How To Start A Cult...For Your Brand

How To Start A Cult...For Your Brand

On June 29 2007, people had been lining up in front of a Soho district store in New York for days.

The line went on for blocks as consumers stood, sat under umbrellas and lounged on folding chairs ready to shell out up to $600 for a device that was to go on sale at 6 p.m.

In San Francisco, eager shoppers spent the night on folding chair and sleeping bags - someone had even brought a mattress for comfort.

"We've been in line for days. It's very uncomfortable out here in these chairs," said Melanie Rivera, a customer near the front of the line. "But people are very social. We've made it through the rain, so we feel like we're getting closer to the phone."

The reason that all those people were willing to wait in line for days was of course the launch of the first iPhone. It didn’t matter that it lacked basic cut and paste functionality or that the App Store was more than a year away.

They looked very much like people believing in something or someone greater than themselves. They looked like - for all intents and purposes - a cult.

Are the underlying principles between cult organizations and super successful companies like Apple really similar?

The surprising short answer is yes. Fundamentally all cults are the same whether you’re talking about religion or companies/products.

Image via  WikiMedia

Anatomy Of Starting A Cult

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a cult is “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object.

Another (and more popular) definition of a cult is “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or as imposing excessive control over members.” 

Now, we are obviously not starting any religious organizations here, so what interests us is the second popular definition which states that a cult is “A person or thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.” This definition fits perfectly for companies like Apple or the latest cult fitness program CrossFit.

Saying that, there are remarkable similarities on how one goes about starting one.

So before we look deeper into how you can become the next cult company/product/service/program, let’s take a brief look into religious cults and what similarities we can find there.

Arnie Lerma, a former Scientologist and now an avid critic of Scientology has written a simple 5 step process for starting your own (religious) cult.

Step 1: Keep it vague, keep it simple

Your first task is to attract attention not through actions (too clear and readable) but through words that are hazy and vague - promise something great and transformative while remaining vague. The goal here is to stimulate all kinds of hazy dreams in your listeners who will make their own connections and see what they want to see.

One company that has continually been good at telling a compelling story while leaving plenty of room for customers imagination is Apple.

In the early years after coming out with the iPod they needed a way to make their MP3 player - the iPod, stand out from the competition. In reality it was just another music player, but that was not the story they were telling through their ads.

They ran a series of simple ads with bright backgrounds and silhouette figures dancing to different types of “futuristic” music. That campaign made a clear statement about who the iPod is for and who you know in your heart that you want to be -  a trendy college age student.

The ad said a lot about Apple and the kind of customers they want to have without saying a lot - vague and simple with just enough info to make people dream.

Step 2: Emphasize the Visual and Sensual Over the Intellectual

Surround yourself with luxury, dazzle your followers with visual splendor, fill their eyes with spectacle. Advantages for this are twofold: First it will simply attract more attention and more followers. Secondly, it gives your followers a personified ideal for which to work towards.

Remember the “I’m a Mac” campaign? The ads depicted Mac as young, hip and knowledgeable young professional whereas PC was old school enterprise, complicated, dowdy, and outdated. The ads forced customers to take a stance: Do you want to be smart, young, hip and sleek, or simply a square?


Step 3: Borrow the Forms of Organized Religion to Structure the Group.

Create rituals for your followers: organize them into a hierarchy, ranking them in grades of sanctity, and giving them names and tides that resound with religious overtones; ask them for sacrifices that will fill your coffers and increase your power. To emphasize your gathering's quasi-religious nature, talk and act like a prophet.

Create rituals for your followers, hmmm. Rituals like meet every September for the unveiling of the latest and greatest gadgets you’ve just made up? Organize into a hierarchy, hierarchy like 2 new products for every category and subcategories for older devices? Sounds like Apple alright.

Hierarchy of Apple’s products became blatantly clear with the launch of the Apple Watch. It had numerous options with price points that started with $349 and going upwards of $10k for the gold “Watch Edition.”

Notice how the cheapest one is called “Sport” as to indicate that it’s really for doing sports only and for everyday usage you should really look into to next price bracket. Genius pricing strategies - even if you don’t have the money for the non-sport version, you kinda feel social pressure to get it. Brilliant.

I’m sorry for using so much Apple examples and sounding like a total fan-boy. The truth is that I don’t own or have ever owned any products made by them. That being said, I admire their business strategies and marketing. They really are at the top of their game in that regard and thus they’re full of great examples.  

Step 4: Your Source of Income

Your followers want to believe that if they follow you all sorts of good things will fall into their lap. By surrounding yourself with luxury you become living proof of the soundness of your belief system. Never reveal that your wealth actually comes from your followers' pockets; instead, make it seem to come from the truth of your methods.

This one is a bit hard to find a good analogy for because it sounds extra sinister, but really, in business, it's all about design. 

For a social network, when advertising feels like advertising, it detracts from the experience and makes you remember how social networks make their money. When online shopping feels like it's work to find what you want and get through a checkout flow, it makes you forget about all the fun stuff you were promised before, and therefore more resistant to take money out of your pocket and put it into someone else's. 

Step 5: Set Up an Us-Versus-Them Dynamic

First, make sure your followers believe they are part of an exclusive club unified by a bond of common goals.

Then to strengthen this bond, manufacture the notion of a devious enemy out to ruin you. There is a force of nonbelievers that will do anything to stop you. Any outsider who tries to reveal the charlatan nature of your belief system can now be described as member of this devious force.

Mac vs PC. iPhone vs Android. Coke vs Pepsi. Playstation vs Xbox. The list goes on, and the phenomenon of oppositional brand loyalty is fascinating in how it can impact repeat purchases. 


By now it should be pretty clear that whether we are talking about religious cults or cults in pop culture there are unnerving amount of similarities.

Simply saying set up an us-versus-them dynamic is really not that useful, there’s a lot more that goes into becoming the next cult sensation brand/product than simply emphasizing the visual and the sensual over the intellectual.

Let’s take a peak.

Create Strong Customer Persona

One of the building blocks of cultivating a truly cult following is understanding and knowing everything about your customers.

Your job is to, in a way, create the image of your customers. It goes hand-in-hand with development of products and services.You can’t design a great product if you don’t know your customers and you don’t know your customers when you don’t have a product yet.

Early on it’s vitally important to really go deep into smaller niches to get those early adopters and future product evangelists onboard - those are the people that will grow your cult. You need to know who your top evangelists will be and figure out what makes them tick. It's crucial to know what they love and hate.

If you are offering services for artistic people, rather than trying to cater to all types of creative's, from knitters to oil painters, you should choose a specific group to target first, such as sculptors, or perhaps graphic designers.

What you want to end up with is a customer persona. An detailed description of who your ideal customer/user is. Something along the lines of: Female, 25-35+, from Middle America, makes 50K+ a year.

Image via iAfrikan

Having detailed personas like that will make finding and marketing to your core group of customers/users A LOT easier. Now that you know exactly who you’re after you can start eliminating a whole lot of marketing strategies and start zeroing in on the ones that reach your core audience.

Another thing you can do to confirm strong customer persona is to play around with the copy on your homepage, emails, newsletter, error messages etc. Including these personalized little messages will make you look and feel more like a human and not a big enterprise with legalize all over the place. Your customers will appreciate the fact that you have taken the time and resources to really work on every aspect of your offerings.

Disney doesn’t have employees, they have Imagineers. Best Buy doesn’t have an IT department, they are called Geek Squad and in the Apple world the word Genius means support.

What do you have?

Stand Out From The Crowd

Today very few products are technically new or drastically different. Anyone can buy off the shelf parts and make a (spec wise atleast) top of the line product. OpenSignal alone counted over 18,000 different Android devices from over 1200 device manufacturers using it’s apps in 2014.

So if literally anyone can open up shop and start producing technically capable products, then what makes Apple sell 5 times more mobile phones than Microsoft in 2014?

Simple. They out designed everyone, made usability and ease of use their selling point and added phenomenal support so that when customers had questions, they would be answered swiftly. Simple, but not easy by any stretch of the imagination.

And this is exactly what you must do to become the next cult sensation - focus on design and ease of use.

Your products simply have to look the part and be easier and more convenient to use than anything else in the market. You cannot afford to cut corners with this.

If that means that you’re going to have to cut back from using the latest and greatest technical components, then this is the risk that you will have to take.

Apart from having arguably the best cameras on any mobile device, Apple has never been the king of spec mountain - hasn’t stopped them from being phenomenally successful.

When Google bought Motorola (later sold to Lenovo), they didn’t stress on the specs to get sales back up. Instead they stressed on design, usability and unique features to get them moving out the door. It worked.

While we are on the subject of design, do yourself a favor and don’t only think of design in one dimension. That is, there is more to design than simply how the device itself looks. Good design influences everything from how people interact with your website (on all devices), how your emails are sent (and who they’re sent to), what interactions with customer service look like, and everything leading up to the unboxing experience. .

Design is about all the details, and good design makes sure the execution of those minor details is flawless.

Become a Good Story Teller

CrossFit GymImage via WikiMedia

When you move away from the spec war, you’re opening the door for competitors to come and crush you with their X times faster processor performance and the like. Not to worry though, all you need to do is double down on your story telling.

Your story and your community (more on that later) is what is going to make or break your company.

In a way you need to have God complex of sorts - total belief in what you’re doing and continuing on no matter what the press is saying. The press doesn’t matter, your customers and community does.

This is exactly how CrossFit came to be so successful.  There are a million and one fitness programs and even more gyms around the country. All these gyms are full of all this complicated equipment which is presumably there to make you train better.

Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, didn’t see it that way. He completely reimagined what a workout space should look like - he rented a run-down garage, got minimal basic equipment in there, decorated it with some empty industrial looking boxes and devised a workout regimen for those conditions. Lastly he decided to charge more than the competition and with a lot of hard work and amazing community support made it into what it is today. 

Empowering Symbols Building a Community

When someone drives a Harley-Davidson chopper, (s)he is sending a message. The brands we buy and wear and use are symbols to express our identities. Once we buy into a particular brand, it becomes a part of us.

Symbols are a part of our everyday lives whether we acknowledge them or not. Symbols help people quickly identify what something is, whether that something is a business, idea, object, etc. A symbol is an easily recognizable representation of a deeper meaning.

Symbols come in all kind of different shapes and sizes, they remind us of our beliefs, loyalties, accomplishments and more. Their main power comes from understanding the message it carries. To understand that meaning, you have to be a part of that community which uses that specific symbol.

Coming back to Harley’s and their choppers, personally I’m not into choppers, so when I see someone riding a Harley it doesn’t invoke any kind of reaction from me other than maybe - cool ride. I’m not a part of the Harley community so I don’t understand what’s the big deal.

On the flip side, being a member of the Harley community and seeing another rider would tell me a lot about that person and his/her values and outlook on life. It would not always be 100% correct of course, but being in the community I’d get a good understanding on what to expect and how to act.

When it comes to community building, symbols are like a rallying cry - they bring people together and make connecting with others easier. It breaks down barriers and makes communicating a lot easier - you already have something to talk about, your mutual love for X.

Image via TattoosTime


Cult building is not something that can be done overnight, it takes years of hard work and even then you might not “make it.”

You can do your part, but you can’t create a cult following out of thin air - you need your customers to be with you.

Doing your part involves laying the groundwork by getting super specific about your ideal customers, standing out and developing remarkable products and services and finally, by putting real effort into building and maintaining your community.

After all this you’ll have a fighting chance of becoming the next cultural phenomenon like CrossFit, Apple, Harley-Davidson and others before you.


About The Author

Ott Niggulis is a chef/paramedic/freelance writer who focuses on marketing and CRO. Marketing is a numbers game and he loves numbers. Follow him on Twitter.