How Cult Brands Create Movements (And You Can Too)

"Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent … or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must kindle an extravagant hope." -- Eric Hoffer

When Aeschines spoke, they said,”How well he speaks.” But when Demosthene spoke, they said, “Let us march against Philip.”David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising

“Damn, Daniel! Back at it again with the white Vans.”

Remember that meme? It took the internet by storm in February 2016. What started on February 15th as a video on Twitter of Josh Holtz commenting on his friend Daniel Lara’s clothing skyrocketed Josh and Daniel to recognition, landing them on Ellen DeGeneres and being crowned one of the 30 most influential people on the internet by Time Magazine.1

Seeing its popularity and its ability to break through the clutter, many brands started appropriating the meme: Clorox suggested to “get back at it with Clorox” and Axe attempted to link its popularity to their #findyourmagic hashtag.

As in the case with the Damn Daniel memes, companies often try to hijack memes in an effort to gain borrowed visibility. But, all too often they release their memes after popularity has peaked or they misunderstand the meme.2 3

What’s worse is that almost every time brands use memes, they are ignorant of the purpose of memes: memes are about creating a conversation, yet brands try to override the conversation and stand out for the pure sake of gaining visibility, instead of trying to be part of the evolving conversation.4 5

The Visibility Fallacy

Many marketers perceive this difficulty in visibility to be a recent occurrence. But it’s been happening for decades.

In 1965, advertising executive Bill Bernbach exclaimed, “Do you know that 85% of ads don’t get looked at? This is a statistic gathered by people commissioned by the advertising business…We’re not even hated! They ignore us.”6

Although the occurrence isn’t new, it’s getting harder and harder to grab attention due to the expansion of how many places and on how many devices consumers take in media. Inevitably, companies have become obsessed with grabbing attention and grabbing as much of it as they can.

With that mindset, it is easy to see why companies would spend large sums on the Super Bowl: it accounts for many of the most viewed US television broadcasts of all-time and the ads are seen as an event themselves. Where else can they get that many viewers that actually watch the ads?

The same month that companies tried to hijack the “Damn, Daniel!” meme, Hyundai invested heavily in the Super Bowl, promoting its Elantra with The Chase and Ryanville, and its Genesis with First Date. Within a month, the ads earned over 52 million YouTube views—including being the first and seventh most-viewed Super Bowl spots—and all three were in the top 10 of USA Today’s Ad Meter, with First Date landing the top spot.7

But, Hyundai sales only rose 1%, and sales weren’t even driven by the highly advertised Elantra or Genesis, but rather by the Tucson SUV.8

This isn’t a unique occurrence: in 2014 VW’s Passat was the most shared Super Bowl ad of all-time. Yet, sales ended up being down every month, year over year.9

It’s as if companies are still trying to borrow strategies from the dot-com boom—and bust—like TBWA\Chiat\Day’s now-infamous making the popularity of the ads themselves more important than the sales of the products.10

The obsession with views and likes has come to dominate many modern marketing programs. But, being viewed and liked isn’t enough to generate sales. As David Ogilvy noted, “Go through a magazine and pick out the advertisements you like best. You will probably pick those with beautiful illustrations, or clever copy. You forget to ask yourself whether your favorite advertisements would make you want to buy the product.”11

Forget Fads and Create a Movement

Instead of focusing on fads like “Damn. Daniel!” or just garnering attention from events like the Super Bowl, marketers should focus on creating movements behind their brands.

In a widely circulated TED Talk, CD Baby founder Derek Sivers shows a video of a lone man dancing at a music festival that transforms into a large group. As he describes it, a lone nut starts a movement, the first follower shows how to follow, the second follower turns it into a crowd, and then more people join in creating a movement.

This is the way many marketers think about movements, but it’s fundamentally flawed. In writing about performance, Richard Schechner—who often blurred the lines between audience and performer in his productions in a manner similar to what’s depicted in the video—observes, “Usually the audience is an impromptu group, meeting at the place of performance and never meeting again. Thus unprepared, they are difficult to mobilize and, once mobilized, even more difficult to control.”12

This is the problem with using the dancing man as an illustration of how to create a movement: it lacks a structure and purpose. In contrast to this model, StrawberryFrog founder Scott Goodson writes, “Movements are about mobilizing people behind a shared purpose.”13 And, Schechner echoes his ideas: “A long series of confrontations [i.e., encounters] are necessary to promote change.”14

Moving beyond a fad or singular event to a movement involves creating a shared purpose over and over again.

Create a Shared Purpose: The Promise of a Better Tomorrow

In 1968, Gene Roddenberry transported American viewers to new worlds and new civilizations with Star Trek. It inspired fans around the world to dress up as Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, and Humans, and come together to support the ideals of Star Trek. In the words of one fan, “When I go to conventions, I can just be the person I really am.”15

What it takes a brand to create a mass movement is true for all movements. In his seminal work on mass movements, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer describes what it takes: “Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent … or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must kindle an extravagant hope.”16

That “extravagant hope” translates into brands promising a better tomorrow. But, that better tomorrow that ignites a passion in its followers is different for every movement.

Star Trek offers its fans the promise of a more peaceful future. Apple offers the promise of being more creative and creating a beautiful world. Harley offers the promise of breaking loose from cages and experiencing true freedom.

All movements tap into their customers’ specific human needs and archetypes and turn that into the promise of the better tomorrow that they believe in.

Repetition: The Power of Groups

Once you discover how your customers see a better tomorrow, you must provide the foundation for them to experience it over and over. The best way to do this is by providing a way for like-minded members to come together and experience their shared passion; you must help them form groups.

The desire to form groups is rooted in identity formation. Part of identity formation is marked by fidelity, which is the ability to develop loyalties via commitments to institutions and ideals.17

These institutions can be found anywhere, including schools, religious institutions, political parties, and those brands that clearly promote an ideal future. Such brand communities can offer as much meaning as any other group.

In introducing the idea of a brand community, professors Albert Muniz and Thomas O’Guinn listed three markers:

  1. Shared Consciousness: The connection members have with each other and the brand
  2. Rituals and Traditions: The systematized ways people interact and recognize each other.
  3. Moral Responsibility: The feeling of responsibility toward individual members and the community as a whole.18

Shared consciousness and moral responsibility are linked to the way in which the members believe the future should be; rituals and traditions allow them to separate members of their community from people who are outsiders.  

In forming these communities, members can develop an oppositional loyalty that can decrease the chance that members will shop the competition and increase the likelihood of buying new products from the brand they identify with.19

Through these groups, members can regularly experience their ideals through each other and the brand: Harley has its Harley Owners Group, Apple has its Apple User Groups, and fans of Star Trek have their conventions around the country.

Download Our White Paper On Brand Communities

How to Create Your Own Movement

Creating a movement isn’t easy work. But, it is possible. If you follow these steps, you can begin to create your own movement:

  1. Figure out what human needs your brand plays toward.
  2. Look to archetypes to figure out how your brand fulfills those needs in a way nobody else can.
  3. Based on these human needs and archetypes, determine how you can offer your customers the promise of a better tomorrow.
  4. Design all your messaging to fulfill some aspect of these needs, archetypes, and promise.
  5. Provide ways for customers to come together to experience these ideals
  6. Create programs to bring these ideals alive.
  7. Never stop.


Views and likes don’t build brands or sell products. With more and more brands and more and more avenues of media consumption, gaining loyal customers and constantly wowing them is going to become more and more important.

Standing out from the crowd of competitors will become irrelevant. Instead, it will be about standing so far apart from competitors that your customers see you as the only one that fulfills their ideals.

This begins with starting a movement that promises the hope of a better tomorrow.


  1. Time Staff, “The 30 Most Influential People on the Internet,”, 2016.
  2. Adam Pierno, “How Brands Can Use Memes to Connect With Consumers in a New Way,”, 2018.
  3. Renée Millette, “15 Times Big Brands Did Memes and It Got Weird AF,”, 2017.
  4. Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Culture, 2013.
  5. Pamela Jo Brubaker, Scott Haden Church, Jared Hansen, Steven Pelham, and Alison Ostler, “One does not simply meme about organizations: Exploring the content creation strategies of user-generated memes on Imgur,” Public Relations Review, 2018.
  6. Denis Higgins, The Art of Writing Advertising: Conversations with William Bernbach, George Gribbin, Rosser Reeves, David Ogilvy, and Leo Burnett, 1965.
  7. 2016 Ad Meter Results,”, 2016.
  8. Tom Krisher and Dee-Ann Durbin, “Automakers posted big U.S. sales gains in February as consumers returned to showrooms after a snowy January,”, 2016.
  9. Greg Sterling, “Massive Exposure, Minimal Impact: Doubts About Super Bowl Ad Effectiveness,”, 2015.
  10. Michael Tungate, Adland: A global history of advertising, 2013.
  11. David Ogilvy, Ogilvy on Advertising, 1983.
  12. Richard Schechner, “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre,” The Drama Review, 1968.
  13. Scott Goodson, “How To Spark A Movement,”, 2013.
  14. Richard Schechner, “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre,” The Drama Review, 1968.
  15. Roger Nygard, Trekkies 2, 2004.
  16. Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, 1951.
  17. Carol A. Markstrom and Sheila K. Marshall, “The psychosocial inventory of ego strengths: Examination of theory and psychometric properties,” Journal of Adolescence, 2005.
  18. Albert M. Munoz, Jr. and Thomas C. O’Guinn, “Brand Community,” Journal of Consumer Research, 2001.
  19. Scott A. Thompson and Rajiv K. Sinha, “Brand communities and new product adoption: The influence and limits of oppositional loyalty,” Journal of Marketing, 2008.
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