feeling of disharmony leads to action and ultimately, a resolution.

The 3 Stages of the Hero’s Journey

Brian and Laura are at the initial stage of the hero’s journey. Campbell called this stage Departure. The hero departs from the world he knows. He then faces trials and tribulations in stage 2, called Initiation, before coming home in stage 3, the Return.

All of your customers are somewhere in this three-stage cycle, although the majority are in the Departure stage. Your job is to understand customer’s journey and the great tensions they are experiencing. Then, you can determine how to best serve them in completing their adventure.

Famed playwright David Mamet suggests a similar 3-act structure for plays and dramas in Three Uses of the Knife: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Act 1 of the drama presents life as it is for the protagonist (the hero). In act 2, the character is faced with an opposing force that sends the hero into an upheaval (disharmony). The protagonist attempts to integrate the old life with the new in act 3.

The Hero’s Journey for Marketers

Your customers are heroes on their own unique journeys. Your job is to understand what tensions and obstacles they face on their quest and to determine how best to support them in completing a successful adventure.

Marketers can use a formula that mirrors this 3-act structure: problem, agitation, solution.

Understand the customer’s problem. Agitate it, readying them for action. Offer them your solution.

This formula works.

When you have penetrating customer insights into the tensions of your customers, this formula gives you the means to move them to action.

Do you know your customers’ tensions? Are you helping them resolve these tensions better than anyone else in your market?

The Power of the Image

Your marks, logos, and images have to be associated with a deep aspect of your customers’ hearts.

Few business leaders appreciate exactly how important imagery is in connecting to the hearts of their customers. Most marketers want to create imagery that will attract everyone. That’s impossible: when you try to be all things to all people, you become nothing meaningful to anyone.

Imagery will attract certain people and repel others. Cult Brands not only realize this, they capitalize on it.

Think about the blazing eagle tattoo of your typical HOG (Harley Owner Group) rally attendee. Does seeing that image excite you? Or do you think to yourself, “No thanks.” The point is that you’re either a lover of the Harley-Davidson brand, or you’re not.

Every image signals to consumers whether or not your brand is especially for them.

Symbols, Archetypes, and Your Brand

Why do images have so much power? Our logos and marks are symbols.

Symbols are triggers of archetypal images—energy patterns that rest in our subconscious mind. These primordial images are not personal to each individual, but are aspects of the “collective” of all of us. Eminent Swiss psychoanalyst Dr. Carl Jung highlighted that these archetypal images are the building blocks of thought.

These subconscious, archetypal images lay the foundation for the experience customers are going to have with your brand. The images you create in your logos and marks—the symbols—are a signal to the customer of what the brand represents.

In Man and His Symbols, Dr. Jung included an old Volkswagen advertisement with an aerial view of Beetle toy cars forming the shape of the Volkswagen logo. He noted that the advertisement “may have a ‘trigger’ effect on a reader’s mind, stirring unconscious memories of childhood. If these memories are pleasant, the pleasure may be associated (unconsciously) with the product and brand name.”

Archetypes: Connecting to Your Customers’ Hearts

Indeed, there is a science to connecting to the hearts of our customers. Marketers must find ways to positively influence customers through the use of powerful imagery. Only by understanding the images in our customers’ hearts can we create images that will connect with their minds and drive them to choose us more often than our competitors.

Business leaders must come better understand the meaning behind the energy patterns that give meaning to the forms we represent through our imagery. And they understand them, our communications must constantly support the meanings our customers find.

If you betray the image that’s connected to the customers’ hearts, you’ll quickly repel the cherished customers you’re trying to build long–lasting relationships with.

A critical power of branding lies in your ability to creatively associate your brand in highly relevant ways to your customers. Your marks, logos, and images have to be associated with a deep aspect of your customers’ hearts.

Take time to understand what’s meaningful to your customers—to comprehend what’s in their hearts. Only then can you hope to connect with your customers on a deeper, more meaningful level and create a powerful brand that’s irreplaceable in the hearts and minds of your customers.

The Most Important Key to an Effective Retail Marketing Strategy

How can you do a better job resolving your customers' tensions?

The key to any successful retail marketing strategy comes down to understanding the end customers. Only after you understand your target customers can you formulate effective strategies for attracting them.

Learn What’s Important to Your Customers

Here are some of the questions you can explore to better understand your customers:

  1. What are the primary needs and wants that your customers have which you hope to fulfill?
  2. What are the problems or tensions your customers have that your products or services can resolve? (What problems can they resolve now? What could they resolve in the future?)
  3. At present, how do your customers currently resolve these problems or tensions? Where do they go? Who do they go to? What do they do to solve these problems?
  4. How can you do a better job resolving these problems or tensions for your customers?
  5. Where do your target customers spend their time? How can you reach them? Are they online? Do they commute to work? Do they read magazines or e-zines? Can you engage them on social media?

The fundamental idea behind this line of questioning is to get to the hearts and minds of your customers. The goal is to learn what’s important to your customers. You want to understand their motivations and to better appreciate the role your business can and does play in their lives.

The Value of Customer Psychology

Perhaps it isn’t abundantly clear why this line of questioning is so important for effective retail marketing. After all, you’re just trying to sell people stuff, right?

Well, it turns out that if you want to sell people stuff in a competitive marketplace you need to understand why people buy your stuff in the first place. If your competitors have this knowledge, they will outpace you. If you possess this knowledge, you can effectively compete. It’s that simple.

Businesses that just focus on generating the next transaction shy away from mining too deeply into customer psychology; they are mainly interested in converting the next sale.

In contrast, brands that take a relational mindset to their customers and value cultivating long-term customer loyalty tend to appreciate customer behavior and seek to better understand it.

And perhaps it goes without saying, but brands with customer loyalty have a better chance of being in business a year from now or twenty years from now. Understanding consumer psychology is important for any long-term effective retail marketing strategy.