Irrational Loyalty & The Alchemy of a Cult Brand
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 aren’t exactly rare.
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.
Apple products are ubiquitous yet legions of us continuously hoard stacks of plain white boxes in the backs of our closets. Being one of the world’s largest companies, they’re too mass-market to be considered ‘cult’ but the cult-like appeal and ritualistic motions they’ve fostered in sprawling populations deserve more than side-eye.
As we continue to navigate the world in the post-COVID era, the systems and institutions we previously lived within don’t fit the territory we’re gradually 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.
Religion has historically provided humanity with meaning, purpose, community, and ritual. But in a new world of digital sovereignty where celebrities become idols and influencers morph into prophets, which brands have cracked the ‘cult’ code?
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.
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 they bottle it, but they branded it, creating their own clothing line, and expanding globally; eventually able to count Michelle Obama, Beyoncé and Nicole Kidman among their 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.
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.
All debilitating factors; but the final nail in the coffin of SoulCycle’s cultural relevance?
The standard questions came with the initial shift, all some variation of whether the sense of community from a spin studio be replicated on an at-home bike?
Safe to say yes.
Dubbed ‘SoulCycle via Zoom’, the fitness-tech brand managed to do the seemingly impossible: appeal to those fundamentally opposed to collective exercise but who simultaneously yearn for the tight-knit communal belonging characteristic of the human condition.
The people who want to worship at the altar of fitness, an assigned signal of having one’s shit together. The people who almost exclusively survive off Joe & The Juice, willfully believing blended food is healthier.
The New York-based spin sensation even claimed the preference of SoulCycle’s former celebrity congregation with Beyoncé — pop culture icon and high priestess of cult fitness — famously curating a well-loved playlist of classes.
Peloton is an intense investment. In time, money and energy — both intellectual and emotional. But the payoff, the perceived value, is initiation into a deeply committed group of people, who share huge aspects of identity and lifestyle. And ultimately, belong to an outlined part of the population who possess mass social power — all thanks to the branded exercise bikes cluttering the houses of the high-net-worth.
However, Peloton is also a fabled story of how cult brands can fail too.
Because culture morphs with the times. And although the company’s collapse was predominantly caused by poor financial decisions, hugely backlogged supply chains and rushed growth in pursuit of an empire, they failed to realise that what catapulted them into the stratosphere of cult brands were the parameters of lockdown. Something that was removed (gradually and conditionally) from most of the world more than two years ago.
Instead of reevaluating their proposition then, they haemorrhaged money. When that didn’t work, mass store closings and layoffs ensued. In 2023, industry opinion on Peloton’s position is mixed. Some say the brand’s only hope is Barry McCarthy, appointed CEO in Feb 2022.
Since taking the helm, he’s brought Peloton back from the brink of extinction, igniting a software-based, content-led subscription model. But unless they can rekindle the community which garnered cult appeal, their status as a cult brand will remain snuffed out.
The Wellness Gospel
In the same hyper-health-centric vein, wellness and self-care have become pervasive terms in the past decade, giving rise to a well-baked batch of brands dedicated to the cause many of whom have managed to rapidly build a community of avid fans.
The cover star of this holistic wellness faction? Award-winning Hollywood actress turned boho businesswoman, Gwyneth Paltrow, whose wellness brand Goop has expanded into an empire straddling beauty, fashion, lifestyle, travel and health.
Originally a newsletter launched in 2008, 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. British supermodel and face of the ‘heroin chic’ trend that defined nineties fashion, Kate Moss launched a Goop-adjacent company ‘COSMOSS’ in September 2022.
More eCommerce than cult brand at the moment, the brand’s website navigation houses a ‘rituals’ tab, matching the lexicon of its forebears. Both ethereal and grounded; spiritual and pragmatic. At least to those who found meaning in these spaces.
And while it is ours to reason why, the answer is simpler than we might initially think. In an era of volatility and uncertainty, we find stability in support and choose to have faith in the certainty of a collective.
Pilgrimages to Temporary Cities
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. What happens in Black Rock City is up to its citizens. There is no corporate sponsorship. It is a “decommodified” space that values who you are, not what you have. Citizens are expected to collaborate, be inclusive, creative, connective and clean up after themselves.
Strong brands and ‘cults’ are often built on countercultural foundations. Although Burning Man rejects consumerism, there is a lot that brands can learn from its cult appeal. ‘Burners’ often return home transformed, accompanied by a lasting kinship with fellow attendees and a sense of protection over the experience. In terms of loyalty, it’s top tier.
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.
Both models, while distinct, work for a number of reasons. Many of them operational. But cult brands aren’t so-called because of their functionality.
Festivals like Burning Man are liminal spaces offering experimentation and the articulation of identity politics. It’s unbridled collectivity; physical, social, ideological and political — all of which satiates the need to situate ourselves culturally.
Ideology & Idolatry
It’s no secret the best brands in 2023 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.
Last year, 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.
As a brand, tonal qualities — the things you choose to stand by — are so important and the consistency of them even more so.
The Four Pillars of Cult Brands
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?
Cult branding, on the surface, can seem like a mysterious art form. But there are four cornerstones they all have in common.
The behaviours, habits and ceremonies specific to or deeply associated with a brand are powerful drivers of loyalty. Oreo’s Twist Lick Dunk ritual has delighted snackers since inception. In NYC hospitality, revellers are participating in antiquated absinthe rituals and ‘caviar bumps’. To many, Dr. Martens will forever be the shoe of a revolution as they protect the feet of stomping crowds of protesters. The most innovative of brands can masterfully mould new rites for their products/services but the beauty here for every brand is that your audience will already have rituals, you just have to find them.
Meaning and purpose are often regarded as synonymous. They’re not. But they do possess close links, each informing the other at the centre of a brand. Meaning is the emotional significance of what we do, and everyone and their mums know that audiences are becoming increasingly enlightened. Gone are the days when what we do mattered most, today’s consumers care about who we are. Individuals and brands alike. What cult brands do so well is place people at the centre. People with souls and opinions and values. Wannabe cult brands must do the same.
If meaning is the why, purpose is the what. Purpose is the cumulative effect of meaningful goals and cult brands do it oh so well. Patagonia is perhaps the only example that matters here and by now, we know the story well. But again, from a value perspective, such extreme measures shouldn’t be that surprising when both Chouinard and the brand itself have been advocating for radical change for the past four decades. They picked a purpose, born from a genuine belief system, and went after it with force. And, in doing so, won hearts and minds. Map onto that model.
Communities are built around shared value systems. By establishing meaning and purpose, cult brands and their followings are able to live and breathe their values. Together they foster belonging, connection and sociality. And during a loneliness epidemic like the one many generations are currently experiencing, those qualities are more important than ever. Like rituals, these communities often make themselves. But brands who create spaces to nurture these relationships and empower interconnection will be stronger in the long term.
If you think these pillars are applicable 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.
The inherent human need for belonging is powerful. And every decision someone makes is rooted in complex emotions. Brands must have a sense of meaning and 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.
Cult brands, for the most part, have been embedded in popular imagination and lifestyles for decades. We work with companies who want to do the same; who want to be timeless whilst sitting at the forefront of innovation. If you want the same, get in touch with one of our consultants at firstname.lastname@example.org.