Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

Branded: When does a brand following become a cult?

Cults are well-known for their unbelievable rhetoric and dangerous beliefs, so it is safe to say that they are frowned upon in our society. Yet, the basic social psychology that cults prey on proves to be an extremely effective marketing method for the big names we all use such as Apple, Harley-Davidson, and Nike.

‘Cult-branding’ is now a widely attempted and highly rewarding model which achieves a loyal customer base that sticks with a brand through thick and thin. The marketing strategy of cult-branding works for the same reasons cults do. A clever confluence of basic behaviours are used to the advantage of the company.

Through manipulation, they gain loyalty from the buyer and eventually a sense of ownership. This then leads to the ultimate goal of exploitation for profit ─ raising prices, demanding you buy whatever they produce, promising it will lead to a better life. They pile on the same basic social psychology tools that cults use and that we are at the whim of every day. The open-ended soft sell asks the question ─ are you completely happy with your life?

The open-ended soft sell asks the question ─ are you completely happy with your life?

This kind of branding ultimately appeals to the basic human desire to be part of a group. Take the surge in popularity of BlackBerries around 2013 as an example.

Everyone in our year had one. Everyone encouraged anyone who didn’t have one to get one, but their relative quality and use, however, were very much up for debate. My mum refused to entertain the idea when I had a perfectly sturdy Nokia, and I couldn’t help but feel as though I had missed out on something huge. The product wasn’t all they were selling; BlackBerry was selling a mindset too.

So, when does simple loyal consumerism turn into something more? I would argue it is when the brand becomes a part of your identity. At that point, it is no longer a product but a lifestyle. The teams behind these strategies carefully orchestrate a sense of pride and purpose in their supporters, so they will stick with them through thick and thin. We can question then if brands, as we have seen time and time again in cults, may lead to fanaticism going too far by endorsing amoral standards and helping companies through scandals they may not have been able to otherwise.

We can even see the humble Percy Pig achieving what could be considered cult-like status

We can even see the humble Percy Pig achieving what could be considered cult-like status. The Marks and Spencer product has spawned over 20 variants between September and Christmas alone, and to keep up with the increasing demand the store manufactures over a million pigs a day.

More importantly, the sweet has Facebook appreciation groups, adoring fans who have Percy tattooed on their leg, and the title of a national treasure. There is no doubt that whatever Marks and Spencer produce under the name, there will be an ample supply of ready followers to throw their money at it. If something were to go wrong, I doubt people would give up their beloved Percy Pigs.

Therein lies an important difference. When a cult disappears, it is usually due to cracks in the illusion. However, it is much harder to fault a product for its maker’s wrongdoings ─ the illusion is much harder to shatter.

It takes a lot for cult-branding to successfully work, but, when it does, it is wielded as a highly effective marketing tool. We can learn a lot from the comparison of these two parallel phenomenon. In doing so it helps us to think a bit more about what we’re buying. It hopefully can help us to refrain from putting too much of ourselves into what we buy. Well, apart from my Vans because I honestly can’t live without them.

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