Posted by: kwbrand | March 14, 2011

A Cult-Like Devotion to Brands

Quick. What are your favorite brands?

  • What are the brands you search for by name?
  • For whom have you willingly and happily handed over your email address so it can be included in a mailing list?
  • For which companies are you willing to actually open and read those emailed newsletters, sales and updates?
  • What are the companies or products you’ve considered promoting to your own network? (OMG! Check out ________, they are the very best for_______!)

One of my favorite brand strategy books is The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers by Douglas Atkin (2004). In it, Atkin compares the dynamics that draw people to cults with the dynamics that make “true believers” out of ordinary consumers. It’s fascinating psychosocial stuff and if you haven’t read it, run out and pick up a copy post haste. Or, in the meantime, check out my summary here.

Atkin begins by saying that “the sacred and profane are bound by the essential desires of human nature.” As evidence of this, he shares that the people who participated as his research shared the same kinds of reasons for joining either a religious cult or a consumer oriented cult-like following. Their reasons included “profound urges to belong, to make meaning, feel secure, have order within chaos, and create identity.” “This is the stuff,” he says, “of the human condition.” Atkin’s research also found that unlike popular conceptions of cult-members as flawed and gullible people, the majority are, demographically speaking, “from stable and financially comfortable homes and are, above average in intelligence and education.”

So how do they, and we of the brand-believing sect, get drawn in? Atkin identified these dynamics:

Belonging to the group of believers paradoxically makes individuals feel self-actualized and more free to be and express themselves.

Harley Davidson provides a bad-boy outlet for people who occasionally need to stick it to “the man” by revving their throaty engines in suburban cul de sacs.

The group is a “beacon of difference” that operates in a distinct and sometimes fringe element of the otherwise unwashed masses.

The group takes on its own culture, terminology, and customs that all signal to its members “You’re different, but we’re different too.” Strategically, this means organizations have to be willing to exclude people who don’t fit in order to be clearly differentiated enough to attract the right fit. This takes courage and focus. Apple provides creative people a community of creative, hip, arty types where they and others who feel disconnected from an uncreative world can come together and celebrate their quirkiness. Remember the iconic Mac ad of drones and the anvil throwing liberator? Now envision a bunch of quirky, anvil-toting, Mac-lovers.

People buy people before they buy things.

Or in other words, people buy into the feeling they get from a cult or company. In retrospect, they might rationalize their decision by pointing to the ideology or the product-features, but it’s the “staff not the stuff” that really drives results. Build relationships.

The Norman Rockwell vision of small town communities might be going away or gone; the primal need for community has not.

People desperately need to belong. Atkin illustrates that belonging in a community provides for us a filter with which to determine what’s real, what’s meaningful, and gives us a sense of identity. And while people may no longer find those community benefits in their geographical locations, they can find them in membership with consumer sects of other likeminded people. And the good news about consumer communities is that unlike family or neighbors, we get to pick them and/or opt out at any time.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Sure there are those whack-a-do consumers out there who get all into their stuff, but not me. I have a life.”

I had the same thoughts when I snapped this picture of a Mac-nut camped in front of the Mac store. He was one of about thirty people waiting for HOURS to be the first to get some Mac product (was it the Mac Pro? A new iPod? Who knows? I’m a PC). I thanked him for posing for my photo and told him I hoped his wait would be worth it. He assured me it would be. I walked away tsk-tsking to myself and feeling both self-righteous and impressed by the machine that is Apple.

Of course, I’ve been known to tell my kids that I’m busy “working” while I surf online sales at Anthropologie so it’s a slippery slope.

Where’s your brand devotion?

Kyndra Wilson, KW Brand Translation 



  1. Maslow marketing! I’ve long been a believer:

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