Cult branding is defined as a product, service, celebrity, or brand with a committed or fanatical customer base. Cult brands are created through human social and psychological makeup. This type of branding has little to do with expert management or efficient operations, but a pushing away from the “normal” corporate mainstream branding, which garners them avid, loyal followers.
Cult brands not only sell a product or service, they sell a lifestyle. It’s the disposal of corporate marketing and the inclusion of followers into a lifestyle identified with the brand that amasses the devoted following. Cult branding lies in the wants, needs, and most importantly ideals of its loyal fans. The brand speaks to its followers on a deep level–to their personal beliefs and uses people’s own self-identification to elicit emotions and social responses, making them so loyal they’ll refuse to buy from competitors.
Preeminent psychologist, Abraham Maslow, created a hierarchy of needs in which he theorized that everything humans do is done in response to a need of some kind. So when a brand addresses people’s needs on a fundamental level, fanatical behavior almost always follows.
So if you’re aiming to elicit this type of audience for your brand, what do you need to do to reach out to your fans effectively?
According to Maslow, you must first provide followers with a sense of belonging. In the hierarchy of needs, he names the desire of humans to belong nearly as important as food and water. Since your followers won’t always recognize their own psychological needs, your job is to provide them a place to belong within your brand banner.
Lady Gaga uses this type of marketing to make her “monsters” loyal to her. Referred to as Mother Monster, she accepts her fans by relating to how they feel different from others and providing them a safe place to be themselves and a feeling of community.
This feeling of belonging drives the tendency of people to be responsive to social proof. In other words, to make decisions based on other people’s choices, by assuming the opinion of the majority is likely correct. This is the reason so many brands buy social media followers, to further provide the social proof that helps gain organic followers. And is also the reason brands produce products and services that their fans can display to show off their status as part of the group.
Closely related to belonging and social proof is social identity. The self-worth that is comes to those who feel they belong to a social class, school, group, or community. Fans tend to propel social identity by promoting the status of the group they belong to and discriminating against those who aren’t part of that group.
A great example of this type of marketing is the long-time feud between Mac and PC users. With PC represented as a brain-centric, nerd and Mac being defined as a hip, creative. The marketing message clearly represents the two group types and allows each to belong to one and disfavor the other.
This self-worth helps cult brands address the self-esteem needs of consumers by creating a sense of exclusivity for their brand. Giving their brand the coveted status that appeals to people’s desire to feel and be important. And by introducing the idea that there’s some scarcity to the product or service, people naturally want it more.
Cult brands are not afraid to take a stand by providing an emotional core or foundation of the cult culture. This stand gives your followers a reason to believe in your brand and can be communicated in something like a tagline or in brand personality. Allowing followers to associate your brand with positive feelings, gives them a compelling reason to stand in line to buy your products or services.
And finally, many cult brands provide one thing that shows they go the extra mile for their fans–extraordinary customer service. Cult brands sell experiences and positive feelings–they want their followers to feel valued. So they provide their customers the type of service that borders on the excessive–it’s how they build long-term loyalty. It’s this service that makes their customers continue to feel important and eager to come back for more.
Cult brands exist because of the emotional responses they extract and the social relationships they offer. If your brand wants to build its own loyal following, you need to use these psychological tendencies to build a fanatical devotion.