I have a strange hobby: I collect brands. Not just any brands. Cult brands.

I study them and their fanatical followings. Meet with their fearless leaders, learn their secrets, and – along with others from A Society of Cult Brands – honour them at The Gathering: an annual summit of the world’s most coveted brands.

I always thought it was something of a unique hobby. Until I came across Jesse Epstein and the Cult Brand Index. Jesse and his marketing research firm, Incite (part of the St Ives Group), have put some serious science behind their collection of cult brands, which they use to evaluate a brand’s cult-like potential. As I have, they also studied the kinds of brands that prompt their customers to shave their logos into their hair. From this, Jesse and Incite identified five common characteristics as the basis for a scoring rubric through which any brand can be assessed on its proficiency in driving cult-like fanaticism and lasting customer loyalty.

Recently, I spoke with Jesse from his office in New York City.

JZE 6 (1)Tell me about Incite and your role there.

Incite is a research consultancy. We partner with brands to conduct traditional market research projects, qualitative, quantitative, a little bit of both sometimes. I work out of our New York office. We’re headquartered out of London, but I was part of the team started our U.S. office about three years ago.

What is the Cult Brand Index and what prompted you to create it?

The Cult Brand Index is a way we help brands evaluate what we call their “cult status” – their ability to connect with consumers on a number of different levels that may go deeper than just patronage or purchase.

We were working with a client who wanted to better understand where they sat within their industry, and so we started thinking about what other types of brands in the industry would be comparable. It kind of happened by accident. We were doing the workshop with this client and said, “There’s a lot of applications for this outside of just the siloed version of what we’re doing right now.” It was something we took on on our own, and were able to develop from there.

Is the Index a list of brands in certain categories that have the most cult-like followings and brand affinity?

It is, exactly.

It’s funny when you look at it. It’s not just the same two or three companies you would expect to see. There’s a lot of brands that have gone above and beyond in certain areas, that have really developed those followings. We’ve currently put ten industries and about 200 companies through it, and we’re continuing to build it.

Brands are all from over the world, but the index has only been run among U.S. consumers, so far. I think given (Incite’s) global presence, that’s likely something we’ll move onto.

What surprised you the most about the end results?

Going into this, you knew there had to be a strong product that was going to kind of rule the day, and it did; but I think the emotional connection consumers were willing to share with brands was really surprising. Everything from thinking about heritage, and tying to a place, or tying to a person, really resonated with consumers.

Most surprising of all was the willingness and desire to hear about the “good work” – charitable, or working with other non-profits – consumers really wanted to hear about that from their brand or from the brands they use. That was a key learning for a lot of our clients who said, “We don’t need to flaunt from the rooftops what we’re doing, or why we’re doing something good,” but in reality, consumers want to hear about that.

That was a key learning for a lot of our clients who said, “We don’t need to flaunt from the rooftops what we’re doing, or why we’re doing something good,” but in reality, consumers want to hear about that.

So, does the CBI indicate that brands who emphasize engagement over more forms of marketing and advertising are winning cult followings?

Absolutely. It’s twofold: People aren’t watching as many commercials anymore, and people aren’t spending as much time on specific websites. It would make sense that they’re just not exposed to as much advertising as they were, anymore. At a prior life, I worked at an ad-effectiveness research company, and we started to see diminishing returns (on advertising), and saw agencies wondering, “What the heck is going on here?” I think that you’ve got the fact that people are less exposed to advertising, and there’s less of a threshold for sitting through commercials. People are on their phones, so they’re not always looking at billboards.

The other is that advertising has always been about consumers letting brands into their lives. If you’re watching Jeopardy, or Wheel of Fortune, or the news, and a commercial comes on, that’s a consumer letting the brand into his life from 6:30 to 7:00 at night. Consumers have allowed brands into their lives in different ways than they used to. I think the principles of advertising, connecting with a consumer (while they are willing), still absolutely exist, it’s just in a different form or fashion and traditional advertising is outdated.

How would a brand use, leverage, or apply the Cult Brand Index to their advantage?

There’s two ways, and it depends on the size of a company:

  1. For large multinational companies who have a portfolio of different brands: There’s a really good opportunity to see where individual brands resonate versus others. It gives a company like Unilever, or Kellogg, or General Mills the opportunity to see where certain brands have really succeeded at connecting with consumers above and beyond just purchase, then leveraging (what’s worked) across other brands. I think that’s something a lot of big companies would tell you: There’s not a lot of information sharing going on across global conglomerates; a lot of that is siloed in brand teams.
  2. For smaller, growing, or single-brand companies: I think it’s an opportunity to tweak. We’ve had some really great success working with smaller to mid-sized companies who have one product, and they say, “We’re here to do one thing in the world, and be the best at it.” And when you make an amazing product, or you’re performing well, it’s a matter of tweaking to take that next step. It’s not about getting bigger, it’s about getting better, and making sure that you take that next step in converting people from customer to loyalist to evangelist.

What’s so significant about the Cult Brand Index? Why should marketers and brands actually care about this?

I think it’s hugely important.

I look at events like The Gathering, with the brands that are going to be there. We’re in a new time, and we’re in a new environment, where consumers are engaging with brands. Social media has taken it to one level, and then it’s gone even further. You’ve got brands that truly change the way we live our lives; you look at brands like Uber, or Netflix. These are legitimately game-changing brands, and I think it’s entirely possible that you’re going to have brands that are now top-five and top-ten brands in their industry that aren’t going to exist in a decade from now.

Companies now have to innovate, and they have to act differently. The one way you do that is product innovation. The other way you do that is the way you interact with consumers, and the way that you build followings, to ensure that you become immune from some of the external factors that are driving our economy today.

I think it’s entirely possible that you’re going to have brands that are now top-five and top-ten brands in their industry that aren’t going to exist in a decade from now. If you’re not innovating and changing, someone else is going to come along and do it just as good, if not better.

I think things like the Index, working with companies like Cult Collective, and others who are interested in developing a following, are really important for brands as either some of them look to grow, or some of them look to survive. If you’re not innovating and changing, someone else is going to come along and do it just as good, if not better.

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