How to Become a Cult Brand

THE BIG IDEA: Certain businesses excel at fostering undying, cult-like following among their customers. Our study of Cult Brands reveals seven rules any business can follow to attract loyal customers.


Some customers have a religious devotion to a particular brand. They may go so far as to permanently scorch their skin with the logo or image of the brand they love.

While this may appear extreme to you, fifteen years of research into Cult Brands has shown us that the psychological reasons behind cult followings illuminate the drivers behind customer loyalty in any business.

So even if you don’t aspire to have customers tattoo your logo onto their heads, if you’re interested in creating loyal, profitable customers, there’s a lot to learn from Cult Brands.

Cult Brands create emotional experiences that lead to feelings of belonging, a sense of shared consciousness with a group of people. The customers of Cult Brands often feel like part of a family instead of consumers of a business. This is a powerful, emotional connection.

Apple, Harley, IKEA, Star Trek, Zappos, MINI, and The Motley Fool all invite their customers into their clan.

So how do they do it?

7 Rules for Cultivating Customer Loyalty

We’ve identified seven core rules that all Cult Brands tend to share. These rules are the fundamental tenets that all Cult Brands consciously or instinctively follow as they do business.

Keeping these rules in mind makes it easier to decide how to grow your business and foster loyalty.

The Seven Rules of Cult Brands provide a framework for ongoing business success. As you read through each rule, think about ways you can apply it to your organization.

Rule #1: Differentiate

Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead summed up the challenge facing today’s marketers: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

Your customers are driven by two simultaneous desires that appear to be diametrically opposed to each other. They want to stand out from the crowd and be a unique individual while simultaneously wanting (and needing) to be part of the crowd, receiving the social support and approval of like-minded individuals.

How do people meet these opposing needs? By belonging to a group they identify as being unique, often outside of mainstream society.

If you’ve got a home, you need furniture. The community of people who need furniture is considerable. But the community of people who need furniture with minimalist charm and serious organizational capacity (and enjoy quirky Swedish names) is smaller and distinct—just different enough to make IKEA irresistible to legions of their fans.

Your customers want to be part of a group that’s different. It’s that simple.

Rule #2: Be Courageous

Even in the face of doubters and critics, Cult Brands dare to be different—and succeed. Cult Brands are successful because they are wholly unlike every other company in the marketplace.

Cult Brands believe in themselves, their products and services, and their customers. They want to challenge conventional wisdom and transform it when given the chance. Willing to take significant risks, the people behind Cult Brands are fighters and leaders, not quitters or followers.

When Whole Foods started in 1980, there were less than six natural foods supermarkets in the United States. Today, the natural and organic foods market is estimated at more than $28.6 billion.

Cult Brands, however, don’t waste their time or energy worrying about who is following them. Their attention is focused on how to better serve their customers.

Rule #3: Promote a Lifestyle

Cult Brands sell more than a product or a service. Customers want more than just things; they are seeking experiences.

Experiential purchases are more meaningful than material purchases. As such, all Cult Brands sell lifestyles. They develop and sell “the tools” that help their customers pursue their dreams and celebrate distinct lifestyles.

Cult Brands remove barriers for their customers. The would-be musician no longer needs to shell out thousands of dollars for expensive instruments and equipment. They just need to download the right apps onto their iPad, and they’re ready to rock.

Apple promotes a creative lifestyle that facilitates self-expression. Jimmy Buffett celebrates life as a party. The Life is good Company promotes a laid-back weekend BBQ with friends.

Your customers have aspirations. Those aspirations are powered by emotions. If you can support your customers in the realization of their aspirations, they will associate their positive emotions with your business.

Rule #4: Listen to Your Customers

Cult Brands focus on serving the wants and needs of the customers they have. They have the ability to listen to their customers’ discontent and create solutions that build strong, enduring loyalty.

By listening, discovered that the high cost of shipping interfered with how often their customers made purchases. In response, they launched Amazon Prime in 2005, a program in which members enjoy unlimited free two-day shipping in exchange for a yearly fee.

It’s an initiative that has been more successful than anyone could have ever imagined. Over 20 million people are Amazon Prime members. The typical Amazon Prime member buys as much as 150 percent more than non-Prime members. It’s a powerful example of the results of listening.

Respect your choir. Listen to them. Value their opinions. Reward them. Never ignore an enthusiastic follower of your business. Remember that all core followers want to believe, but first, they need to see miracles in the form of unexpected gifts and surprises.

Do extraordinary things for your choir and they’ll become incredible brand evangelists.

Rule #5: Support Customer Communities

Cult Brands know how to build strong, ongoing relationships with their customers by developing and supporting customer communities.

Cult Brands aren’t afraid to use today’s profits to support customer communities to generate powerful, long-term goodwill for their businesses and their brands.

When possible, they establish social events that reflect their missions. MINI created their annual Take the State tour. Life Is Beautiful puts on their popular Music Festival each year.  Harley supports HOG Rallies worldwide. (We attended their 105th Anniversary event in Milwaukee and recorded the magic.)

Rule #6: Be Open, Inviting and Inclusive

You don’t have to earn your way into a Cult Brand by proving you’re cool enough. Cult Brands take it as a given that you’re already cool enough.

Cult Brands welcome customers of all ages, races, creeds, and socioeconomic backgrounds with open arms. They don’t discriminate against anyone who doesn’t fit into an idealized customer profile. Everyone is welcome.

Cult Brands prove to their customers that they are indeed open and inclusive by helping to fulfill the deep human needs that we all share, including belonging and self-esteem.

Rule #7: Promote Personal Freedom

Deep inside every human being on this planet is a need for freedom.

According to Abraham Maslow, the feeling of freedom is a bridge to self-actualization: we want to be able to grow and express our own unique identity and worldview without fear of consequences.

Harley promotes freedom on the open road. Vans promotes freedom from convention. Linux promotes freedom of information. Apple promotes creativity and self-expression.

Cult Brands are empowering and expansive. When customers engage with a Cult Brand, they come away feeling like they can do more, and do it more effectively.

Tapping into the Forces Behind Customer Loyalty

Integrating the Seven Rules of Cult Brands into your operations expands the number of ways you can tap into the forces of customer loyalty.

Consistent application of these principles will strengthen the bond you have with your existing all-star customers, while simultaneously creating new customers.

As your customers deepen their emotional connection with you, their loyalty will grow. Your organization will become stronger, more resilient, and more differentiated.

Oh, you’ll probably become more profitable too.

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