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May 12, 2004
Branding a Sense of Belonging
 

Cults and cult brands. Everyone has an opinion. Few know much about them. But as marketing professionals we should become experts in excessive commitment. Cults have become a modern definer of absolute devotion at the same time that brands are seeing their loyalty slip away. An intimate knowledge of one could help the fortunes of the other. Acquire insight into why and how people join cults and apply that knowledge to brands. Instead of the loose and uninformed usage that the term 'cult brand' suffers, business should get serious about creating brand worshippers.

I know what you’re thinking. "I’m sorely tempted to do this, but wouldn’t it be morally dubious?" Only if you believe that cults are unethical, which I don’t. Of course the ones fetishized by the media have overstepped the bounds of the law and morals, but the majority of the thousand or so cults in America today have not. They, like the hundreds of thousands of cults throughout history, are simply getting on with the job of creating community and meaning for their members…and in the process are eliciting lasting attachment.

Business should be in the business of satisfying the needs of its customers. Few stronger needs exist than the desire to belong and make meaning. Much is said about creating strong emotional bonds to brands…the kind that can blunt the effects of being out priced and out performed by competition. Few stronger emotions exist than the urge to feel part of, and believe in, something. Yet most marketers have ignored these fundamental needs. They need to recognize that forming groups is a powerful urge and as such presents an enormous opportunity. Marketing to communities is going to be the next big thing. Whether it’s creating their own communities or inserting themselves into existing ones, brands will find a new opportunity for growth by acknowledging that people want to belong.

That’s why for my book The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers, I examined cults. They are the strongest manifestation of this compulsion to belong, after all. Understand the behavior and motivations behind cult belonging and it will clarify which triggers to pull to prompt commitment to brands. Some brands have recognized this need, and whether by design, instinct or luck, have employed many of the techniques that cults have used for centuries. In its early days, for example, Saturn got it right.

Instead of going to Disneyworld or the Grand Canyon, 45,000 people took their vacations at a car factory instead. In Tennessee. Why? They wanted to eat barbeque and listen to country and western music with other Saturn owners, the production workers who made their car, and the retailers who sold it to them. Why would any sane person do this? Did they want to discuss the wittily designed glove compartment or fiendishly clever fuel pump?

No, actually. The Saturn was a well-made but otherwise quite ordinary car. It wasn’t the product that was inducing people to flock to this new kind of tent meeting to a new kind of god. Suzanne, a repeat purchaser put it this way: " The car was nice enough looking and I needed an economical car. But I liked the idea of the company…I felt stupid buying into the whole Saturn Family thing, but I bought in so hard…they were going to be a different kind of company." She was buying into strong community that had clustered around a distinctive and seductive worldview.

Saturn has utilized many cult techniques within its own organization and its customer base. The sharp end of its cult strategy is its retail outlets. They have become the churches to this brand community. The no-commission and set price strategy, the barbeques, seminars on car repairs and days out at theme parks have created bonds that have induced loyalty and brand advocacy.

Within two years of launch, Saturn became the best selling small car in the U.S. with the highest satisfaction of any domestic nameplate, most of which was traced to customer attitudes towards the retailer. By 1993, nearly half of first time visitors to the showrooms had been referred by a friend or family member. Despite a long drought of no new models and the erosion of the cult at the original plant, the community is alive and well among retailers and their customers. To this day, when a customer picks up their new car, the whole dealership gathers around the ‘launch bay’, and they all cry, "We say, we say ‘Saturn’!"

Brands can exploit the primal urges to belong and make meaning. In a society that is increasingly defined as ‘consumerist’ it would be surprising if consumerist constructs were not used for this purpose. The culting of brands can be a profitable strategy. Excessive devotion leads to loyalty and advocacy. In this era of increasingly indistinguishable products, who wouldn’t want these two Holy Grails?


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Douglas Atkin knows the best brands attract devoted fans as well as loyal customers. A Partner and Head of Strategy at Merkley + Partners, Doug has put his beliefs to work on behalf of clients like Mercedes-Benz, Pfizer, SBC, Citigroup, Smith Barney, Novartis, Fila, and BMW Motorcycles.
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