The word “cult” has stinging stigma due to some, let’s say, questionable events of the Manson/Jonestown era. Cults have become synonymous with brainwashed, disillusioned massacres. Time and time again, though, these enigmatic leaders swoon the hearts of an idealist, utopian dreaming, youthful generation. The premise is always the same, too. A group of hippies start growing carrots somewhere in the mountains and call it something like, “Oasis Ranch”. Nothing harmful there, right?
Well, an isolated commune coupled with a charismatic visionary, diluted by pseudo-religion and a dash of alien conspiracies… Now, that’s a dangerous cocktail for any happy hippy homestead. Still, there is a certain draw for any optimistic rebel to join.
People join cult groups to feel like an individual even though joining a group is, by definition, conformity. If the group message goes enough against the grain though, joining can feel like liberation.
Being a part of a movement can be an exciting feeling. Everybody wants to feel like they’re making a difference in the world. So much so, that people are willing to contribute their time, labor, and even hard-earned money towards the cause.
Making a difference and setting yourself apart from the masses doesn’t have to involve transcending the ethereal planes through devotion to our alien overlords. While cults may have earned a negative connotation in the religious space, that isn’t the case across the board. A cult following, by definition, is just a collective group of fanatics with a similar interest. Many “cults” have been successful without inspiring mass homicide or suicide upon its followers.
Today, brands have emerged from corporate commodity into cult-like empires with dedicated followings. Nike, Vans, Star Wars, Supreme, and Harley Davidson are all examples of cult branding. Nobody owns just one Harley Davidson shirt. You’re either a Harley rider or you’re not. Mac or PC. Coke or Pepsi. Each corporate behemoth has its own personality, which people then can subscribe to their own. People connect with certain brands because it helps give them a sense of identity and community.
The genius of cult branding is that it’s a totally organic cultural phenomenon. Preference based consumerism is propagated by social circles. People receive positive reinforcement based on their purchases from like-minded peers and, as a result, are subconsciously incentivized to recreate that feeling. Everyone likes to feel validated and everyone likes to surround themselves with people who “get them”. So, friend circles generally share the same interests and shop at the same stores. Subsequently, groups of people create micro-cultures around their biased shopping.
Now, how does a brand create this cultural phenomenon on a mass scale?
Going against the grain is imperative for any brand to stick out in today’s information overload. In order to not be dismissed as another useless commodity, it’s important to stick out like a sore thumb. Be aggressive, stir commotion, and for God’s sake, rock the boat! Supreme didn’t become the power player it has by avoiding offensive content. Playing it safe to appeal to the broad demographic will not bode well for the cult following you are looking for. Ironically enough, counter-culture is the new current-culture. People love to identify with brands that don’t conform, so don’t be afraid to make a statement.
Take A Stand
Whether this means within a niche community or for a common cause, taking a stand will establish your brand’s personality and attract people with similar beliefs. Take TOMS shoes for example. TOMS has been so effective because every time they sell a pair of shoes, they donate a pair of shoes to an impoverished child. How this remains a profitable business model is insane, but people feel compelled to continue buying their shoes because it’s for a good cause. A corporation with ethics is inspiring, so put your profits on hold for the greater good. Longevity is more important than instant gratification anyway.
Alright, everybody needs to sell out a little bit. Don’t be ashamed to begin creating a buzz around your business. Celebrity sponsorships help create hype around your products, but if you’re reading this, I assume that you can’t afford that just yet. In the meantime, make sure your brand gets the recognition it deserves by utilizing social media influencers. Influencers get their name for, well, influencing. Get the people with a following to advertise your brand and begin the hype cycle. With the right pushers, people will see that your brand makes the world a better place, and inevitably, propel itself through the social stratosphere.
A cultural movement needs to take shape on its own. Allow your brand room to breathe instead of attempting to force an agenda. This will make it more relatable. Yes, you own the business, but you don’t own how it makes your customers feel. Letting go will enable people to feel as though they are responsible for the interpretation of your dream. Afterall, meaning is subjective, so it’s important to allow your fans to define your products towards their own lives. Just like a piece of music, your brand must be open for interpretation. Remember, overbearing cult leaders can have disastrous effects on their following base. So, just don’t Charles Manson your brand.