Make Business Matter: How Do Cult Brands Create Loyalty? (Part 2)

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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.

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Transcript

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.


  1. Matthew W. Ragas and Bolivar J. Bueno, The Power of Cult Branding: How 9 Magnetic Brands Turned Customers Into Loyal Followers (and Yours Can, Too!), 2002.
  2. Matthew W. Ragas and Bolivar J. Bueno, The Power of Cult Branding: How 9 Magnetic Brands Turned Customers Into Loyal Followers (and Yours Can, Too!), 2002.
  3. Arlene Weintraub, “Vans: Chairman of the Board,” Businessweek, 2001.
  4. John Mihelich and John Papineau, “Parrotheads in Margaritaville: Fan Practice, Oppositional Culture, and Embedded Cultural Resistance in Buffett Fandom,” Journal of Popular Music Studies, 2005.
  5. Matthew W. Ragas and Bolivar J. Bueno, The Power of Cult Branding: How 9 Magnetic Brands Turned Customers Into Loyal Followers (and Yours Can, Too!), 2002.
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