Obtaining Cult Brand Status

How to build and nurture an avid base of brand affinity

By David Ward

Diners at the original Shake Shack in Madison Square Park in New York. The burger chain has been able to maintain its cult-like status even while expanding across the globe. Shake Shack/Giphy.com


The fondest wish of many marketers is to see the brand they represent somehow achieve cult status, complete with passionate followers that sing the brand's praises and go out of their way to convince others to buy in. Harley-Davidson, Apple, and Starbucks are among the fortunate few that have managed to achieve and maintain that status even as their core businesses evolved and grew. But as tempting as it is to single out a clever tag line, logo, or campaign as the reason for a brand instantly reaching cult levels of adoration, the reality is that it's the consumer that makes the cult brand, not the marketer.

"I really believe you can't sit in a corporate conference room and say, 'Hey I want to go make a cult brand,'" says Marisa Thalberg, CMO at Taco Bell, which in the past few years managed to achieve indie-cult status — especially among millennials — while still retaining mass market awareness. "It's not 'Do these three things and then you'll have a cult.' It has to be something that happens organically, but marketers play a role in building a proposition and a connection and appreciation for the brand. The consumer then has to feel the brand gets them."

Thalberg cites as an example a 35-year-old Army veteran who upon waking from a multiweek coma in 2016 immediately asked for Taco Bell. "We couldn't have made that up, but we also don't exploit it," she says. "We just made sure we gave him Taco Bell. People are very savvy today, and part of that savviness means they understand when they're marketed to. They can smell inauthenticity from far away."

A number of experts interviewed for this story agree with Thalberg: that authenticity is a core part of a cult brand, and that you can make your brand a cult sensation in the same way you can make your content go viral, which is to say you can't. But experts point to a number of things marketers can do to position their brand for cult status, and nurture it once it gets there.


Stay True to Your Cult Appeal

Marketers fortunate enough to work on a cult brand need to first understand the gut feeling consumers have about the product or service, and then figure out ways to amplify that feeling to a broader audience — while also resisting the temptation to rest on the brand's laurels.

"There is that perception that if your product is that great, or your service is outstanding, you can connect your brand to people quickly and you don't have to advertise," says Britton Upham, general manager at McGarrah Jessee, an Austin, Texas–based brand development and integrated marketing agency.

McGarrah Jessee works with several brands with cult followings, including cooler maker YETI, Costa Del Mar sunglasses, and Texas-based Whataburger, whose acolytes have been known to drive hundreds of miles to eat at one of its locations.

Upham suggests the best role marketers can play is figuring out ways to expand a cult brand's appeal to a wider audience. "One tactic that's really effective with cult brands is to determine who your customer is and then model around that psychologically and demographically," he says. "The psychology profile is becoming very useful with look-alike targeting, finding consumers that might be hiding in different places, but actually look a lot like your existing customers."

One cult brand well versed in expanding to a wider audience is Shake Shack, which has maintained its cult appeal through a decade of steady growth. "Shake Shack, at its core, has always been about community and bringing people together, and over the past several years we have grown organically and naturally from our hometown of New York and across the country to great cities like Chicago, Austin, and L.A., and around the world to some incredible places like Tokyo and Seoul," explains Edwin Bragg, VP of marketing and communications at the fast casual restaurant chain.

Shake Shack initially focused on PR to amplify its origin story of starting as an art project raising money for a New York City park. Now it relies on multiple channels to broaden its cult appeal, including in-restaurant events, select outdoor advertising, and plenty of digital media with an emphasis on social media.

"Shake Shack continues to have outsized engagement on every single social channel, from Facebook to Instagram Stories, and it's still largely organic," Bragg says. "On Instagram, this plays out in how much our fans naturally share content about Shake Shack, because it's a brand that they're proud to be aligned with based on what we stand for."


Expand on Your Purpose

Shake Shack combines its broad outreach with local advocacy through partnerships with more than 30 charities across the U.S. and around the world. "These are smaller, hyper-local charities from neighborhood associations and dog-adoption charities to children's hospitals and food banks," Bragg says. "From a marketing perspective, we share these stories of how we give back and weave that into our digital and social content, resulting in higher engagement with Shake Shack guests."

Costa Del Mar is another good example of a brand that's grown beyond its initial core supporters into cult status while still maintaining its core following. Founded in Florida to provide high-quality sunglasses for fishermen, Costa has not only successfully expanded geographically, but in 2016 was also among the honorees at The Gathering, the annual event celebrating cult brands.

This year Costa teamed up with OCEARCH, the global nonprofit dedicated to researching great white sharks and other large ocean predators, on "Don't Fear the Fin," an awareness campaign featuring three shark attack victims speaking on the importance of sharks to the salt-water ecosystem.

Costa Del Mar's collaboration with OCEARCH on the importance of sharks to their ecosystem provides an opportunity for the brand to connect with consumers in a meaningful way. Costa Sunglasses/YouTube

"Brand activism isn't for the faint of heart — engaging in a meaningful way around issues that really matter to your core consumers creates an intense following that ad dollars simply can't buy," says Costa Del Mar CEO Holly Rush. "While we will always be anchored in fishing, we also recognize there are new communities to explore for the brand. Because of Costa's authenticity, our story, and what we stand for, our consumer base is much broader today than just fishing — young millennials who share a love of exploration, of life on or near the water, and who care about brands and companies that are not just making great products but are doing good in the world around them."


Deliver on Value, Not Price

Most cult brands are fortunate or smart enough to market on things other than price. YETI, for example, has seen cooler sales explode from $5 million in 2009 to more than $470 million in recent years, despite a price tag far, far higher than competitors.

Benefitting from a great origin story — it was founded by two entrepreneurial brothers, Ryan and Roy Seiders, whose love of hunting and fishing led them to create a cooler so durable it could withstand the rigors of their adventures on the water and in the wilderness — YETI has become so ingrained in outdoor leisure culture that Chris Janson mentions the brand in his 2015 country music hit, "Buy Me a Boat."

YETI Marketing Director Bill Neff says the company consciously avoids the hard sell, instead preferring to tell stories, like those of well-known fisherman and other brand ambassadors in a series of short films and other content.

YETI-produced films, like Denali's Raven, feature stories of people who embody the YETI brand, rather than make a hard sell of its products. YETI/YouTube

"We use marketing to engage customers on a more emotional level," Neff says. "Our films, for example, aren't a direct vehicle for product marketing, but they legitimize the brand as a leader in the outdoor space. When people see something that touches a nerve, it stokes a yearning for those days spent outdoors and makes them feel a kinship with the brand."


Join Your Own Cult

The big challenge many cult brands face as they grow is retaining the passion of those initial followers. "Don't try to be all things to all people," advises Emily Heyward, co-founder and partner at Brooklyn-based branding agency Red Antler. "If you can get a core group of people to fall madly in love with you, the rest will follow. Engaging with your brand says something about them as people, and your brand identity becomes tied up with their identity."

Mike Doherty, president of Seattle-based Cole & Weber, suggests marketers also need to be humble enough to realize that achieving initial cult brand status often happens almost on its own, with the agency and brand manager going along for the ride.

"The pivotal question is how you choose to use that moment: whether to milk it or nurture it," he says. "Given the short tenures of CMOs, it's often tempting to milk it, and make the most of a short-lived exploitation of the energy that the fans put into it. But it's possible to get both short- and long-term rewards, if you're willing to join the cult instead of exploiting it."

Doherty, whose agency has worked with regional and national beers like Rainier and PBR that have cult followings, adds, "Excavate the original truths and as many relics and clues as you can find. No cult member should be a bigger geek than you on its mythology, archeology, and best-and-worst-of-times."

Believing that the true power of cult brands comes not from their marketing, but from their followers, Doherty advises, "Put a sign up on the wall, reminding you that it's their brand, not yours — and they can take it away from you if you don't treat it right, shareholders be damned."




That Distinctive Cult Look

Can a compelling product or service make a cult brand logo seem exciting, or is it the other way around? That may be a question only a design consultant can answer, but, regardless, cult brands are often known for their look and other visual assets.

"Some brands can identify with a unique set of brand elements — such as logo, packaging, colors, fonts — which reinforce their identity," explains Vanitha Swaminathan, Thomas Marshall professor of marketing and director for the Center for Branding at the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business. "For a long time, Apple has maintained its logo but has updated the colors to make it modern. Google did try to change its logo but there was some pushback from consumers. Still, Google's logo continues to maintain its simplicity and appeal, both of which are essential to the brand itself."

Marisa Thalberg, CMO at Taco Bell, says the brand's emergence as a cult brand was boosted, at least in part, by a late 2016 logo change. The new logo, developed by creative consultancy Lippincott along with Taco Bell's internal design group, both simplified the imagery and eliminated some of the gaudier colors, while maintaining the brand's iconic bell image. "We can play with that and that in turn has created all these new merchandise opportunities," she says. "It's part of the cool factor of the brand and part of the playfulness."

Emily Heyward, co-founder and partner at Brooklyn-based branding agency Red Antler, agrees that design and imagery are important, but adds, "Creating a distinctive look always starts with strategy — otherwise you're just making random aesthetic choices that may look cool, but won't connect with people and have that longevity. From there, the creative absolutely can and should evolve, but it should always stay rooted in the brand positioning and the core idea that the brand is trying to own."
— D.W.


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