The best brands, like cults, inspire consumers to act irrationally.
Basking in the marketing glow of companies like Apple, Harley-Davidson, Lululemon and more, a worshipful public is willing – and even eager – to wait in ungodly lines or shell out top dollar. On social media, consumers turn into evangelists for their favorite brands, proselytizing to the community at large.
This phenomenon was top of mind at Social Media Week in New York City last Friday, where executives from Refinery29, SoulCycle and Virgin Mega – a Virgin company that traffics in limited-edition product runs – spoke on a panel entitled ‘Cult Brands 2.0: How Today’s Top Brands Breed Loyalty and Fanaticism.’
Virgin Mega aims to target cult consumers, said its founder, Ron Faris, by offering limited-edition items – like Cronut-inspired jewelry – over which shoppers must vie in virtual lines to buy via the company’s mobile app.
“So many people hate waiting in line, but I love lines,” Faris said. “It’s a good five hours of an ephemeral community that comes together to hype up.” Harnessing that energy on a digital level, he hopes, will become a retail paradigm for the future.
A sense of unbridled fanaticism is precisely what makes SoulCycle so special, added the company’s vice president of marketing, Spencer Rice. Its community is fueled by the way in which instructors become near-objects of worship for students, he explained.
“When that little request comes up on Instagram that says that your favorite instructor is following you, that’s part of the emotional experience at SoulCycle,” Rice said. “It’s a big deal.”
But as with anything wildly beloved, a certain amount of hate is inevitable in the realm of cult branding, the panelists agreed. The key is “picking your haters,” said Faris – who previously served as head of marketing at Virgin Mobile. When you’re trying to break through on a meager media budget, he suggested, thoughtful controversy can be an especially provocative tool.
Of certain marketing initiatives at Virgin Mobile, Faris said, “When we realized we didn’t get our inboxes clogged by the Christian right, we’d be like, ‘Man, we missed the mark.’”
If a cult company, by its very nature, inspires overwhelming emotion, how can brand architects maintain this intensity in the long term? For Piera Gilardi, co-founder and executive creative director of Refinery29, it’s all about “offering consistency of voice and brand, but continuing to surprise and delight our audiences at every turn.”
To this end, Gilardi says that a sense of fearlessness is paramount – no matter how massive a cult brand ultimately becomes. “There can be a fear of making mistakes,” she said, “whereas if you nurture risk-taking from the inside, it can help to change your organization’s entire mentality.”