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The brand consumer is looking to brands to give a sense of fulfillment that society and religions used to offer. They want brands to take stands on things. Brands have values. Brands have points of view. Brands have personalities. Brands are whole societies in which they participate

Let's start by talking briefly about what a brand is, and its history.

A brand originally was a way for a producer of a brand, like a maker of beer, to put their ownership symbol on it and to give it a sense of authenticity. And this was really, really important when the Industrial Revolution happened, because beer or any other product was distributed widely, away from where it was produced. So, for example, Bass beer, which was the first official brand, put the red triangle on its bottle to show that it was real beer; it was consistent high quality. Now all of that has changed. Brands have a completely different function in my mind, because the producer is not king; the consumer is.

What's different today?

The difference nowadays is that there are [more] products than consumers need. ... Long ago, producers ruled. The consumer was almost sort of panting for the next innovation, the next new detergent, the next breakthrough in technology. Now they're not. There are more products than consumers, and the producer has to have some kind of different way of selling them.

Douglas Atkin is a partner and chief strategy officer at advertising agency Merkley + Partners and has worked for some of the world's most successful brands, from Procter & Gamble to jetBlue. An expert on the relationship between consumers and brands, he knows about iconic branding from the consumer side, too: "I'm a self-confessed Apple loyalist," he tells FRONTLINE in this interview. Macintosh, Atkin says, is an example of a "cult brand," one that inspires a loyalty as intense as religious devotion by selling an implicit idea, identity, or community along with a product. "At the end of the day, Apple is a box of electronics," he says. "What makes them different?... When I'm buying an Apple, I'm not buying a clever box of electronics; I'm buying the belief that I'm a nonconformist." This interview was conducted on Feb. 2, 2004.

There was a time when brands and brand symbols were marks of identification for the producer to say: "This is my product. You can rely on its consistency, the same quality time and time again." Nowadays, producers of brands realize that the consumer needs to say: "No, this is my product, I identify with it. The Apple computer is my computer because it stands for creativity and nonconformism, just like I do," or, "The VW Beetle is my kind of car because it stands for antimaterialism, just like I do." So the ownership of the brand has switched from the producer saying, "This is my product," to the consumer saying, "This is my brand."

Who creates the brand?

Good question. Nowadays, it's a fusion of both. In fact, there are many examples of brands where the producer has very little to do with how the brand is constructed. The consumer has almost taken over. For example, one brand that we work with, BMW Motorcycles, it's the motorcyclists themselves who are determining what the brand is all about. It's about the riding experience. They see themselves as the gritty warriors of the road. Harley-Davidson riders are seen as weekend warriors. BMW riders are seen as the kind of people who ride 10,000 miles in one trip. The BMW manufacturers have very little to do with that brand. It's the owners of the motorbikes themselves who have created that impression and have created a community around the brand, importantly.

The brand has moved off the package to --

To consumers' minds. At the end of the day, a brand is simply neural impulses in people's brains stimulated by the experience of using it or of someone saying that they recommend it, or packaging, or whatever. It's simply a neural impulse. The item itself is almost secondary.

I used to be a brand manager at one of the most famous brand marketers of all time. In fact, they would claim that they invented brand marketing -- Procter & Gamble. There was a time when there were just very, very simple ingredients to how do you create a brand: You develop the best possible product; you have a great visual identity; you advertise the hell out of it; you get distribution and the right price; and it works. The consumer saw the brand in advertising, bought it at the store and used it in the washing machine. Nowadays, the brand is communicated everywhere through word of mouth, through the impression in a retail store, through advertising, through guerrilla activity. In fact, actually the biggest stimulant for someone to buy something is word of mouth. Advertising is increasingly retreating as a persuasive media.

Is that because of TiVo?

Yes, it is. And at the end of the day, people will buy on the recommendations of people they trust. Advertising is remote and therefore inherently less trustworthy than someone they know and trust.

What do you mean by "cult branding?"

Well, I believe that there is a very, very close relationship between cults and the best cult brands in the sense that people join and stay with cults for the exact same reasons as people join and stay with brands. The reason why is pretty obvious if you think about it: The desire to belong to something, to make meaning out of something, is universal. What's changed nowadays is, as we've become a more consumerist society, the institutions that become vessels for making meaning or venues for creating community have in turn become more consumerist, so the kind of functions that cults and religions used to perform years and years ago are increasingly being taken over by brands. I've interviewed people who are brand loyalists of Saturn, and they will use the same vocabulary as someone who is a cult member of Hare Krishna. They will say that other car users need to be saved, or that they are part of the Saturn family. Whether they're a retailer or a car driver, they will say, "We are the Saturn family," with no hint of irony. They absolutely and completely believe it.

Is that bad?

I don't think it's a bad thing. I think that the profound desire to make meaning and belong to something is part of the human condition. Consumerism is such a feature of our life that the venues are increasingly consumerist. I don't think we can make a value judgment about that; it just is happening.

Was there an "aha moment" when you made the connection between cult brands and actual religious cults?

The "aha moment" came when I was looking at eight individuals rhapsodizing about a sneaker in a research facility in New York one cold night, and these people were using the kind of evangelical terms and vocabulary you might expect from a cult meeting or a revivalist meeting. I mean, these people were converts. I was thinking, where is this coming from? Why are these people so committed? This is incredibly ironic, because I had just come from a meeting of colleagues and marketers where everyone had been wringing their hands about how brand loyalty was dead. Well, clearly it wasn't for these people. These people had become unreasonably attracted and attached to what at the end of the day was a piece of footwear. So I asked the question "Why?," and "Can that attraction and commitment be replicated again and again and again?"

So I thought in that research facility that night, if these people are expressing cultlike devotion, then why not study cults? Why not study the original, find out why people join cults, and apply that knowledge to brands? Now, you might think that that is a very morally dubious exercise, and if you look at the pages of Newsweek and Time you might be justified in thinking that, because they portray pictures of people committing suicide and so on. But I unreservedly say that cults are a good thing; that the people who join them are normal, and they do so for very good reasons. Healthy societies need cults. Cults are, if you like, the spores of change in a society. Every major religion in the world was a cult at one time. Christianity was simply one of many mystery cults in [the] eastern Mediterranean 2,000 years ago. [The early Christians], like the Mormons and like many other classic cults, were persecuted and castigated for being too different from the established norms of society, yet it ended up becoming the norm of society. Cults are part of the renewal of culture in society.

We need cults, and the people who join them are very, very normal. My research and others' show they tend to come from very stable backgrounds, [are] intellectually slightly higher than the average and have good educations. And they join for very good reasons. And the reasons they join cults -- and cult brands, as I learned from my research -- are universal reasons to do with the human condition. They join because they want to belong to something, and they want to make meaning. They want to have a reason for being. Those are two very, very simple reasons that all of us in the human race need to express.

Is Macintosh like a "wink, wink" cult, where the devotion of its followers is a bit tongue-in-cheek?

Oh, absolutely not. The people I spoke to were absolutely serious in their commitment to what at the end of the day is a box of electronics. It's a clever box of electronics. But they did not see it that way at all. They saw it and the community that surrounded it as an expression of what made them them. They saw their defining characteristics as creativity and nonconformism, and Mac for them was creative and nonconformist. It was a symbol of who they were.

So our identity is defined by brand allegiance today?

Increasingly so. Absolutely. As I said before, as our society becomes more consumerist, so are the ways that we make meaning and create identity. We might originally, years and years ago, have created a sense of identity through nationhood or through belonging to a particular church. Nowadays, it can be made through what brand you're particularly committed to. This started 30, 40 years ago with the VW Beetle. The people who bought the VW Beetle were unified by a belief in antimaterialism. It was very closely aligned to the antiwar movement, and it was in opposition to those who bought Cadillacs, which were all about materialism -- clearly, because there was a lot of material in the car.

It seems like cult brands are always in opposition to some other thing.

A way of creating a strong sense of community is if that community demarcates itself from the rest or the others. So Virgin Atlantic Airways, for example, demarcates itself from British Airways and American Airways very clearly. [Virgin founder and owner] Richard Branson has painted on the side of his planes, "No way AA/BA" -- a finger at the hegemony of those two big monopolistic carriers. And Virgin has clearly outlined itself as a piratical, fun airline. So yes, it can, but the opposition to something else or the other needn't just be a thing; it can be an attitude or a state of mind.

I would contend that Forbes magazine is a cult brand. The avid readers of those that I interviewed felt that they were fighting against the state of mind of mediocrity, of settling, which they felt that the rest of society did. And they were unified together, because they never stood for the good; they stood for the best.

How does a person join a cult brand?

How does someone join a cult or a cult brand? Because the process is exactly the same. Priests will tell you that people become converted because they see the truth of God's word. Marketers and advertisers will say that people buy a brand because they like its image or its product function. I would argue that true commitment is not based on either of those things. True commitment is made by committing to the person or the community that presents the brand or the cult to the individual. In other words, people buy the medium, not the thing; in this case, the agency of human relationships.

And if you think about it, it's true. If you trusted me, if I was a close friend of yours, and I said, "You must, must, must buy a Saturn car," you feel incredibly predisposed to buy a Saturn car. You'll then go to the showroom and have a great experience there and buy the Saturn car, as millions of people did, even though the car was very, very ordinary. It was a very ordinary small car, but it is one of the largest mass-brand cults ever created because of the agency of human relationships. Fifty percent of the people who turned up at the showroom did so because they'd been recommended by a friend or a family member, not because they thought the car had a cunningly crafted carburetor. I don't know if it does or not. I doubt it, but because people they trusted said they should buy one [they did].

I think cult brands, at least the ones I've looked at, the people who run those cult brands have almost done it instinctively. The really smart ones like Richard Branson, [Apple founder] Steve Jobs, the people who started Saturn, they didn't set out to start out a cult brand, but they knew instinctively that people wanted to belong to something and to believe in something.

Saturn is a really good example. It's a mass cult brand. For example, 45,000 people turned up to spend their holiday, vacation time, at the factory in Tennessee instead of going to Disney World or the Grand Canyon. Now, why would they do that? Why would anyone turn up to a factory in Tennessee to spend their precious vacation time with the kids? Because they wanted to meet other people who own Saturns; they wanted to meet the rest of the Saturn family. They wanted to meet the people who made the car; the people who made the car wanted to meet them. And the people who ran the Saturn business knew that. They felt that they had helped engender the sense of the Saturn family. They had created dealerships where it felt more like entering your own living room than it did some seedy little dealership where some grubby man in a bad suit [is] trying to pull the wool over your eyes with a bad deal.

The people who ran the Saturn cult knew that people wanted to feel as if they were amongst like others, and they created a great meaning system for Saturn in those fantastic commercials. Their meaning system was based on old-time values of community. All the commercials were set in the bucolic backgrounds of rural Tennessee with the small villages, cows, pastoralism. It was a kind of an icon that America yearned for but couldn't find anymore. The old values -- that was the meaning system that people were buying into. So the people around the Saturn cult were doing it consciously, but not necessarily saying, "I'm going to start a cult."

With other cult brands -- for example, the BMW motorcycle -- the people who produce the item have had very little to do with the cult that has been created around it. In fact, if they try to interfere, the cult would resist it. Because of the almost manic independence of the BMW riders, they would resent any interference by the BMW corporation. They have a very, very tight-knit network which looks after each other. One of the key signs of a very strong cult is the sense of responsibility of members for each other. So, for example, BMW has a book called BMW Anonymous where any rider of a BMW motorcycle can turn up in any town and find out where they can get a meal, where they can put their bike, where they can get a bedroom for a night from another BMW owner. All the numbers are listed there, and all the little symbols that represent those services are listed beside them. That's nothing to do with the corporation. So in that sense, the cult was created spontaneously.

That's a pretty serious commitment to list yourself in a book like that. You can't do it and just walk away.

That brings up a really good point, actually: the sense of responsibility. When a member of a cult or a cult brand makes a commitment to the cult or cult brand, they're investing a huge amount. They're often giving up, often for brand cults, their family, their time, their money, their reputation. It's a massive, massive cost -- not just money cost -- to join the cult. That feeling or that investment must be felt to be reciprocated by the people who run the cult. There must be feeling amongst the membership that the people who run the cult feel as committed to them as they are committed to the cult. If there's any inequality in that sense of responsibility, the cult will break apart, often violently. For example, in one cult I investigated called the Fellowship of Friends in California, a classic cult based on the teachings of [Peter] Ouspensky, people gave up their whole lives and lived in a commune to follow [Robert Earl] Burton. Burton was then accused of molesting some of his followers and embezzling money. The moment that was discovered, that lack of trust was revealed, that lack of commitment was exposed, the cult began to disintegrate.

Similarly, The Body Shop crashed from its dizzying heights in the mid-'80s when there was one small article that then became widely distributed that essentially [said] The Body Shop was a lie; that its ingredients weren't all natural; that they weren't harvested from the mountains of the Himalayas; that, in fact, Anita Roddick had ripped off the whole idea from a friend of hers. In other words, for all the high-mindedness and all of the very laudable meaning system of honesty that Anita Roddick had created, she basically let down her membership. She lied to them. And the membership drifted away, at least the committed members.

What does a brand manager do?

When I was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, my job was basically to make sure the product was good, develop new advertising copy, design the packaging. Now a brand manager has an entirely different kind of responsibility. In fact, they have more responsibility. Their job now is to create and maintain a whole meaning system for people through which they get identity and understanding of the world. Their job now is to be a community leader. Their job now is to create a whole system of symbols in their brand for every single touch point for the brand that reflects back that meaning that kind of engenders that community.

For example, the Apple brand -- which is a very, very meaning-driven brand -- wherever you touch that brand, the meaning is consistent, whether you buy one of those slick, beautiful titanium computers; whether you walk into the Apple Store here in New York, which looks like a temple to creativity and nonconformism; whether you take home your computer in one those great little sacks. It is all designed, every single touch point is crafted, to fulfill that responsibility of giving meaning and creating a sense of community. That means only certain brand managers need apply. Only those who have the skills, really, of priests, who are able to create a sense of values and create a sense of community, should apply for the job.

Can any product become a cult brand?

At the end of the day, Apple is a box of electronics. JetBlue is an airplane. What makes them different? What makes them different is they stand for certain things. What makes them different is that when people buy those items or buy a ticket or buy a computer or buy a certain car, they're not just buying the item; they're buying into a community of people who all think alike.

When I fly on JetBlue, I believe that flying shouldn't degrade me. David Neeleman, who runs the airline, says he's trying to put the humanity back into air travel. I'm buying that message. And when I'm buying an Apple, I'm not buying a clever box of electronics; I'm buying the belief that I'm a nonconformist.

What has JetBlue done right?

What JetBlue has done right is they're not just concentrated on brand-new planes or leather seats or the TV monitors. Those are the kind of things that can be copied and are being copied by the likes of Song. What their brand is really about is the people. They put huge emphasis on the people they hire and how they train them. The difference of JetBlue is how you're treated in the air, not what snacks you get. And I think those people who think they're trying to be JetBlue by imitating the snacks and the music and the groovy design, they're going to fail, because they actually haven't got the essence of that brand. That brand is being treated like a human; that's what that brand is all about. That brand is the 10,000 people who apply for a job at JetBlue from which only one is chosen, because they know how to engage with people and make people feel good.

Essentially what JetBlue does is what the Moonies used to do at their weekends: They love-bomb people. "Love bomb" is the term the Moonies used to make people feel welcome and loved, and it was that that converted people. It's not the stuff; it's the love that's all around us. The pretenders I think will fail if they have the same old flight attendants and checking clerks that they have in the rest of their network. I think Song will fail, by the way.


Because I'm not sure that Song has recruited the right kind of people to run their airline. JetBlue got it right right from the beginning by saying that the brand is the people; it's not the planes. The planes get people to try it first time round -- the cheap flights, the groovy uniforms, the funky design of the planes. You might try it for the first time for those reasons, but what will keep you coming back is the way you're treated.

What role did you have in JetBlue?

We worked with JetBlue at the very, very beginning when it was called New Air. The name hadn't even been created, and there were only five people in the airline. We worked to help define what the airline was all about. We felt that the airline should remove itself from the airline business and, in fact, not be an airline; it should be a customer advocate and wag its finger at the rest of the players, telling them how they're letting customers down. We said that JetBlue should be about putting humanity back into air travel. We helped design the look of the planes, designed the interiors. 70 percent of their business is executed through the Web site; we designed that. Basically, we tried to design everything to reflect the idea of humanity and make sure all the symbolism of the brand was consistent at every point of contact. So we designed the check-in desks, the uniforms, everything.

Song says they're not an airline, either.

If they're going to be as rigorous as JetBlue in terms of hiring the right kind of people and training them to love, then they can be a success. If they're simply imitating the fabric of JetBlue, then I don't think they're going to succeed. They might get people once or twice, but they won't get them again and again. They won't get the kind of passion of converts telling people to go and try this fantastic new airline.

How do you know what the consumer wants?

It depends what your objective is. The worst thing you should do is ask consumers what they want, because if you do that, you'll be a perpetual follower. One of the biggest mistakes many companies make is to say that they're consumer-led. If they're consumer-led, they're only familiar with what exists now. They can't necessarily see into the future, and that's our job. It's our job to have ideas that will stimulate the interests of consumers. So we shouldn't be consumer-led; we should be idea-led, but consumer-informed. We should know how the consumer might feel about something. We should know how the culture is predisposed or not towards a particular idea. So we do all kinds of research to find that stuff out, but there comes a point where you have to leap from the data to the idea.

But consumers play a big part in brand creation today, too.

Yes, it's a two-way street. Steve Jobs made the stand that Apple was about creativity and about nonconformism. Now consumers have taken that basic idea and embellished it and lived in it and actually played it back to Steve Jobs so that he can embellish it and play with it and play it back to the consumers. He's part of the cult. He may be its leader arguably, but he's a member nonetheless, and they work off each other.

Call and response.

Call and response.

You've said that customers become believers.

Yeah. Not only do I make that analogy, but consumers make that analogy. An Apple user told me with a complete straight face that PC users needed to be saved. Another person said that PC users are damaged by using PCs, and they had to be brought into the fold of Apple. The homecoming at Saturn is like a tent-revivalist meeting for some fundamentalist sect more than a meeting of consumers. Consumers are using the language and expressing the kinds of attitudes and feelings of cult belonging.

One thing we do is conflict analysis groups, and what we mean by that is that sometimes how consumers feel about a brand is buried very, very deep. One of the worst questions you can ask in research is "How do you feel about a brand?," because they all simply say, "Yeah, it's good; I like it; it's a good price," and move on. What we do is work off the attitude that people will articulate how they really feel if they have to defend what they really feel. So we put two groups of people in separate rooms, in the same research facility, and they tend to be loyalists of their brands. And we tell them that they have to write a manifesto for themselves, for their group and for their brand. And of course it's the same thing, because the community and the brand often end up standing for the exact same things. And then after an hour and a half they have to spend the next hour and a half presenting it to the other group in the other room and defending it. Now, the passions can get so intense that in one group that we did for soft drinks, one character mooned the other group because he thought they were idiots and were offending his moral standards. So we create these manifesto conflict groups to unearth deep, buried attitudes to brands and feelings by putting people into a defensive situation.

Do you have personal relationships with any brands?

Oh, yes. I'm a self-confessed Apple loyalist. I go to a cafe around the corner to do some thinking and writing, away from the hurly-burly of the office, and everyone in that cafe has a Mac. We never mention the fact that we all have Macs. The other people in the cafe are writers and professors and in the media, and the feeling of cohesion and community in that cafe becomes very apparent if someone comes in with a PC. There's almost an observable shiver of consternation in the cafe, and it must be discernable to the person with the PC, because they never come back.

But you realize what's going on with your loyalty to Mac; you're conscious of the cult branding.

Yes. I'm one of those people who helps construct cult brands, but I'm a willing victim, if you like, of cult branding.

Does that consciousness make you different than other members?

No, no. A lot of people we spoke to who are cult members knew exactly what was going on. There was one great guy I spoke to who was a Snapple addict who said, "We're bamboozled by the man, and we know it, and that's okay." In fact, they actually enjoy sophisticated marketing. It's a cognitive dissonance. They see that they're being manipulated, and because they know that they're being manipulated, they almost feel respected that something so intelligent and so artfully crafted is being done for their sake.

That's art, not religion.

It's religion if you're creating the same response that religion creates. And religion tends to create addiction and commitment because it offers a meaning system, and it creates a sense of belonging. And more and more brands are doing that.

Are consumers' behaviors understandable, ultimately?

Consumers aren't weird; consumers are you and me. As the consumer becomes more sophisticated, then we have to be as sophisticated in how we market to them, or rather how we market with them, since they're also participating in the whole marketing experience.

Has marketing research become more sophisticated?

It has and it hasn't. In the '60s and '70s, they were doing very sophisticated research. Measuring the amount of sweat produced on people's hands in response to particular ads, eye-movement research -- that was happening decades ago. Now we're just looking for different things, I guess. I'm looking for the possibility of a cult to be created around a brand. So I'm looking for the possibility of a community to be created or a belief system to be constructed. That's probably different from what marketers were looking for 20 or 30 years ago.

Why are some marketers so desperate now?

Because they have a bankruptcy of ideas, I think. There's no need to be desperate; there's just the need to be smart and respectful about what you do. The smarter marketers have an alliance with their consumers. They're not trying to do things to consumers; they're trying to do things with consumers. In fact, there are examples of brands now where the brand manager has to just let go. When I worked at Procter & Gamble, the organigram, if you like, of brand marketing was definitely one of command and control. If you think about it, the terms they use in marketing are all about military campaigns. You run a campaign; you have a target; you try and penetrate a particular category. It's a very aggressive, very controlling vocabulary. Nowadays, many brands have a life of their own, and a brand manager has to just learn to let go, allow the consumers themselves to create meaning and communities around their brands.

The consumer is shutting off to advertising campaigns.

Yes. Certainly television tries to yell and sell, as I call it. That era is over. The era of word-of-mouth is much more important, and it has arrived. Advertising should be used to get people to tell others about the brand, not necessarily to have a one-way relationship with the consumer. The Saturn ads in the early '90s actually stimulated word-of-mouth. They didn't necessarily convince people by watching the ads; they got people to talk about the brand to their friends and colleagues, and in turn they went into the dealerships.

Is advertising dead, as such?

No, I don't think so, but I think that it's being used in a different way. For example, BMW Cars constructed commercials simply for their Web site which I thought was very smart. They used an old medium for a new purpose. And those ads were passed on, through the medium of the Internet, from person to person. So they became a vehicle, literally, of word-of-mouth.

What about embedded advertising?

Many of our clients are now looking at either sponsoring shows or product placement within shows. And of course you can't do that in a very heavy-handed manner. As a consumer of the last Austin Powers movie, I resented the Taco Bell, the Heineken, all the other product placements. I felt they were intrusive in my enjoyment of the film. The strategy was showing.

Consumers are very media-literate, and I think that's a good thing. It means that we have to be as clever as they are in communicating with them. But no, there's no possible way you can ever pull the wool over the eyes of any consumer. They've become too educated in what we do. 20 percent of undergraduates took a marketing option last year, so they know the techniques we use; they use our vocabulary.

Is there a danger, in letting them see, that you won't be effective anymore?

I don't think there's any danger in them seeing the techniques that are used to elicit their devotion. It should be as transparent as it possibly can be, because one way or another, they'll find out. If there's any attempt to hide something from the consumer, then that shows an essential disrespect for the consumer, and that will be sniffed out and exposed. The Internet nowadays is such a pervasive and fast-moving medium that any hint of hypocrisy and manipulation is going to be exposed and communicated to everyone.

But then how to sustain the mystery you need for effective marketing?

I think the sense of mystery happens with people's experience of a brand, just as someone's experience of religion is often very personal in that sense of mystery. When someone is "born again" as a Christian, that is an acutely personal, very, very transcendent, mysterious moment. When I talk to Harley-Davidson riders, they would talk about their experience of riding a motorcycle in the same terms as someone describing the transcendent moments of their religion. It took them out of the everyday. Their experience was on the edge. They felt transported to a different place. That's where the mystery lies. There can be no mystery in how we communicate to consumers. The mystery has to come from the experience of the brand.

And brands can do this?

Absolutely. I think brands have to do it for Americans today, because Americans today are requiring brands to fulfill the roles that religions and cults have performed in the past.

Can you start a cult or a cult brand from scratch?

Yes, you can. Cults have been started from scratch. L. Ron Hubbard, for example, famously said to a friend of his that there was no money to be made in writing science fiction novels, so he started a religion instead, and we ended up with Scientology.

Whether he consciously used the techniques that I've been able to identify or not, I don't know. But you can do certain things to create commitment to whatever entity you want to start, whether it's a political party or a brand or a religious organization. There are basic things you need to do. You need to create a meaning system, have a worldview. You need to do all the things necessary to create a strong community.

You can start by getting the right kind of membership. There is a wrong and a right kind of membership. The wrong kind of membership is populated by the kind of people that populate cults: social failures, weirdos, psychologically flawed people. If you think about it, cults will never succeed if they're full of people like that, because who would join a cult with people like that? They don't have the social wherewithal to get recruits. You need socially successful, socially attractive people to recruit others. Successful cults which are turning into the next-world religions, like the Mormons, know that it's personal interaction between members and nonmembers which is the fastest route to cult growth, and they've institutionalized that in the way they get new members.

There needs to be a sense of responsibility created within a cult from one member to another, so Apple members and Saturn members feel a responsibility to each other. The Marines, which I think is very, very cultlike, have institutionalized the idea of responsibility. There is never a Marine left on the battlefield. BMW Motorcycles, the best rider always rides behind the other riders to make sure that if anyone falls over, they're not left behind. So a sense of mutuality needs to be created.

Symbolism needs to be built into a cult or a cult brand. Symbols are the way that the meaning system and the community communicates with each other. So when you see the Apple logo or the Saturn logo or the JetBlue logo, you know that that stands for certain values with which you identify. And you know that there's a whole raft of other people out there who believe in the same thing that you do. Symbols are the way that we exchange allegiances with each other. You must have a system of symbology.

You can start a cult or a cult brand from scratch using some of the basic principles I've talked about in my book, or you can take an existing organization and infuse cultlike attraction into it by applying those principles, too. I think if a brand doesn't create its own worldview and a community around itself, then it's missing out on an opportunity to create loyalty, and loyalty is where money is made. It's very hard and very expensive to get new users into a brand. It's people who buy a brand again and again and again [from whom] money is made. And loyalty comes from a sense of community, a sense of belonging and a sense of buying into something -- a worldview in which they believe.

The brand consumer is looking to brands to give a sense of fulfillment that society and religions used to offer. They want brands to take stands on things. Brands have values. Brands have points of view. Brands have personalities. Brands are whole societies in which they participate. If you don't have those things, then you're likely to fail, or at least not to be as profitable as you could be.


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posted nov. 9, 2004

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