Companies and brands are always looking for ways to engage their customers. By having a good relationship with your customers, they not only are more prone to repeat purchases, but they will also act as ambassadors for your brand for free.
Over the recent years, we have the rise of cult followings that are extremely loyal and fiercely defensive over their favourite brands. In this article, we will look at cult followings and why are they so powerful.
What Is A Cult Following?
A cult following is a group of die-hard fans that will follow and defend a brand, no matter what happens (most of the time). It is used by brands and companies as a marketing technique to create their own “cult”. A brand that is simply popular does not have a cult following.
To have a cult following, the brand needs a combination of the characteristics below
- Superior product
- Involved and dedicated community
- Charismatic spokesperson
- Common enemy
- Strong (sometimes extreme) views
- Financial incentive
A cult following can apply not only to products and services but also to personalities, ideologies, religions or political groups. In this article, we will focus on consumer brands.
Why Are Cult Followings So Powerful?
Cult followings are so powerful due to the following reasons.
Charismatic brand spokespeople use their charm to influence their fans. They exude confidence and usually are visionaries with revolutionary ideas. These leaders can appeal to and attract followers that believe in their vision. Their words are taken as law, regardless of whether they are true or not. They have enough social credit from their following to trust that they will back them no matter what. If there are dissenters, even from within the cult following, these people will be shut down and bullied till they submit or leave the community.
Limited Brainpower And Time
We have limited brainpower and time so we are physically unable to evaluate all of our decisions. Either we do our own research, rely on intuition or rely on someone else to decide for us. This point does not only to cult followings but to influencers and key opinion leaders. Once a consumer trusts the influencer, they will expect the influencer to only recommend things that are good so the consumer will not need to do additional research or critical thinking and just click the buy button. Even though the item is undeniably good, we might not need it, but just because of the influencer’s recommendation, one might just buy it.
Strong Pricing Power
There is an intangible value tied to the brand. A cult following buys things not only for their functional value or cost-performance ratio but also for the support of the brand and to be part of a community. This allows the brand to price its products higher than similar products in the market. Although there is a similar product available for a lower price, the die-hard fan will still go for their favourite brand.
A cult following might need a charismatic leader or a superior product to get behind, but it is nothing without a strong community. Here are some reasons why a strong community creates a cult following.
An ordinary consumer might switch to another product if it has a better price or product. However, a cult following will disregard price and quality is subjective to them. They are extremely loyal to the brand and the brand is the default option, always.
Looking at the marketing funnel, these fans will skip the awareness and consideration phase and skip directly to the action(purchase) phase.
For awareness, they already live and breathe the brand so additional ads are not needed to let them know of any new products. They are aware of any moves the brand makes as they are in communities that share all news regarding the brand.
As for consideration, an ordinary consumer might need to check for comparable products or see if they need them. However, for a cult following, it is a given that they will purchase the item. The only consideration perhaps would be how much to purchase. The support of their favourite brands holds a lot of weight in the decision-making process. Instead of weighing the pros and cons, the benefit of supporting the brand is so great that it will tilt the decision process greatly towards yes.
The fans are also usually repeat buyers of the brand and not a one-off thing.
Users Are Brand Ambassadors
After the action phase, comes the post-action phase. Besides being repeat buyers, the cult following are also brand ambassadors. They promote and engage with the brand via social media voluntarily. They also create fan-made content and community groups to discuss everything about the brand. The fans can influence those around them and attract those that might resonate with their brand’s message to join them. It can be an echo chamber in these communities with no room for dissent.
The individuals inside a cult following can also come from various backgrounds and have different skill sets. They are willing to use their expertise and connections to help the brand, usually for free. Skills can include marketing, design, data analytics, finance and law.
Examples Of Brands With Cult Followings
Here are some brands with die-hard fans with undying loyalty.
Photo by Michał Kubalczyk on Unsplash
An Apple fan will use everything Apple if they can help it. It combines performance with style and does it very well. The Apple ecosystem is also not very forgiving as it can be difficult to switch to another operating system (Apple Vs Android + Windows). You can sync all your devices (MacBook, iMac, iPhone, iPad) easily so you can work across devices. It can be difficult to give up such convenience and interoperability. Apple fans also think that Apple products are superior to its competitors. Apple fans also look forward to the periodic product release conferences to check for the next device to upgrade to.
You might want to make the same argument for Andriod, however, most Android users are willing to switch brands easily while staying with the same OS.
GameStop has taken the financial markets and social media by storm. It is no longer just an investment in a gaming retail, and recently, a blockchain company.
To summarize, it is speculated that the GameStop stock has been heavily shorted by hedge funds using illegal tactics. Also, it might be shorted to the point that there are more shares in the market than the actual share count of the company. By buying shares and directly registering the shares, the investors are taking shares out of circulation, which prevents the hedge funds from closing their short positions, leading to a potential short squeeze. This group of investors are buying shares every month. If the price rises, they celebrate the gain while if the price falls, they celebrate the discount. At this point, it is about bringing Wall Street down to send a message instead of just waiting for a short squeeze.
They also directly support the brand by purchasing from the retailer as much as they can instead of its competitors, and this is not limited to gaming merchandise. They also act as ambassadors to their friends, families and on the internet.
Disclaimer: I have a position in GameStop.
Photo by Kanchanara on Unsplash
With money involved, it can get very ugly. If there is any bad news or criticism about the coin, it will mean the fans will directly lose money. These fans will come out to defend their coins against any attacks. The gains that crypto can potentially bring are massive but of course, the opposite is true too.
There is also a group that hates the centralization of our current world and wants to push for decentralization in everything so that there is no single point of failure. Bitcoin started because of a group wanting to move away from fiat and the current financial system that central governments have full control of.
Disclaimer: I have a position in crypto.
Although other Korean pop groups have their stans, I would say BTS have the biggest and fiercest group of stans, the BTS ARMY. They will defend their idol and even spend their own money to buy up ad space in public spaces to celebrate the achievements of their idols. Idols are no longer placed on a faraway pedestal. They are still on a pedestal but they are now closer to the fans and they engage with the fans frequently using social media, greatly increasing the relationship between fans and idols, and attracting more fans.
The BTS ARMY isn’t just an online page or Fanclub. They have annual recruitments with membership cards and exclusive perks when you join the ARMY. The ARMY has done charity and social media movements (e.g. flooding social media hashtags to remove hateful messages from #MAGA and #bluelivesmatter) in the name of their idols.
Tesla (Elon Musk)
We have fanboys defending the brand and its spokesperson despite Elon Musk being very controversial, especially in recent months. Elon Musk has packaged himself as a “meme-lord” and shared controversial statements. He has made many bold claims about his companies and what they are going to achieve. It is undeniable that he has pathed the way for technological advances in electric vehicles, rockets and satellite internet, however, many of his claims did not happen.
He also dabbled into cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Dogecoin, and together with memes, attracts people from another niche. His fans not only worship him because of his achievements but because they have a huge financial interest in his companies and the cryptocurrencies that he mentions. He is so influential that his tweets can move markets and any enforcement on him looks like spare change to him.
Will It Backfire Someday?
A cult following might not last forever. Once a brand loses its way with its fans, no matter how loyal the fans are, they will leave the brand.
A great example would be Blizzard’s Diablo mobile game release. Their fans were expecting a PC version of the game and they only got a mobile version. Not only that, after showing their disappointment, the Diablo team doubled down and questioned the fans “Do you guys not have phones?”. The team totally missed the point and lost a lot of fans that day.
Sports Team Mentality – Us Versus Them
Now we will look at cult followings outside of brands. At its extreme, the brand becomes their entire identity. Their entire lifestyle revolves around the brand and they will defend it against attacks or back it when the brand has made a mistake. As it is their entire identity, it is hard to admit that the brand is wrong as it can mean that they are wrong. They will double down instead of admitting that they are wrong. There is no longer right and wrong, just us and them.
It might be good for the brand at the beginning, but once the emotions, especially hate, run wild, it can be hard to influence the followers anymore as the hate will take a life on its own.
An example would be Trump asking his fans to get vaccinated when the number of infections and deaths keep increasing. He got booed and then he tried to backtrack his statement. When the message sent is vastly different from the past propaganda, the fans might even turn on their leader since admitting that they are wrong is almost impossible when it is their entire identity.
Cult followings not only apply to brands and fuel consumption but more importantly, will apply to politics, religions or even ideologies like liberal vs conservative. We are experiencing a rise of nationalism, which rejects people that are not the same as us. This can be very dangerous as we see the rise of terrorism, a divisive society and even a move away from globalization.
Cult followings are so powerful as the followers are fiercely loyal and are willing to do almost anything to help their brand. There are certain characteristics that a cult following has. With such a strong fandom, it can also be a double-edged sword when the brand can no longer control its followers when they take a life of their own, especially when it pertains to religion, politics and ideologies.
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