Image credit: Barbie (2023), Warner Bros.

In a BBC article entitled ‘What rockets a brand into cult following status?’, Lillian Stone explores how ‘savvy marketing and a little serendipity’ can help brands reach unprecedented success.

Stone begins by defining cult status: this is where brands reach a level of fandom so great that it becomes a lifestyle. Stone uses last year’s Barbie film as an example:

Director Greta Gerwig’s Barbie film has surpassed the $1bn (£790bn) mark at the global box office. Yet fans aren’t just lining up for tickets, they’re also clamouring for “Barbiecore” fashion, air travel bearing the Barbie logo and even Barbie-themed coffins.

Barbie is a particularly remarkable example, due to the fact that the brand has remained popular for over six decades.

It’s certainly not the only brand with a wildly devoted following, but the skyrocketing Barbie obsession is playing out in real-time, giving consumers and marketers alike access to a case study of cult fandom in action.

Stone writes that a brand achieves cult status due to ‘a mix of strategic marketing, intimate consumer messaging and some right-place-right-time magic’. And Barbie is just one of the iconic brands that has reached this status.

Building community

Apple is another example of a brand with a thriving fandom.

Among the brands with the most recognisable cult followings is Apple, with fans who have lauded the company since its founding in the 1970s. Leander Kahney’s 2009 book, The Cult of Mac, explores the company’s meteoric rise into the phenomenon status it has today – it’s even been updated to a second edition as that fandom has grown. One anthropologist likened its following to a religion.

Following a religion can impact how an individual lives their life: from what they eat, to what clothes they wear, to how they spend their time. The reason for this is because their faith compels them to remain devoted. Similarly, individuals can become fiercely devoted to brands that offer them a feeling of fulfilment.

Rhea Freeman, a UK-based PR adviser, is a self-proclaimed member of the Apple cult. “I am committed to the brand and don’t see a time when I would buy a non-Apple computer or phone or tablet,” says Freeman. “I keep an eye on the latest developments, look for new releases and do also have a huge interest in the leadership, the marketing, the branding and the messaging.”

The sentiment of remaining loyal to one brand, forsaking all competitors, is – in part – induced when brands become part of an aspirational lifestyle.

Freeman maintains her appreciation for Apple products goes far beyond product affinity – it’s an integral part of her lifestyle. “The thing with Apple is it’s not just a product or a brand,” she says. “Every aspect of it has been well thought through to bring delight to the purchaser from start to use, to inspire loyalty, to create that cult following. And it’s done in a seemingly effortless way.”

However, ‘effortless’ is far from the truth.

Susan Fournier, the Allen Questrom Professor and Dean at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, says there’s nothing effortless about it. Fournier explains cult brands carefully tap into the consumer psyche to become closely intertwined with fans’ lifestyles, adding that these companies don’t just sell products – they tap into a “resonant cultural theme”.

She cites American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson as an enduring example, noting the brand goes beyond an “isolated sliver of consumer behaviour” to market a distinct lifestyle. “You see people riding with friends, you see the emergence of [branded] clothing – it becomes how you look, who you hang out with, what you believe in,” she says.

Amanda Montell, author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, says that cult brands provide a sense of community for consumers: ‘a transcendent promise’ beyond the product itself. A promise of this kind can help win over even the least loyal customers.

“Millennial [and Gen Z] consumers in particular are the least brand-loyal of any generation of consumer,” says Montell, explaining that younger consumers are quick to sniff out “marketing malarkey”. She notes that, to strike gold with those more sceptical buyers, brands must promise something more: “That by affiliating with, for example, this makeup line or even just this single makeup product, you will be a better you.”

According to Montell, this ‘promise’ helps consumers to navigate the overwhelming amount of choice that is available to them.

“On social media, we’re able to see infinite options of where our life could go,” she says, arguing that the seemingly endless choices create an overwhelming chooser’s paradox. “When a brand enters the picture and offers a template for who you should be and what choices you should make, that feels really satisfying and nurturing.”

This element of ‘nurture’ can feel intimate and meaningful. Claudio Alverez, who is an assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University’s Hankamer School of Business, compares the feeling consumers experience with cult brands to ‘the feeling of being with a friend’.

When a community of devoted consumers form around a brand, becoming a part of this community adds an extra layer of connection and loyalty.

These positive feelings can understandably lead to increased loyalty, giving these brands staying power.

“People want to share their love of the brand with other members of the community, generating word-of-mouth and creating online content related to the brand,” says Alvarez. “They want more people to know and like the brand – to become part of the community.”

‘The cult economy’

Cult brands aren’t just money makers; they’re also major economic drivers.

Stone notes that there is a multi-generational element to the success of the Barbie brand. This is evident in the collector economy: long-time Barbie doll collectors have noticed ‘a spike in doll-appraisal activity’ since the release of Gerwig’s film.

Apple, too, helps drive the economy:

Apple Inc is among the tech stocks responsible for a significant portion of the US stock market’s 2023 gains. While the company reported sales slumped a bit in its third fiscal quarter earnings, its shares hit an all-time high in June, prior to the tech giant’s annual developer conference, where brand stakeholders announced highly anticipated products including the $3,499 (£2,759) Vision Pro augmented-reality headset.

Stone uses Taylor Swift as yet another example: since some experts estimate that the Eras tour will generate £3.9bn for local economies across the world.

As “Swifties” have flooded stadiums – and the surrounding hotels and commercial zones – Swift’s economic influence has been lauded by state lawmakers, tourism experts and federal bank representatives alike.

In closing, Stone writes:

In an economy where consumer choice can seem more than overwhelming, achieving cult status may be one of a brand’s few chances at lasting success – be it toys, technology or motorcycles. When even the most mundane products offer an identity promise, brands must transcend the noise and find ways to meaningfully connect with an increasingly sceptical consumer base.

Now, it seems, a marketing plan needn’t only sell a product – the best ones, say experts, tout a lifestyle, complete with promises of community and even self-improvement. Bonus points if the campaign includes Barbie pink.

If you need help creating a brand that’s primed for cult success, pink or otherwise, get in touch. We’d love to help.

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