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The Culting of Brands

The Culting of Brands. Now, that was one title that asked for my attention when walking through the bookstore. It may have been all the talk about Branding we have recently had in Speak Up or my natural interest that pushed me into buying this book and reading it soon after (skipping some other books already in line!).

Douglas Atkin, Director of Strategy at Merkley and Partners, guides us through a series of aspects, facts, comparisons, examples, searches and interviews regarding the life of Branding in our present world, and its capabilities of becoming a cult. He “went to the people” on both sides of the brands, talked to them about experiences, feelings and thoughts regarding personal participations. In order to give you a better understanding, in the first chapter he provides the following definitions about brands and cults that will help you (and me) understand his thoughts:

Cult: a group or movement exhibiting a great devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing. Its ideology is distinctive and it has a well-defined and committed community. It enjoys exclusive devotion (that is, not shared with another group), and its members often become voluntary advocates.

Cult brand: a brand for which a group of customers exhibit a great devotion or dedication. Its ideology is distinctive and it has a well-defined and committed community. It enjoys exclusive devotion (that is, not shared with another brand in the same category), and its members often become voluntary advocates.

Do you want to create a cult brand? Are you in one, and don’t know what to do? Are you simply interested in the process, the psychological involvement and the emotional outcome of both consumer and creator? This may not be the book for you then.

Cults are not always bad. On many occasions they are good for the individual — be it religious/spiritual, supportive, hobby based, professionally stimulating, or brand driven. A cult can be good for everybody involved, so let’s forget for a while about the horrible stories we hear in the news, and the stereotype images we usually associate with the word.

Today, we live in a world in which we are surrounded by commercial icons, by brand symbols that carry meaning in their shape. Apple. Samsung. Haagen-Dazs. Harley Davidson. Napster. Snapple. Nike. Hells Angels. Martha Stewart. American Airlines. Pentagram. When a brand is mentioned, we quickly associate or disassociate from it. We are, or we aren’t. Are you Apple? For sure, I am a designer after all. So, why is Apple such a “brand cult”? Steve Jobs came back into our lives, and we met him at the door. He is our hero and we worship him. Are we buying into the products, the people that create the products, the group of people who buy the products, or all of the above? Atkin explains that in order for an individual to seek a “brand cult” he must first search for something different in his/her life, starting by dissatisfaction, with the current situation. Once there, by meeting and interacting with other people this individual may just find what was missing. The individual will buy into the people, not necessarily the product — but that, is enough.

For a “cult brand” to be successful, a fine line between being different and not different enough is what Atkin explains we should seek. You want to stand out from the crowd, but not so much that your intended audience will be repulsed or scared. You want your members to interact and further the “word of mouth” method, you search to build in them a sense of belonging, of being part of something, and yet unique and different. By sharing values, objectives or life ideals, brands can work as human identity markers. You are a Dell Dude. My, my, she is so not Gucci. You haven’t heard? He turned Caribou. A brand acts as venue for a consumer to publicly enact a distinctive set of beliefs and values.

Many brands have been successful, and we can all name a few. But, many factors can contribute to a decline, a lower membership, a decreased involvement and attachment from consumers. How to avoid this? Usually it means rethinking your objectives, your process and the how to get there. Basically, starting over (retaining what does work of course).

Sounds familiar you might say, I have heard this before. Maybe comparing the Mormons and the Saturn (as in Saturn the car) Family is a bit of a stretch and that one in particular is new. That was pretty much my feeling with this book. A few sparks, some insightful thoughts, new points of view, but in general the book left me in the same spot as to when I started. Somewhat dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, but not different enough for me to choose to follow it.

Book Information
The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers by Douglas Atkin
Hardcover: 230 pages
Publisher: Portfolio (June 3, 2004)
ISBN: 1591840279
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Jul.20.2004 BY bryony
Jeff Gill’s comment is:

Your Spoonerism for Today:

The Branding of Cults

'But today, religion experts note, the LDS church is widely respected for its devotion to faith and family, and its pioneer past is celebrated as an integral part of the American saga. Such a dramatic shift in public perception has not come easily or by accident. In 1995, leaders hired an international public-relations firm to combat what they saw as unfair characterizations of Mormons in the media. One of its first efforts was to encourage the redesign of the church's logo to emphasize the centrality of Jesus Christ in LDS theology. "We don't see it so much as PR," says Maxwell, "as trying to define ourselves, rather than... letting others define us."'

From "The Mormon Moment: The Church of Latter-Day Saints Grows by Leaps & Bounds" by Jeffery L. Sheler with Peter Hadfield in Tokyo and Rena Singer in South Africa, US News & World Report, November 11, 2000

Thanks for the review, Bryony.

On Jul.22.2004 at 10:32 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Reacting to Interbrand's latest 100 Best Global Brands, a related article on BusinessWeek: Cult Brands.

"There have always been cult brands, mostly smaller labels unknown to the masses. But these days, building cults or at least strong communities, is a widespread strategy. No wonder companies that are able to instill a sense of ownership in near-fanatical customers showed the biggest gains in our fourth annual ranking of the 100 most valuable global brands."

Thanks to Marshall for the link.

On Jul.26.2004 at 11:29 AM
miles newlyn’s comment is:

Yawn yawn, yet another book on this subject.

The hardest thing to do is create a cult for an organisation without an existing 'cultable' product, it's possibe, I've done it, but it's risky. Corporations bang on endlessly about 'passion' without really understanding it. Passion is unpredictable, temperamental, it really isn't something that should be taken lightly, it's not always a good thing.

In the case that I worked on, internal 'cultism' ran so high that the company found it difficult to recruit; existing employees were resentful on 'non cult members', people who they thought didn't really 'get the brand'.

On Jul.26.2004 at 03:01 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Update: The link at the bottom of the review for the book information linked to the wrong book in Amazon. I apologize for the confusion. The correct link is this.

On Jul.27.2004 at 08:46 AM
noah’s comment is:

Actually, the book has a website now, and apparently Douglas Atkin will be maintaining a weblog there.

On Aug.27.2004 at 02:50 PM
Zmajruw’s comment is:

On Jun.06.2007 at 10:48 PM