// May 2nd, 2011 // No Comments » // Uncategorized
“Bombarded with a cascade of products that have few real differences, people need some other criteria to determine what they should buy. Moreover, consumers are so media literate, blasted as they have been with too much advertising, that they have learned how to edit what they don’t want to hear to find the little that they do.”
That rather bleak description summarises author and adman Douglas Atkin’s view of today’s marketing environment. You’ll be pleased to hear that Atkin’s Eeyore-like perspective was challenged by a Eureka moment on a rainy night in New York City as he “watched eight enthusiastic sneaker-wearers at a focus group express the kind of intense conviction I had only imagined possible at a revivalist meeting or cult gathering. Their language verged on evangelical; their passion was on the brink of zealotry. What I saw was ironic considering that I had just left a meeting of anxious marketers who had been fretting that brand loyalty was dead.”
That chance encounter led Atkin to consider whether there were lessons for marketers to learn by studying cults and other organisations (such as the U.S. Marine Corps) which inspired commitment above and beyond the call of duty – and that in turn led to a journey of exploration which he describes in his book “The Culting of Brands”.
The very word cult implies that its followers are psychologically flawed individuals, gullible and desperate. Atkin argues otherwise, pointing out that successful cults will only grow if their members are socially appealing enough to proselytise – people in significant numbers are not going to join an organisation populated by social failures. In other words, cult members are just like you, me or any other demographic cluster desired by marketers. A few brands already have cult-like status amongst their followers: Harley-Davidson, the Grateful Dead, Apple. How can this be duplicated?
Atkin suggests that four basic steps lie at the heart of any cult:
- An individual might have a feeling of difference, even alienation from the world around them
- This leads to openness to or searching for a more compatible environment
- They are likely to feel a sense of security or safety in a place where one’s difference from the outside world is seen as a virtue, not a handicap
- This presents the circumstances for self-actualisation within a group of like-minded others who celebrate the individual for being himself
If these are valid hypotheses, then perhaps they are nowhere better encapsulated than in the one-time Apple catchphrase “Think Different”.
So what does it take to attract a passionate following? Atkin suggests that we should not try to be all things to everyone (difficult as that might be for a marketer to embrace). Instead of trying not to alienate anyone, you must target the alienated and simultaneously separate your organisation from the mainstream. Harley-Davidson embraces this fact in its brand guidelines document: “Harley Truth #1: Harley is not for everyone.” Arguably local operator Hell Pizza achieves similar separation through its polarising advertising persona.
It helps to have an enemy that can be readily demonised, thus positioning your brand as a plucky crusader triumphing against overwhelming odds. Apple has been fortunate (?) to have several evil empires within easy reach: initially IBM, ruthlessly repositioned as dictatorial Big Brother in the classic 1984 commercial that introduced Macintosh to the world; then Microsoft, relentlessly lampooned in a series of Mac vs PC comparison commercials; and more recently the record industry, resisting the digerati with its last analogue breath until Apple freed music through the iPod. The iPhone? Torn from the grasp of the cellular providers we love to hate.
Not all enemies are tangible. The iPad owes at least some of its success to the freedom of mobility it brings its owners – free from the constraints of tethered communication. Nike encourages its followers to “just do it”, demonising the notion of “not doing it” for millions of fitness-conscious consumers. And Harley brings out the rebel in its core catchment, mostly middle-aged males trapped by the weekday constraints of comfortable suburbia (Atkin neatly describes it as “the claustrophobia of the everyday”).
Another vital attribute of cult brands: the people (whether staff, influencers or users). Even before it had much to offer in the way of technology, Apple employed what it called product evangelists, whose job it was to build an enthusiastic following. Trade Me, through its community notice boards, has always cultivated a sense of “members helping members” – a small-town virtue, even in a neighbourhood of 2.75 million users. The urge to belong is a deeply-felt human need, and that’s not just demonstrated by the fact that so many of us have signed up to Facebook: a legendary Yale University study of 194 patients who had been hospitalised by a heart attack found that 55 percent of those reporting no support (i.e. from friends, relatives, religious organisations or voluntary groups) died within the year compared with 27 percent of those with some social network in place.
Regular contact is another important attribute. Call it the “No Marine left behind” doctrine – the notion that your loyalty will be reciprocated by the organisation, even to the point of ensuring that you don’t slip away easily. Not just “your call is important to us” – rather, “without you we’re nothing, together we’re one”.
Our cult poster child, Apple, even gives an example of what happens when core values are allowed to wither. During Steve Jobs’ long exile from the company, Apple “lost its original commitment and vision and became distracted by quarterly results and foolhardy product development”.
Steve Jobs’ speech to software developers and dealers on his return really said it all:
“Marketing is about values. We have to be very clear on what we want our customers to know about us. They want to know who is Apple and what do we stand for. What we’re about is not making boxes for people to get their jobs done, although we do that very well. What Apple is about, its core value is that we believe that people with passion can change the world for the better. That’s what we believe.”
If you want your brand to be cult-ivated, that speech is as good a place as any to start.