Diverted by technology, the marketplace has failed to notice a trend: the inadvertent making of cults by leading companies.
My insight on cults was ignited while on a commuter train. A wild-eyed, middle-aged man was excitedly going seat to seat preaching Christianity. At one station, a well-dressed young woman boarded the train and was soon approached by this man. She curtly stopped him after his first words. "Excuse me sir," she said politely, "I have my own religion." When he asked what it was she replied solemnly, "I'm a witch."
You might be surprised by how many young people are into cults. Consumer cults, as well.
A few years ago, at a DDB Needham meeting with Keith Reinhardt [who is now chairman emeritus, DDB Worldwide], he explained that the consumer mind operates like a camera-lens diaphragm. For example, when a consumer is in the market for a car, the mind expands to take in everything it sees or hears about cars. After the purchase, the diaphragm closes. Cults are different. The diaphragm never closes.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cult's sociological aspect as "a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbol." When New York Yankee fans sleep outside the stadium 24 hours in advance to buy World Series tickets, wouldn't you call that cult-like behavior? Some time ago, when a South American soccer team lost, it caused a real-life war. Yet when Microsoft had consumers waiting outside stores nationwide for the midnight sale of its latest operating system, it did little to sustain this initial excitement and convert it to a cult. Contrast this with Apple, which has successfully generated and sustained a cult following around its product launches for decades now.
Smart companies can cash in on consumer or business cults. Cult followers are dedicated. They stick with their company through thick and thin. Companies who can plant the seeds of a cult will weather the economic roller-coaster ride and reap enormous sums in loyalty, dedication, and short- and long-term profits.
How do you create a cult for your product or service? There is no room here for a thorough analysis, but I will briefly sum up what I think is needed to create a consumer cult. First, it does not mean developing a new logo or brand identity. That should follow from the company's philosophy. Second, it does not mean twittering, posting on YouTube or using any other short-term gimmicks. At best, these create quick fads that disappear just as quickly. Third, and most important, it does not mean artificially overloading your product in the mind of consumers through heavy-handed marketing, advertising or promotion. This may create awareness, but not a cult.
Creating a cult means cultivating a group, large or small, of dedicated and committed followers. Give them something to believe in, give them something that will add value to their life, give them something that promises to fulfill their dreams and evoke their hidden aspirations. This could take a far shorter time (and less dollars) than most companies think. It may have nothing to do with marketing at all. The idea is to take your product or service -- no matter how insignificant it seems -- and transform it into a culture. Even colored, sugared water can be transformed into the Coke and Pepsi revolutions.
Cultism is the wave of future business. Realize it and change the world. Ignore it and you end up following in the footsteps of the French King Louis XVI. He dismissed the storming of the Bastille as trivial, and failed to see it for what it was: the birth of the new cult -- Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. Because of his oversight, he lost his head, literally, along with 17,000 of his subjects. His company, as it were, went bankrupt.
Everyone wants to be part of something important. It can be trivial or world-shaking. Make it your product or service.
Michael Antebi, creative director, is a business and computer graphics consultant for ad agencies and Fortune 500 companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.