Cult Brand Leaders Behave Differently

Four simple things that can obliterate the barriers preventing your brand from reaping the benefits of a cult following.

Not every business or brand aspires to – or is capable of – achieving cult status. By the same token, far too many brands have become content with mediocrity and are capable of achieving so much more than the modest comp sales they enjoy today. All that needs to happen is their leaders need to set more noble goals, and then have the courage to act differently enough to achieve them.


Photo illustrating the analogy of standing out.

In preparation for The Gathering, my team and I have spent considerable time with dozens of cult brands across North America. The similarities among the leaders behind these brands are remarkable. At the same time, the differences between them and their peers who manage ordinary brands is similarly striking. Comparing these two groups has allowed me to draw some conclusions that may help other brand leaders who aspire to reap the benefits of a cult following.

The similarities among the leaders behind these brands are remarkable.

1. Cult brand leaders are passionate about culture.

Most CMO’s or senior marketing executives view their role as governing outward-facing communications to customers and prospects. By contrast, cult brand CMO’s and marketers focus on communicating with their brand’s internal audience first. They either go out of their way to preserve the culture established by the founders which helped make their brand and company great, or take it upon themselves to marshal cultural change and cultivate a fan base on the inside first. They personally spearhead efforts to attract and retain talent, indoctrinate staff with brand ideals  – especially front-line staff responsible for delivering the customer experience – and spend time and money telling the stories that illustrate the brand’s noble cause.

2. Cult brand leaders emphasize making impressions over buying impressions.

The most beloved cult brands have built exceptional owned assets: Their stores, websites, sales staff, call center employees, mobile apps, events, etc. Only after they have ensured their owned assets are nothing short of awesome do they ever spend significant amounts on paid media. Case in point: Harley-Davidson estimates only 15% of their marketing dollars are spent on paid media, while their products, events, customer care, the Harley Owners Group fan club and magazine, loyalty program and retail experience are legendary.

3. Cult brand leaders know execution is the strategy.

While most CMO’s love to conceive big ideas with their ad agencies, cult brand marketing leaders play a hands-on role in the less sexy operations of their business. They understand that how a business interacts with customers and differentiates itself from competitors is far more compelling than a clever ad campaign. Consider brands like Dell in it’s heyday, or Zappos.com today. The way these businesses operated was fundamental to how they built their brands and stood apart from competitors.

Dell perfected real-time customization of personal computers when everyone else was selling cookie-cutter models. Zappos.com removed all the perceived barriers of online ordering when no one believed consumers would ever buy shoes without trying them on first.

Non-cult brand marketing leaders relegate the responsibility of the customer experience to IT, HR or operations departments. Cult brand leaders assume control of anything that impacts the customer experience or helps their brand stand out in today’s highly commoditized world.

4. Cult brand leaders truly earn earned media.

All brand leaders desire the benefits of positive word-of-mouth and advocacy, but very few have the courage to do something that is actually buzzworthy. Too many CMOs are fearful of the risk associated with truly innovative marketing initiatives, and opt instead for small pilot programs or take the trodden path by following other brands who have tried something different and succeeded.

All brand leaders desire the benefits of positive word-of-mouth and advocacy, but very few have the courage to do something that is actually buzzworthy.

Red Bull didn’t wait for someone else to drop Felix Baumgartner from space. They just went for it. And it paid off big time. Cult brand leaders exploit opportunities to garner attention through activities that are aligned with their brand values.

Consider WestJet Airline’s recent Holiday Giving video, which was viewed by over 30 million people in two weeks. That same idea doesn’t pack the same punch if United Airlines or Delta tried to pull it off. Instead, it was so much more authentic (and enjoyable) coming from WestJet, whose customer oriented brand reputation better fits the idea.