The Alchemy of Cult Brands

Category: Strategy & Insights
30 Apr 2024
Read time: 10 MIN
Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. Or do. In 2024, an age of abundance and of the choice paralysis that now defines it, is there a foolproof formula for developing the cult-like followings so coveted by every brand vying for a glimpse of the spotlight?
Written By
MOF Team
MOF Team

When Pete Townshend of The Who stepped onto a stage in 1967 wearing a well-loved pair of Dr. Martens 1460 boots, he catalysed a movement. In what seemed to be a small step for a man was a giant leap for the seminal shoe label, solidifying their seemingly immortal cult status.

From work boot roots to becoming a subculture staple, Dr. Martens have championed rebellious self-expression for six decades. They’re a paradigm of brand durability, retaining a fade-resistant relevance even after a population-wide preferential shift to slippers during lockdown.

All thanks to perpetually cool products, a strategy sharply aware of cultural, digital and technological landscapes and a fanatical following. And the latter isn’t exactly rare.

The Who On Stage, 1967 New York

It’s never been easier to find like-minds. Driven by algorithmic dominance and the easy nature of habit, all of us fall into followings of some kind – consciously or otherwise.

Why Do Cults Form?

Already fraught with meaning, the word ’cult’ can evoke the very worst images in some minds while conjuring the overwhelmingly positive in others. Some think of the tragedy of the Jonestown massacre in 1978, the Heaven’s Gate suicide cult that made headlines in the nineties or the Manson Family. Some think of films like Midsommar or (*shudder*) multi-level marketing schemes (MLMs) or the Church of Scientology. Some think of their favourite brands.

Historically, cults – in both idea and in practice – have drawn mass fascination from the general public, often attributed to the mystery behind the psychology of it all. The general public cannot bring themselves to understand why someone would join a cult nor what could cause such irrational loyalty once initiated.

The answer lies in that lack of understanding. According to cult psychologist Dr. Steve Eichel, up to 10,000 cults still exist in some form today – and that’s in the United States alone – but the only difference between a cult and a religion is social acceptance. Perhaps the question to ask is why do religions form?

Religion, it’s believed, has evolutionary roots. The Association for Psychology Science explains the dominant idea: “As humans evolved from small hunter-gatherer tribes into large agrarian cultures, our ancestors needed to encourage cooperation and tolerance among relative strangers. Religion then – along with the belief in a moralising God – was a cultural adaptation to these challenges.”

In other words: community and belonging. Two things that still very much need encouraging in today’s world – perhaps even more so than then.

As we continue to navigate the world through its various eras and ages (post-COVID, post-Truth, cultural stasis, cowboy fever), the systems and institutions we previously lived within don’t fit the territory we’re entering. So they’re shifting. Guided by those with gravitas, who are no longer emperors, priests or politicians but influencers, entrepreneurs and logos.

To misquote Karl Marx: brands are the opium of the people.

Cult Brands Are Modern Religions

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 collectively drifting away from religion. A 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.

As countries become more economically developed, there is a rise in individualism: we rely less on the community for survival as we become self-sufficient. With that, comes a decline in religious affiliations.

And while this decline isn’t necessarily cause for concern, just symptomatic of our changing world, total self-sufficiency is a myth. We’re all perennially and intrinsically connected in a network of human relationships that sustain us. The idea that one can move through the world as a wholly self-sustaining individual is a fiction.

Even if we could revert to our hunter-gatherer ways for food and weave ourselves a wardrobe, where are we finding purpose? When are we sensing belonging? There’s a reason faith and organised religion had populations in chokeholds for millennia. But in a new world of digital sovereignty where celebrities become idols and influencers morph into prophets, how have brands cracked the ‘cult’ code?

How Cults Form

Ultimately, cults are just really successful brands. All using the same dynamics, tools and devices to influence their following. It’s not all doomsdayers and conspiracies.

What you will notice as we wander through the cornerstones of both cults and cult brands (ideology, language, ritual and myth) is that many – not necessarily all, but many – pedestal certain figures.

Take Goop for example. Originally a newsletter launched in 2008, Goop is the brainchild of award-winning Hollywood actress turned boho businesswoman, Gwyneth Paltrow, that has since expanded into an empire straddling beauty, fashion, lifestyle, travel and health.

Paltrow has spent the last fifteen years solidifying her status as a dictator of cultural importance. She’s the spiritual guru of U/HNW women across the globe, preaching the power of “hard conversations” and “cracking open taboos” in an increasingly divisive way.

Doused in controversy, especially following the release of Netflix’s dedicated docuseries in 2020, google search results return headlines like “Goop Convention Blurs Lines Between Convention and Cult”, “Goop & Cults Have More In Common Than You Might Think” and “Who Said It? Gwyneth Paltrow or a Cult Leader”.

In this instance particularly, ‘cult’ is being used as a derogative. Likely as a result of emerging ‘eat the rich’ attitudes among consumers. Yet another countertrend catalysed by more enlightened spenders.

Let’s be clear: cult brands aren’t cults in the most basic sense of the word. They don’t overtly exploit or limit individual’s control, they don’t emotionally manipulate or openly coerce followers.

Cult brands with cult-like followers garner such descriptors because they unite defined communities of people. Call them congregations, factions, fandoms, whatever. Goop is just another example. An extreme, high-profile example.

The pull of celebrity is clear. Think of all the celebrity-founded beauty brands, or champagne, or craft beer. Think of Elon Musk, worshipped almost as this enlightened tech guru that will save the world with spaceships and social media rebrands no one asked for. Boards placing CEOs with cultural gravitas is a trend pattern we’re seeing in an increasing number of industries. In 2023, Louis Vuitton named Pharrell Williams as the label’s creative director to a mix of shock and applause. Because, despite being a multi-hyphenate in every sense of the word, his credentials didn’t exactly capture the expected resumé for the role. What he did have though? An unending IV of cult appeal.


Nevertheless, a kingpin isn’t the be-all and end-all to cultivating a following. The reasons some brands are afforded a status reminiscent of religion and others aren’t lay in the intricacies of ideology, language, ritual and myth.


It’s no secret the best brands in 2024 stand for something. They’re laced with passion and provocative messaging — undeterred by the possibility of deterring potential customers. Because those who are put off are decidedly not for them.

In 2022, cult activewear label Patagonia dominated headlines with the news that the brand’s ecologist founder, Yvon Chouinard, would be donating the entire company to a trust and non-profit in order to fight climate devastation.

Jaws dropped in boardrooms across the world, particularly following the realisation that Chouinard would (obviously) lose his billionaire status once contracts were signed. Without undermining the weight of such a trailblazing decision, none of us should’ve been that surprised.

For four decades Patagonia has been the pinnacle of environmental leadership, in the corporate world and wider culture. They were one of the earliest B Corps, have been donating 1% of profits to environmental groups since the 80s and actively campaign against fast fashion and unbridled consumption. Their ecological principles are hardline. Devout even.

Slightly more abstract but no less potent, Apple’s ideology is one so strong legions of us hoard stacks of plain white boxes in the backs of our closets, despite the products being universally ubiquitous. We love to think of ourselves as rational beings yet we go out of our way to pay a higher price for exactly the same thing – if not worse.

The Apple v Samsung debate (and lawsuit) is easily one of the most prevalent feuds of the twenty-first century – certainly one of the most divisive outside of global politics.


Despite being the inventor of the smartphone, Apple actually rely heavily on Samsung for their supply of OLED-displays (the absolute standard for digital screens) because they don’t have the capabilities to manufacture their own. And, fundamentally, they don’t need to. Technical prowess is not what compels us to queue outside those glass white meccas to cop the newest iPhone. What ushers those queues is ideology.

A study from Duke University where they flashed either the IBM logo or the Apple logo to two groups of randomised participants found that those who were subliminally exposed to the Apple logo performed better at creative tasks, compared to those exposed to IBM’s.

Over and over again, Apple has been telling us the same story: that they are the brand for cool, creative, fun, forward-thinking people. A consistent ideology which, evidently, has had a significant influence beyond point of sale.


In her bestselling book Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, author Amanda Montell dedicates several chapters to MLMs – what she calls “the legally loopholed sibling of pyramid schemes.” Montell notes the language that has pulled in so many people into these quite toxic systems is simply overwhelmingly optimistic; hopped up on “beautiful energy”, “good vibrations” and “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities”. More often than not, it’s women who are the target of these schemes. Not because women are innately more susceptible to these kinds of ramblings but because financial independence seems a dream to many women, and MLMs promise the world. 

In the 70s, a ‘cosmetics’ company inexplicably named Holiday Magic (yet no specific positioning around annual festivities) leveraged the kind of inspirational quotes that saturated the Instagram grids of celebrities in the early 2010s. “Be happier, healthier, wealthier” kind of thing. Other propaganda used by the likes of Amway and Avon orbit around the “blood, sweat and tears” it takes to build your own business. If they’re to be believed, you’ve got to have soul, tenacity and a touch of sass to be the Girl Boss-iest of them all. The speech is totally ra-ra, but it works.

Diet and fitness culture is much of the same. To attract followers and turn them into fanatics, brands from The Consumerist Church of Boutique Fitness borrow heavily from the language of cults and religion. Remember SoulCycle? Whose glossy branding and energetic classes earned it a reputation as the class to be seen at in the mid-late 2010s.

“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.”


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. At its peak, the brand could count Beyoncé and Michelle Obama as part of its congregation (before it all came crashing down).

On a lighter linguistic note, The Rochambeau Club, a London-based wine brand operating as a "distinguished but welcoming" members-only tennis club; that is, a completely fictional setting along the Côte d'Azur that has been crafted almost entirely from a tone of voice that blends old money pastiche, Wes Anderson eccentricity and a type of tongue-in-cheek sauciness that, I'm sure, infuriates the very people it means to. (Along with a remarkable social strategy, real-world tournaments, events, apparel and the sweet sweet taste of Racquet Rosé itself.)

Through language alone, The Rochambeau Club do what only the most infamous cults can: holistic world-building. Both The Club's 'President', Tony Creamer-Price, and ‘Chairman’, Marcel Picampeau, often address members directly through various editions of the ‘Club Sandwich’ newsletter. There’s ceaseless reference to boarding schools and ski season, invitations to the “Holy Saturday Caviar Free-For-All in the Orangery” and a veritable bible of club rules and regulations: “The 42nd edition of our House Rules which will be published in hardback, waterproof paperback and German … include: the ‘6th Soufflé amendment’; our first illustrated guide to acceptable swan dives; and an expanded appendix on under-arm serves which really ought to put the matter to bed once and for all.”

Lighthearted or otherwise, no one is exempt from the feelings gained from speaking in code. It’s a conspiratorial sense of being on the ‘in’ rather than the ‘out’. With the right wordsmith, language is easily one of the most powerful (but entirely underrated) devices to be leveraged in branding. Whether insidious or innovative is down to the brand itself.


Crossing your fingers, knocking on wood, blowing on dice: all small, fleeting rituals many people do almost thoughtlessly. Then life gives you larger ones like marriage, conception, coming of age. In 2024, our daily rituals may be making a delicious, if pretentious, morning coffee or something like journalling. When we order online, we may film an “unboxing” or a “haul” as a consumerist ritual for any size social following.

Spiritual practices like manifesting have become commonplace, expressed through meditation, chants or written affirmations – frequently leveraged by brands hoping to infuse some of their story into these moments.

Perhaps the antithesis to wellness rituals, consumers are increasingly reaching for rituals and practices that flout social norms. Following decades of health campaigns, we’re seeing certain social subdivisions reevaluate the cigarette’s cultural role. American tobacco brand Hestia taps into the naughtier side of the taboo to market its luxury-positioned smokes with handwritten packaging that reveres the ritual and tradition of smoking. Both ‘forms’ – Hesper & Stone – highlight the moments to best light-up: “Pair with your first pour.” or “Grab these just before sunset. And enjoy your first one of the night on your drive to the local dive.” American rituals to the core.

In London, Mayfair’s Dunhill tobacconist is a reinvention of a century-old heritage store founded on ritualistic conduct, celebrating product and knowledge in a members-only setting where the tobacco is presented like fine jewellery in cases with magnifying glasses. The location also features a cigar lounge that extends into an events space, one-on-one interaction with the master blender, and, for a fee, access to personal humidors. Making the illicit not only ritualistic but luxury at that.


For more examples of brand ritual, see our piece on crafting signature moments and branded behaviours.

If you’re still wondering why ritual is a cornerstone for cult-ness, Joseph Campbell says it best:

A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And, by participating in the ritual, you are participating in the myth.
Joseph Campbell


Value flows from the tales we tell. Whether they’re true to source, embellished or mostly myth, the stories that saturate the world today often help us make sense of it. A well crafted brand myth can act as the very foundations of brand activity; they’re memorable, engaging, emotive and distinctive – qualities that mean they can stand the test of time.

These stories are priceless forms of social capital. And they become important in a world where everything is driven by comfort and convenience. In our world of Uber-isation, dopamine commerce, endless trend cycles in the name of instant gratification – a world where it’s hard to grasp onto anything – we find value in the things that stick. What sticks is story, because in story we find friction, not this rapid shuttling to an undefined finish line.

In February 2024, global luxury powerhouse LVMH announced plans to launch a new division to expand the master brand’s – as well as its portfolio’s – efforts in entertainment. 


Named 22 Montaigne after their Parisian address in the eighth arrondissement, the move follows the box office success of House of Gucci in 2022 (note: not commissioned by Kering), Bulgari’s Inside The Dream – a behind-the-scenes look at the world of high jewellery – and more recently Apple TV’s drama The New Look – the story of how fashion icon Christian Dior and his contemporaries, including Coco Chanel, Pierre Balmain and Cristóbal Balenciaga, navigated the horrors of World War II and launched modern fashion.

LVMH North America head Anish Melwani – who is leading the division alongside Antoine Arnault – said in a statement: “At LVMH, we see each house as a house of stories, a distinctive creator of culture.” It seems the usual marketing funnel is now being driven by narrative and narrative alone, blurring the lines between selling and storytelling.

If you think these pillars apply to all brands, you’d be correct. Cult brands just do it better. Theirs is an intense loyalty; an irrational devotion triggered by chance recognition of something kindred between brand and individual. It’s certainly not an easy formula to solve, but the moments you do are when a brand sings. And it’s never too early or too late to craft them. Those who do are rewarded with that heady mix of longevity, legacy and loyalty. 

Matter Of Form is a design consultancy specialising in brand strategy, CX and digital innovation for timeless brands. Get in touch with one of our consultants via to design what’s next.

MOF Team

Published by MOF Team

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