Building Cult Brands: The Secrets of Iconic Followings

One of the oldest jokes circulating the internet is that the only difference between a cult and a religion is time — meaning that if you give a cult enough time, it will be recognized as a religion. But what is the difference between ‘cult’ brands and religion?

In this article, we’re taking a look at the core dimensions of religion, how cult brand branding adopts these dimensions, and the steps to building a cult brand. 

Let’s explore the complexities of cult branding.

The building blocks of religion

Prominent religious scholar Ninian Smart identified seven dimensions of all religions:

  1. Narratives
  2. Belief system
  3. Ethics 
  4. Institution
  5. Artifacts 
  6. Rituals
  7. Experiences

These dimensions allowed people to use a framework to categorize and define religions. What do each of them mean?

  • Narrative The context and existential explanations of a religion include written and oral forms.
  • Belief System The formalization of ideas and systems of meaning.
  • Ethical The rules or laws of religion.
  • Institution (Communal space)  Organization and gathering of a religious community.
  • Artifact Specific places and artifacts that are of particular importance to religion.
  • Ritual Practices of expression such as prayer and meditation.
  • Experience The emotional experience connected to religion.

Each of these dimensions contribute to the overall ‘brand’ of a religion. Think about Christianity: there are churches for institutional organization, material items such as the rosary, practices of prayer and worship, the written narrative from the bible, the Ten Commandments that outline the rules, doctrinal teaching, and ultimately, the emotional experience of each Christian. 

Together the building blocks satisfy human needs for guidance, community, and meaning.

So, where do brands fit in?

Just like in religion, strong brands carefully cultivate identities that have clear viewpoints on material objects, rituals, stories, rules, and gathering — and an army of devoted followers. Think about one of the biggest brands in the world, Apple. 

In the same way that the cross is affiliated with Christianity, the once-bitten apple can be associated only with the tech giant. As Apple, with its material ‘artifacts’ (products), sells its phones and laptops it invites users to become part of their larger community complete with gathering spaces (iStore), narratives about Steve Jobs, ritualistic product announcements, doctrinal approaches to design and an emotional reaction from consumers like no other.

When brands become cults

A cult brand is a defined product or service that has a loyal customer base that verges on fanaticism. Brands with a cult following have a unique connection with customers, creating a singular identity of ideology that customers want to be a part of and continue to return to. 

Would that not just be defined as brand loyalty? The difference between popular brands and cult brands is the sense of community. While you may love a certain brand of cleaning products, you don’t necessarily define yourself as part of the cleaning brand ‘community’. Cult brands symbolize a specific lifestyle and identity, for example, Nike fans would never be caught dead in a pair of Sketchers, Tesla groupies will defend Elon Musk unwaveringly and Starbucks lovers would rather go without caffeine than change their regular order. 

Examples of cult brands:

  • Apple 
  • Nike 
  • Starbucks 
  • Google
  • CrossFit
  • SoulCycle
  • Goop
  • Tesla 
  • Lululemon 
  • Vans
  • Harley Davidson
  • Supreme

How do you build a cult brand?

Narrative

Many people know the story of how Steve Jobs built the Apple empire — after all, there have been numerous books and movies about it. Just like religions have written and oral histories that explain certain existential questions, cult brands often have compelling and persuasive ‘origin stories’ that hug on the emotional heartstrings of customers, establishing a connection that they then share with others. These narratives are one of the ways brands go from being regular to cult status.

Belief system

Also known as the ‘doctrinal’ dimension of religion, the belief system of religion refers to the essential teachings. When it comes to cult brands, the development of a belief system usually targets a specific facet of human lifestyle with a company mission statement. The key to creating a cult brand ‘belief system’ (mission statement) is to create one that people want to be part of, as consumers, as a community, and as even employees — such as Nike’s mission statement, which is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.” (*If you have a body, you are an athlete.)

Ethical

Establishing ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ for brands is very different from those set up by religious institutions. But, that doesn’t mean that cult brands don’t develop their own rules — be they subtle or overt. Think about a brand like Harley Davidson: they have a rugged, strong, and powerful brand identity that does not falter from a certain color scheme, personality, or tone of voice, and, as such, their ‘followers’ have adopted a lifestyle that reflects this identity. A ‘true’ Harley Davidson fan would endorse these traits at every turn.

Institution (Communal spaces) 

While religions have their gathering spaces, such as churches, synagogues, and mosques, brands make their institutional mark with things like shops and events. Cast your mind to the sleek, almost elusive iStores that can be found on every corner of the globe, the checkered Vans-sponsored skating events, and even online communities like Goop. These gathering spaces may not seem similar to places of worship, but, at their core, they involve people meeting to honor a certain product and identity.

Artifact

For many brands, the ‘artifacts’ dimension of developing cult status is actually the most simple — what products are you putting out? In order to make waves in an industry, your offering needs to outshine others both visually and practically to encourage new customers.  Here, cult brands like Nike, Supreme, and Starbucks have separated themselves with specific, heavily branded product offerings that are clearly identifiable.

Rituals

In religion, rituals are practices of expression such as prayer and meditation. For cult brands, rituals can take many shapes. One example of a ‘cult brand ritual’ would be the product drop — think queuing for Apple’s latest iPhone or rushing to the store for the newest Supreme line. These ritualistic activities represent a common purpose amongst consumers, creating hype, exclusivity, and excitement for each individual in a way that benefits the group at large. Other ways that brands create ‘rituals’ is with things like loyalty programs and specials, where consumers will engage with the brand repetitively.

Experience

Just like each individual experiences religion differently, brands may affect each person differently. However, the ability to impart a deep emotional effect — be it from the use of a product, looking at advertisements, or relating to the founder — that influences a person’s decision-making sets regular brands apart from cult brands. 

Cult status

When you break down cult brands you see that, on a basic level, they are very similar to religions in the sense that they rely on a variety of dimensions that ultimately connect them to their audience on a deeper level. 

Building a cult brand isn’t easy — if it was, all brands would enjoy cult status. But, with an understanding of what your customers want and how your brand can engage with consumers meaningfully (and strong brand identity), you can take the steps towards building a cult foundation.