The Alchemy of a Cult Brand: How To Create Loyalty Through Community
The news that ‘Big Topshop’ has closed its doors on Oxford Street for the last time is symbolic in more ways than one. The 90,000 square-foot space has been a cultural landmark in London since it opened in 1994: even if you weren’t going in, you were at least meeting outside it.
If you were a teenage girl or 20-something woman in the 90s and 2000s, chances are that you’re familiar with the magnetic pull of the accessories department on the ground floor. Designed with magpies in mind, the holographic make-up bags, patent leather rucksacks, rows and rows of delicate gold and silver jewellery would work their magic on all who passed, luring them into several more floors of clothes, make-up, accessories, piercing studios, braid bars and cafés.
The sprawling fashion mecca was split over four floors, three for women and one for men. Rumour had it that model scouts would frequent the front doors, looking for the next Kate Moss or Cara Delevingne.
As much as a mass-market brand can, Topshop had cult appeal. Its stores provided community and belonging for its devoted followers. Designer collaborations had fans queuing around the block. Pilgrimages to the Oxford Street store were a rite of passage. If fashion is a religion, for a while Big Topshop was where worshippers congregated: it’s no wonder that Twitter has been flooded with nostalgic farewells and eulogies.
This level of devotion is an intriguing concept. While not a cult brand in the truest sense of the phrase – it was too ubiquitous for that – we can learn a lot from the reasons it succeeded and then its ultimate demise when faced with its younger, digitally-native competitors.
As we begin to navigate a world post-covid, a lot of brands are understandably thinking more than ever before about how to protect their profit margins and retain their existing customers. When we explored the future of loyalty, we became enamoured by the magic of cult followings. What exactly is the secret to creating a cult following? Can anyone achieve it? What is the psychology behind fanatical brand advocacy? Why are some brands afforded a status reminiscent of religion, and others aren’t?
All Humans Seek Belonging
As countries become more economically developed, there is a rise in individualism: we rely less on the community as we become self-sufficient. With that, comes a decline in religious affiliations.
An analysis of religious trends from 1981-2007 in 49 countries across 60% of the world’s population found that most high-income countries are becoming less religious. A 2018 Pew Research survey found that, although the majority of the UK in 2018 (73%) identify as Christian, 55% of them are non-practising; and 23% of the population are atheist, agnostic, or religiously unaffiliated.
Even the US, which has often bucked the trend of economic modernisation producing secularisation, has seen a dramatic shift away from religion since 2007 and has been declining more rapidly than in most other countries.
Religion has historically provided humanity with meaning, community, and ritual, but today’s social media society can be superficial and alienating. So, in the absence of organised religion, where are we seeking out meaning and community?
*SoulCycle has entered the chat*
The Consumerist Church of Boutique Fitness
To attract followers and turn them into fanatics, fitness brands borrow heavily from the language and rituals of religion.
“SoulCycle’s mission is to bring Soul to the people. SoulCycle instructors guide riders through an inspirational, meditative fitness experience designed to benefit the body, mind, and soul. Set in a dark, candlelit room to high-energy music, riders move in unison as a pack to the beat and follow the cues and choreography of the instructor. The experience is tribal. It is primal. And it is fun.”
SoulCycle’s glossy branding and energetic classes earned it a reputation as the boutique fitness class to be seen at in the mid-late 2010s. Spin classes can be euphoric and exhilarating; SoulCycle capitalised on this by employing trainers not from P.T backgrounds but from musical theatre and Broadway. The instructors take on a pastoral role, guiding riders on a ‘journey’, encouraging them to push through and find their inner strength, to a soundtrack of motivating dance music.
The name SoulCycle implies exactly what it should: it’s not just physical, it’s spiritual. But, crucially, it’s safe: your personal space is protected. You’re in charge of your own resistance. You don’t have to flail your arms and legs, channel the chakras and pretend to be ‘at one’ with your neighbours (think Peep Show Rainbow Rhythms). You really just need to pedal. The atmosphere of the group will carry you through.
A good instructor connects with everyone in the room and unites the class in a way a lacklustre instructor cannot replicate. In much the same way as a DJ can lead a crowd to a state of wide-eyed euphoria at a rave, a spin instructor can bring his class to a similar state: the dopamine and endorphin buzz feels very similar, as does the dim lighting and thumping dance music. The glorious difference is that after a spin class, there’s no crippling come-down, just a sense of smug satisfaction and aching muscles.
SoulCycle bottled that magic feeling you get when you’re fully present, pushing yourself physically, a part of something bigger. Not only did it bottle it, but it also branded it, created its own clothing line, expanded globally and counted Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Nicole Kidman among its celebrity fans.
Brands that align themselves with a higher purpose can provide their followers with a strong feeling of belonging to a group, a family of like-minded people. SoulCycle didn’t just sell fitness classes: it sold empowerment, enlightenment, and belonging.
Its meteoric rise at the start can be attributed in part to scarcity. As word spread about the transcendent experiences of SoulCycle classes, its studios couldn’t keep up with the demand. It was the hottest class in town.
In their race to scale the business, though, rumours of a toxic internal culture began to circulate, detailed in this Vox article, How Soul Cycle Lost its Soul. The business became dogged by negative press, just as supply for classes met the demand.
A business built on inclusivity and empowerment was accused of turning a blind eye to racism, homophobia, bullying, and fat-shaming among its staff. Rumours swirled of a toxic workplace culture, too, among its star instructors.
“Even if this was a place where feelings were hurt, adult men and women were still eager to belong. The ‘high’ is a little like being a popular kid in school. The bullies and bullied alike were part of something. It might have felt awful, but it was better than being on the outside.”
In 2019, news broke that Stephen Ross, billionaire SoulCycle investor, was throwing a fundraising effort for Trump’s reelection campaign at his Hamptons mansion. The liberal-skewing, millennial SoulCycle customer was incensed, and a media storm ensued, leading to many boycotting the brand.
Then, the pandemic hit, another major blow to the SoulCycle empire, leading to studio closures and staff pay cuts, amid brutal press coverage about sexual harassment, homophobia, and bullying.
The power of the brand lay first in its exclusivity, and then in its instructors. Without protecting either, it lost its lustre.
Ultimately, Soul Cycle’s mission was an inspirational quote on a picture of a mountain range: it wanted to look deeper than it was.
The brand made a series of fatal errors that cost them their cult status:
- It scaled too fast, without protecting its staff or customer base
- It became too ubiquitous and lost its desirability
- The actions of its staff and instructors were at odds with its values
Whether SoulCycle recovers from the pandemic and negative press remains to be seen. Values aside, can the sense of community from a spin studio be replicated on an at-home bike? It will be interesting to see how Peloton and others innovate in this space as video technology improves.
Building a Temporary City
The ultimate example of an authentic, cult-status-community with a higher purpose in popular culture is Burning Man, an annual event in Black Rock, rural Nevada. Starting life as a small evening campfire to celebrate the summer solstice in San Francisco in the late 80s, it has since evolved to become an annual, week-long celebration. It’s a festival founded on anticonsumerism principles, attracting 70,000 ‘burners’ who create a temporary town, with no headline acts, no line-up, no sponsorship, and no cash registers.
Burning Man is not a festival. Burning Man is a community. A temporary city. A global cultural movement based on 10 practical principles. We don’t book acts or provide entertainment. What happens here is up to you! There is no corporate sponsorship. You are entering a “decommodified” space that values who you are, not what you have. You are expected to collaborate, be inclusive, creative, connective and clean up after yourself. Participate actively as a citizen of Black Rock City.
Strong brands and ‘cults’ are often built on counter-cultural foundations. Although Burning Man rejects consumerism, there is a lot that brands can learn from its cult appeal. ‘Burners’ often return home transformed, with a lasting kinship with fellow attendees and a sense of protection over the experience. In terms of loyalty, it’s top tier.
“As someone who is sensitive to the feeling of being excluded, I think as most humans are, that one speaks to me on a deeply emotional level. We are all welcome here, and there is a safe space for us to be able to participate, and it's a level playing field. I feel really strongly and passionately about that.”
This kind of devotion to a festival is not exclusive to Burning Man. Festivals everywhere, from Glastonbury to Download, bring people together around shared interests and encourage us to be our most primal, authentic selves. The ephemeral nature of a festival leads to a greater emotional connection with the ‘heart and soul’ of the experience: even if you return the following year, it’ll be different.
There’s no doubt that Burning Man’s enduring credibility is largely down to its anti-corporate messaging, but this doesn’t mean that community cannot thrive under sponsorship. Glastonbury works with a handful of corporate partners, but doesn’t offer on-site exposure, merchandise display or digital promotion. Instead, it works directly with the sponsors to develop programs designed to add value to the experience: for example, EE phone charging tents, which around 70% of attendees use.
If we look at Burning Man as the ultimate example of a cult community, we can learn a lot about why it works. The event is founded on 10 core principles that all help to deepen the connection people have with the experience.
Participation – Attendees are encouraged to directly participate in, and add to, the art and experiences surrounding them. The location is a blank canvas for everyone to contribute to, making it feel inclusive and open.
How could brands invite their customers to participate? How can they make their content or products interactive, to make people feel like they’re a part of the story? How could brands design immersive experiences that will create an emotional connection? How can they make ‘outsiders’ truly curious about the experience?
Gifting: The ‘gifting economy’ at Burning Man encourages attendees to bring things to share in abundance with others. Whether it’s paint, alcohol, glitter, or hugs, it helps promote a positive, generous spirit.
How could brands enrich their audience’s lives without asking them to buy something?
Communal Effort: Organisers provide the infrastructure, but the attendees create the experience through creative collaboration. There is no hierarchical structure or VIP area.
How can brands inspire people to connect with each other as a community? How can brands express that they trust their audience to create the culture?
Radical Self-Expression: Attendees are encouraged to go wild with their creativity, whether it’s costume, art projects, or performance. This encourages a connection with their most authentic self.
How can brands embrace the unusual, the memorable, and stand out from the crowd? How can brands empower their audiences to be themselves and celebrate their unique attributes?
Decommodification: The event is committed to protecting its culture from ‘exploitation’ through commercial sponsorships.
The takeaway here is that brands must be mindful when trying to build loyalty through community. Is the value in people seeing the logo, or is it in the connection they feel to a community? Subtlety is key – it’s important to try and strike a balance.
Cult branding, on the surface, can seem like a mysterious art form. But there are guiding principles that cult brands use to attract and maintain loyal and devoted fans.
Communities are exclusive by their nature – not everyone can be involved. A sense of belonging can be achieved either by bringing people together around a shared, niche interest, or through scarcity (for example, a finite number of tickets).
If people feel a sense of ownership, they’re more likely to protect it. Successful brands know this, and allow their customers to be involved in the evolution and direction of the brand, as well as the history.
Communities are built around shared value systems. Cult brands live and breathe their values.
People make emotional connections with brands that aren’t two-dimensional, Honesty and accountability help people trust them.
Aspirational brands often have a sense of mystery – for example, what really happens when you try and buy a Birkin in an Hermès store?
The inherent human need for belonging is powerful. And every decision someone makes is rooted in complex emotions. Brands must have a sense of purpose –– a why, as well as a what –– in order to become fully rooted in the psyche of their consumer. Cult brands understand the responsibility that comes with this level of association, and protect the relationship at all costs.