A Cult brand is a product or service with a committed customer base. The attainment of such true believers or 'near fanatical' customers is made possible because cult brands sell more than a product, they sell a lifestyle. Cult brands fundamentally create an entirely new universe revolving around its products and places the customers in the very center of their world.
Two words appropriately associated with a cult brand are 'love' and 'madness'; The very phrase used to describe cult branding by Melanie Wells in 2001: With the association of the words 'love and madness' simply describing the devout followers of a brand or otherwise in this scenario a 'cult brand'. A cult brand is a brand with an extreme loyal customer-base in which the consumers visualise the brand as something more than just a product, but also as a life style where the brand becomes a piece of their everyday lives. Better stated, cult-brands sell an image as opposed to a product. People with a loyal following to these brands are drawn to such an idea through the desire of wanting to belong. These brands create a community in which certain psychological needs are met, where people who share similar interests are able to coincide with one-another (Melanie Wells, 2001). An example of a cult follower can be found within the doughnut business otherwise known as 'Krispy Kreme'. Krispy Kreme's example of a devout following stems from their lack of advertising. The company spends less than 1% of their total revenue (as of the year 2001) on advertising yet through the years 1997 and 2001, Krispy Kreme more than doubled their sales. This happened due to the nature of the process in which a cult brand gains momentum from its followers. Through developing a small customer base of fanatic followers, the company is graced with positive reviews via 'word-of-mouth' in which fanatical followers are able to convert other consumers into 'brand cultists' to turn an underground brand into a house-hold name.
Cult Brands fall into the category of benign cults which can be defined as a following where members are truly attached or intensely devoted to the product/service the brand provides. Benign Cults are not destructive and are welcoming of new members. In benign cults, human desires are fulfilled in a positive and unharmful way.
A brand can be defined as a cult brand if the following factors are present:
There are considered to be three stages of followers within a brand (McAlexander, James H., John W Schouten and Harold F. Koening, 2002). It starts with the 'brand following', continued by the 'connectedness', with the third and final stage being that of 'consumer conformity'. Brand following can be described as consumers that share the same strong affiliation in a brand, create a bond or 'relationship' on the simple basis that they share a common interest. At this point, there is more emphasis on the brand itself with an underlying relationship between common consumers arising. The second stage being that of connectedness, can be described as the brand users developing a further sense of togetherness while also initiating a stronger bond in the way that they display a sort of empathy towards one another. In this stage, users are now becoming more interested in other uses, the culture of building a community, and the apparent bond that is forming within such a community. The third and final stage of 'consumer conformity' suggests that there is no longer any real individual consumer, but a well formed group/population. It is said that people associate themselves with groups or other people to make sense of themselves or essentially to reach self-actualisation. Through doing so, one would feel a certain level of fulfilment that helps to energise a group, providing strength and loyalty to a brand. A good example of a strong brand community within a well-known cult brand is that of the 'Hell's Angels'. The Hell's Angels are so devoted to Harley Davidsons that it is said within their own wedding ceremonies they use the Harley owner's manual as a replacement for the bible (McAlexander, James H., John W Schouten and Harold F. Koening, 2002).
There are certainly many advantages to inducting your own brand into cult-like status, some of which add to company image, whereas others simply boost sales and revenue across the board. Well known advantages of having cult-like followers include perks such as: a loyal customer-base, low price sensitivity, improved competitiveness, and snowball advertising (Thompson, Scott A. and Rajiv K. Sinha, 2008). A loyal customer base means that through 'thick and thin', the consumer will stay by your side. A good example of this is when Nike, although being found out for exploiting cheap child labour in the Nike owned sweatshops, maintains a fanatical following from their loyal customer base. Another advantage previously mentioned is low price sensitivity. This means that consumers aren't as conscious as to the price they are paying for their worshipped brand's goods. The consumers are able to pay more in a guilt-free manner without the need to shop for a cheaper and/or better alternative i.e. an elastic demand. The third mentioned advantage was that of the 'improved competitiveness' category. This means that as a result of a fanatical, loyal following, consumers see no real competition or substitute for their chosen brand/s. Linking back to low price sensitivity, consumers are willing to pay any price for the product and as a result, the companies do not partake in any sort of price war with competitors. The fourth and final mentioned advantage is 'snowball advertising'. Here snowball advertising means that loyal customers spread word of praise for their chosen brand/s. Linking back to a "cultist recruitment stage" companies are able to let consumers broaden their demographic as people who hear positive word about a product are likely to go through at least one of the three cultist brand stages (Thompson, Scott A. and Rajiv K. Sinha, 2008).
The following emerged as cult brands because the brands sell lifestyles, whilst focusing a great deal on their customers.
Harley-Davidson sells more than just motorcycles, it sells a passion and a lifestyle. The emergence of the Harley's Ownership Group or HOG was an opportunity for motorcycle enthusiasts to share experiences and passion for the sport - a factor which turned them into a lifestyle brand. This cult brand is a textbook example of guerrilla marketing. Harley-Davidson benefited from word-of-mouth advertising and relied on low-cost dealership promotions.
Vans is known for providing true skate culture. It markets itself as more than a company but a lifestyle. Very early on, Vans became actively involved in skate culture by hosting skateboarding days and sponsoring the famous Warped tour. Furthermore, in 2014, Vans opened a free-access skate complex in Huntington beach. Embracing skate culture to its fullest has brought Vans to prominence within skate society.
Lululemon is known for being far more than a simple spandex store. Whilst other brands built stores, Lululemon created a 'hub for healthy living'. Furthermore, the company regularly run yoga classes and appoint ambassadors that truly represent the Lululemon brand.Their enthusiasm enabled Lululemon to create a lifestyle based on healthy living and health enthusiasts. Selling the lifestyle constituted to a brand that made high priced, $98 yoga pants merchantable.
Apple has become the epitome of cult branding. The brand has a strong corporate culture of listening and receiving feedback, especially from the consumer's perspective. Apple recognizes its customer's appreciate innovation and the aesthetics of things. Apple's annual Macworld expo which includes workshops where the latest Apple products are discussed in an open environment allows Apple to create innovative products that customers greatly desire. For instance, the introduction of the iPod was created in ways that intertwined with human lifestyles and day-to-day activities. Furthermore, Apple slogans such as 'think different' pinpointed human desires to be different and to be part of a society. The slogan was a true manifestation of individual identity.
Cult brands do not confine to products or services provided by businesses. Cult brands may include influential people, for instance, celebrities. The Oprah Winfrey Show rapidly flourished into a cult brand in 1986. Oprah's topic of discussion and debate were of great interest to her audience, while her advice and recommendations were found highly influential. For example, Oprah's book recommendations helped many novels become best sellers. Furthermore, her endorsement of the current president of the United States, Barack Obama's presidential election in 2008 proved efficacious.