If I was to ask any “normal” person were they members of any Cult, the likely answer would be a resounding “no!”. However, is that really the case? Before you read on, think of all the Cults you may be a part of. You see you are probably not just a member of one, but lots! Some may be religious (each to their own), some may be sports related. The one that interests us most as marketers is of course the cult of Brand.
Wikipedia defines a Cult as “a social group defined by its beliefs… or its common interests… Groups said to be cults range in size from local groups with a few members to international organizations with millions”
Let’s take for a moment the Cult of Apple. A bit of a stretch? I don’t think so – furthermore I think a Cult can actually be a good thing. Or what about the Cult of Facebook? Netflix? Kate Spade? Orla Kiely? Ryanair? Guinness, Heineken or Gunpowder gin? I’ll even go as far as to say the Cult of Spark! Whether we like to think of it in these terms or not, it seems Marketing is the art of Cult. Let’s take a look at the evidence.
Janja Lalich, Ph.D. & Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. compiled a thought-provoking checklist on the characteristics associated with cults. Keep the brands above in mind when reviewing a selection of some of these criteria and let’s see where it takes us.
- The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
Arthurs Day anyone? Steve Jobs 2005 Commencement speech with 27 Million views and growing by the thousand every day? These guys are “The special ones” and make no odds about it their brands know it and want you to know it too.
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself and members
Anyone who has ever spoken to Gen Zs and tried to work through drivers of choice for a mobile phone will have heard the refrain “Well, as long as it’s an iPhone”. iPhone claims this status for itself and its fanatical customers reinforce this status. We are all special, all 700 Million of us that currently use an iPhone (Source: Fortune.com) and we are all unique.
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
Gin wars are the new Whiskey wars, if you don’t have an iPhone (sorry but it’s a good example!) you have something else that just isn’t an iPhone. Big brands like to imagine a siege mentality – it’s them or us and this is often a driver of their growth. They don’t want to be like you – that want you to reflect in their glory and join the cult
- The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
Advertising. As I write this there are just over 100 days to Christmas. Every researcher reading this has already probably worked on various Christmas campaigns designed to woo cohort X versus Cohort Y by dialling up Emotional and/or functional reasons to believe. It’s second nature to what we do on a daily basis. Think of the Xbox one versus Playstation 4 “forms of persuasion”. It’s alive and well and has been since I looked in scorn at my Atari 128 while coveting my friend’s Commodore 64.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
Tick, tick and tick. When was the last time a brand said “nope, that’s enough customers now. Let’s just look after the ones we have.” It doesn’t happen. Of course, the 80:20 rule means we need to focus on the top 20% but we marketers are always hungry for more. Anyone care for an Orla Kiely bin? Hardly what she would have dreamt of designing when she was studying in NCAD all those years ago.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
Ok so the illusion is that people matter more than money. Which is why we all refer to these people as customers, targets and revenue streams. I’m not judging here = far from it, but it’s cultish behaviour.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
This is a tricky one. Are brand loyalists expected to spend more time consuming the brand or do they do so because they are loyal and consume the brand as it adds to their extended self-concept? Marketers would argue the latter.
We don’t have the all the answers to these questions at Spark. However, we do like to challenge ourselves and understand a topic from all angles. It makes for more informed and insightful findings. What do you think? Are brands just cults in sleek, expensive packaging? Is iPhone the new Scientology? Answers on a postcard (or preferably via iMessage)