Cult-tural Marketing

To the list of newfangled marketing buzzwords, let’s add the term cult. The proposition of cult marketing holds reign upon the notion that a way to convert—ahem, excite … OK, convert—consumers is by using timeless human behavioral drives found in religious cults. Heck, fellow acolytes, nothing is more permission-, buzz- and one-to-one-based than “a central ideology with a parallel social universe rich with customs.”

Thus, cult brands such as Apple, Harley-Davidson, Linux and eBay derive their unique stature from a consumer base that exhibits unholy devotion. These brands have the unusual ability to bind individuals to the cause, often requiring a rite-of-passage “initiation” while maintaining “closed boundaries” (e.g., true Harley riders must pay their dues) and profitable solidarity.

Some of our industry’s brightest thinkers are happy to point out such impassioned branded subcultures. Doug Atkins makes fine-tuned observations worth checking out in his book The Culting of Brands. And until biotech figures out how we can best inject related pattern behavior into our packaged-goods consumer base (much is riding on California’s stem-cell initiative), the best we can do is learn how to leverage the success-making principles that guide the Moonies, Scientologists, Kabbalists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But it might also make sense to turn the lens around—to observe how cults themselves have leveraged branding cues from the likes of the marketing industry, the we-giveth-and-taketh approach. Below is a brief cult-marketing primer to guide you before you go out and build that Dakota dream compound for you and your flock.

1. Holy positioning

Cults must communicate in a way that adds mystique and rewards those on the inside. Alex Wipperfürth and John Grant of Plan B Marketing maintain that this “in-the-know marcom” works especially well for brands such as Linux and Apple, as they are in a life-or-death marketplace situation, have a genuine ideology that can’t faked, and are small enough to be underdogs but not so small that they’re not worth fighting for. By definition, only a select few have the window to be in such an exalted yet admittedly fragile positioning dynamic.

This makes it all the more important that cult marketers establish credibility, bringing to mind the next suggestion:

2. Celebrity endorsements to ensure global appeal

America is still the nexus of the brightest cult branding, strides by Korean Moonies notwithstanding. The quickest fix to bankable cult-world notoriety is to nail a working relationship with a highly translatable pop icon of questionable repute—as seen with Prince and Michael Jackson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Madonna for Kabbalah.

Prod them to reach the height of personal scandal to maximize market impact and media coverage (especially in magazines like Star, Us Weekly, etc.) and—presto!—an expanded American (not to mention German and Asian) audience awaits. Just make sure you’ve got staff translators ready to go!

3. Marginal worship

The key concept any decent B-school entrepreneurship professor instills in students applies directly to cult packaged-goods marketing: Margin is all important. In other words, if you can get away with selling $26 red string bracelets like Kabbalists do, well, the more twine the merrier.

Yes, Kabbalah’s givers have figured out that they can literally sell special red string bracelets for a Jackson bill and change based on the presumption that this product grants mortals the opportunity to deflect “looks of ill will.” Of course, that may be the case only if one isn’t around fellow Kabbalists, and do keep in mind that said string’s shipping is not included if you order off the Kabbalah Center’s e-commerce engine. As owners of the yellow cult-of-Lance-Armstrong LiveStrong Nike bracelets know, fashion and personal belief systems wear well on the wrists of the blessed few.

Leverage the high-margin principle as far as you can take it—see if you can improve on Kabbalah’s demonstrated ability of getting its flock to willingly spend more margin on twine than Lord of the Rings fans can on pewter characters. Take that, Franklin Mint!

Cult marketing is a bright spot in the list of newfangled marketing templates, one that powerfully applies timeless social-science principles. Next week we’ll discuss occult marketing, empowering business with pentagram power to generate best-in-class ROI generation.

@Schwartzie14 A leading creative director for the majority of his career, Rob Schwartz transitioned from CCO to CEO in 2015 to lead the New York office of TBWA\Chiat\Day.