Cult brands: cultivated with care or created by chance?

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There was an interesting conversation on cult brands, over at Twitter, triggered by this tweet from Karthik. The conversation that followed set me thinking about what makes a cult brand and whether they happen by chance or can be consciously created. I have seen some books on this topic like ‘Power of Cult Branding‘ (haven’t read it yet) and they talk of Seven Golden Rules for cult brands. On the larger question of do brands become cults by chance or are they carefully created?

I guess no brand sets out wanting to be a cult brand. In the Twitter conversation, one of the criteria for brands becoming cults was mentioned as the steadfastness of followers to stick to a brand, among other things. But steadfastness alone does not make a cult. By that yardstick, so many brands that are popular in a particular region in India would be cults. A Chennaiite would perhaps not switch from a Hamam or Amrutanjan for life. But he doesn’t make a cult.

Cult brands typically have a passionate fan following who believe in the brand’s core values so strongly to a level of irrational belief. Brands like Harley Davidson, Apple (ahem) come to mind. This fan following become evangelists and advocate the brand’s benefits to non-believers, as it were. Such users of brands usually have a superior attitude – not in a smug way necessarily (though Apple fans are accused of that all the time). They beleive that their brand is a cut above and that’s what makes them stand out from the crowd. Royal Enfield’s Bullet users come to mind. Though if they buy into the brand only because they want to stand out from the crowd, I doubt if they are true believers in the brand.

Another facet of cult brands is that their fan base is usually miniscule compared to the market leader (Apple vs. Microsoft?). But the fan base sticks with their brand come what may, through adverse market conditions, over time.

However, no brand can be programmed to be a cult brand from Day 1. I think the brand owners must firstly get a sense from consumers that there is a ‘movement’ of sorts in favour of the brand. There must be an emotional relationship with the brand. Think of the intesne emotional relationship people have with TV shows like Lost, 24 or American Idol.  Steps taken to strengthen that emotional relationship go a long way in creating cult brands.

What are your views? Any examples from India? As always, do comment in.

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  1. When it comes to Indian Cult brand , few which comes to my mind are – Bullet motorcycle , Kaun Banega Crorepati . But , in certain section of the society , the real cult is “Baba Ramdev” and this one i would say he has created with care so far .


  2. very interesting. I’d take a step back and rethink about ‘stand out of the crowd’. perhaps cult is an intersection of ‘need satisfied’, ‘non conforming’ (uniqueness), and (yet) ‘belonging’… (any more parameters?)
    then, would new consumption cultures (FB, Twitter etc) change this? Is it a turn-off if cults become too popular (diluted) thanks to increasing over-share tendencies? Point is, in an era with fewer communication mechanisms, brands would become cult by a relatively slower word of mouth? That may not be an option now, so an alternate ‘barrier’ would be created? Or do brands bypass cult and jump straight to culture? eg. Twitter . Would a brand then like to be cult or culture? 🙂
    Come to think of it, Rajni would be cult in Japan, and culture here, no? and manga would be culture in japan, and cult here? 😉

    • Thanks for the comment, Manu. The comments here made me realize that I should have delved deeper into the subject and not just skim through. Interesting nuance on cult & culture and the effect of 'open media' on cult brands. Will do a follow up, maybe!

  3. Agree completely on the differentiation between plain brand loyalty and cult following that you’ve pointed out.

    I often think cult brands need to have that one indisputable, unmatchable and unique claim to fame. Maybe it was the army man on the Bullet that made it uber-cool. Modern cruisers like the Eliminator or Avenger don’t have that following.

    Another instance being the character of the Fonz on Happy Days. To quote an American Newspaper “… an episode where Fonzie got a library card. A few days after the episode aired, libraries across the country reported a huge spike in the number of people applying for library cards.” In the show, the Fonz could snap his fingers or punch walls and magical things would happen. And women went weak in the knees at his mere mention.

    • Good point on the Bullet mystique. Maybe it was the uncommonness of the brand that added to it’s value.

  4. brands bypass cult and jump straight to culture…I think that is a very interesting point made by Manu…it is true that most iconic brands (e.g. Jack Daniels, Starbucks, Nike) were successful because of their cultural strategy which they did cultivate owing to social disruptions in the US during that time. However, as far as the notion of cult brands being cultivated or created by chance goes…i think brand marketers usually don't pay that much attention beforehand on the notion of making a cult brand. For e.g. who would have thought a TV show such as MTV Roadies would have such a cult following.

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