Afraid Of Joining A Cult? Consider Creating One Around Your Startup’s Brand.

January 23, 2017

According to Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2016 Rankings, Apple, Google and Coca-Cola have the world’s most valuable brands valued at $178B, $133B and $73B respectively (Best Global Brands 2016 , 2016).  These Fortune 500 companies have invested millions to build goodwill with consumers that enable brand owners to charge a premium for their products and services.  How do you compete with titans that spend more on social media in a day than your startup spends on sushi in a year?  Guerrillapreneurs know that matching titans dollar-for-dollar in mass market spending is insane.  Instead, Guerrillapreneurs seek to build a viral, if not cultish, following by cultivating a brand identity around a core set of values that converts casual customers into fanatics.  Why?  Guerrillapreneurs by definition are revolutionaries, and we build our businesses on disruptive “Slingshot Technology” that when deployed levels the playing field with corporate giants.  The marketing savings is vital to Guerrillapreneurs’ ability to fight protracted ground wars against corporate giants.  Because Guerrillapreneurs are constantly storming the gates of accepted industry practices, we recruit customer disciples who are willing to stand in line overnight to purchase our company’s latest innovations and spread our revolutionary message to non-believers.  Guerrillapreneurs use cult-branding tactics to build a fanatical following at a fraction of the cost it takes corporate giants to attract the attention of that same audience. 


Apple, Snapple, Ben & Jerry’s, Corvette, Lululemon, Linux, Zappos, and Harley Davidson are one-time startups turned titans who used cult-branding tactics.  They embraced the fanaticism and turned control of the brand’s energy over to consumer devotees who were willing to take a leap of faith before the company had become a household name.  If you have a zillion dollars to invest in marketing, you can skip the rest of this article.  However, if you are like the rest of the entrepreneurial world, you need to conserve cash to invest in disruptive innovations and creating a cult around your startup brand may be the way to accomplish it.  Now, put on your Jedi robes and chant the seven (7) steps for building a disruptive Guerrillapreneur cult brand.
 

  1. Make your brand stand for something greater than profits

The quest for profits cannot be the sole reason your startup exists.  People want to believe in something greater than themselves.  As Moulder from the X-Files is known to frequently say, “I want to believe.”  When leaders tap into this energy, movements can be created in which individuals are willing to accept conditions that are not in their best interest in order to support the broader ideals of the movement.  “Yes We Can” and “Make America Great Again” are presidential slogans that catapulted political novices into the White House because citizens accepted the collective ideals of the Movements as something bigger than the individual. 


Facing stiff competition from foreign sports cars, Corvette Stingray associated itself with John F. Kennedy’s Space program and the original space cowboys who landed on the moon by giving each of them a free car.The message was clear, drive a Corvette and be a “rocket man.”Early in Nike’s inception, the shoe company hitched its image to the “coolness” of young brand ambassador athletes.As profits increased, Nike replicated the “Be Like Me” strategy by signing the ultimate cool kid, Michael Jordan, to a shoe contract.


If you hope to dethrone a corporate giant, make sure your brand stands for something, or your customers will fall for another competitor’s product.
 

    2. Create a right of passage for your fanatics
 

Startups cannot afford to buy customers using discounts or persuade them with million dollar advertising budgets.  By fostering a belief that by purchasing a product a customer is joining a secret club, startups can filter out non-believers and stretch their marketing budget through word-of-mouth sales.  Secret clubs have secret handshakes, and those who do not know the grip are easily found out as frauds when they knock at the front door.  Cult brands empower followers to create rituals that can be passed from generation to generation.  True Star Wars fanatics can spot other fanatics based on the number of Yoda quotes they can recite.  Not to be outdone, Trekkies flaunt their Star Trek quotes as a badge of honor at every Dragon Con (“Live long and prosper”).  Berkshire Hathaway hosts fireside chat style annual meetings led by its tribal leader, Warren Buffett.  The right of passage to participate in the annual Omaha gathering, the $223,000 price per share investors must pay to own a piece of the company.  Buffett refuses to split his shares to reduce the price per share because he wants long-term shareholders who believe in his buy-and-hold strategy. 
 

You may think that a right of passage is archaic; however, a 2013 study by the Association for Psychological Science entitled “Rituals Enhance Consumption,” indicated that customers who participate in ritualized behavior enjoy their brand experience more than those customer who perform random gestures  (Kathleen D. Vohs, 2013).  Moreover, the study also found that “a delay between a ritual and the opportunity to consume heightens enjoyment, which attests to the idea that ritual behavior stimulates goal-directed action (Kathleen D. Vohs, 2013).”  What does all this mean?  In 2009, I took my daughter to Disneyland’s Star Trader and helped her construct her first lightsaber.  After we saw Force Awakens, I asked her, “are you going to make your kid a lightsaber?”  She just smiled.  I am certain that the lightsaber ritual took place millions of times around the world between 2009 and 2017 and with it, the love for Star Wars and family were passed from one generation to the next.  Make your brand mean more than profits and your story will be heard for generations. 
 

     3. Celebrate your customers’ fanaticism by hosting annual festivals, rituals, and events.

Ancient religions celebrated the summer and winter solstices because they believed those days marked a significant point in the struggle between light and darkness.  Cult brand celebrations have to take on the same level of significance if consumers are going to buy in lock, stock, and barrel.  Ben & Jerry’s, the beloved Vermont-based ice cream company, annual free ice cream cone give away is as much about celebrating community and pushing back against corporate greed as it is about marking the founding of the company.  Snapple’s ritual of putting quirky facts underneath the caps of every bottle of tea encourages their loyal customers to strive to be different.  Steve Jobs had members of the Apple Cult believing that they were locked in a battle of good vs. evil as they faced off against IBM (and later Microsoft).  MacWorld Expo, the annual conference where Apple zealots convened to celebrate Apple victories, reflected Jobs’ view of what the world should have been before the Microsoft-induced break in the time continuum.


Festivals are an important part of the ritualization of a brand’s history.If you fail to create an oral history, your brand’s story may be lost after a single generation.
 

     4. Empower your customers to share your brand’s core values with like-minded individuals

Ben & Jerry’s gives its Twitter followers the ability to direct where the Cow Mobile will go to deliver free ice cream.  The Linux operating system is the underdog to Microsoft.  What makes Linux different from Microsoft is that Linux is freeware that is maintained by a community of evangelical developers who preside over the code like Egyptian priests preparing a mummy for the journey to the underworld.  These developers ferociously protect their community while actively promoting their belief that software should be free.  When non-conforming developers try to profit from Linux without the sanctioned support, they band together to retain the community’s ideal.  

If you have shopped at any suburban grocery store during a weekday, then you know that Yoga is the new gluten free pizza based on the number of women walking around in Lululemon Yoga pants.  Lululemon has tapped into the energy of the Yoga movement by giving its customers a literal badge of honor (see the position of their logo on their Yoga pants) that they can show off on the milk aisle.  Lululemon zealots can renew their faith at retail stores where they are given an opportunity to take yoga classes with a local brand ambassador celebrity.  

When a startup’s brand ideals become as personalized as these examples, the company can attract devotees who aspire to your ideals even if they do not live them every day.  (You have seen women who don’t look like they do yoga wearing Lululemon’s pants or know people who haven’t attended college that have more Alabama paraphernalia than a freshman cheerleader.)  Empower your most loyal customers by giving them ownership over the life of your brand.  Give them the access to express how the brand will evolve and these devotees will reward your startup with thousands of like-minded followers.
 

     5. Renew brand energy with disruptive slingshot innovations that reinforce your brand’s identity. 

When Ben & Jerry’s release a new flavor, the internet reverberates like a bell.  I remember the day that Ben & Jerry’s flavor Chunky Monkey (banana ice cream with fudge chunks & walnuts) was announced.  I trampled a store clerk and a stocking associate to get my hands on a pint.  As I inhaled the frozen treat, I imagined what it must be like working in Ben & Jerry’s R&D kitchen.  Could it be the ice cream version of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory?  The fact that a grown man pondered these thoughts indicates that either I need to seek counseling and/or that brand disruptive innovations (Brand Miracles) renew one's faith in the ideals of the cult brand.  Do not think Brand Miracles are important to a startup’s fight against corporate titans?  Last year, Ben & Jerry’s announced a line of vegan ice cream and Chunky Monkey (my favorite flavor) was one of the first flavors converted for non-dairy customers.  Did Ben & Jerry’s violate its cult ideals?  No.  This Brand Miracle reinforced Ben & Jerry’s as an innovative and quirky company that cares about making the world a better and healthier place. 

If you are a child of the 80s, I bet you dollars to empty donut boxes that you jumped out of your seat when Steve Jobs introduced the first Apple computer.  Keep your hands raised if you repeated that same leap when Jobs made you believe during the announcement of the iPhone 4.  Today, Apple is the most valuable company on the planet, but its Cult has waited five years for the next Brand Miracle.  As Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s GoogleHome encroach on Apple’s virtual assistant turf, members of the Apple Cult are changing the color of their robes. 

A fire requires constant oxygen to keep the flames burning hot.
 

     6. Give your fanatics a symbol to rally behind
 

The San Diego Padres became one of my favorite teams during my childhood because of a mascot, the San Diego Chicken (now known as just the “the Famous Chicken).”  The Famous Chicken’s antics gave the team a personality in which fans could identify.  My friends and I imitated the Famous Chicken’s physical comedy during backyard pickup baseball games.  Mascots have that ability to broaden the appeal of brand ideals to a wider set of customer demographics.

As a fan of hamburgers, I list Ronald McDonald and Burger King as my next of kin on my life insurance documents.  Of course, what kid of the 80s does not remember seeing “Tony the Tiger” on every other commercial during our Saturday morning cartoons and then screaming, “They’re GREAT” in unison with the cartoon tiger.  As a cult brand owner, it is important that your startup team humanize and personalize your brand’s ideals into a symbol or a mascot with whom your devotee can identify. 
 

     7. Make sure all your social media functions as an ecosystem that speaks the same language as your core market

 

Chick fil A has one of the best-integrated offline and online media strategies in corporate America.Their billboards show cows in funny scenes encouraging consumers to eat more chicken.Chick fil A’s television commercials co

 

ntinue the same dialogue showing cows walking to the beat of “Staying Alive” while encouraging everyone to eat chicken instead of beef.Chick fil A’s website connects customers directly to the chicken products marketed by the cows.Once on the site, Chick fil A’s uses its online tools to offer new chicken product samples to customers (i.e., the spicy chicken sandwich).When samples are accepted, customers must use the website to schedule a time and place to pick up the free product instead of letting them walk into any store and redeem the offer.This approach gives Chick fil A three benefits: 1) an opt-in email list, 2) a method for balancing store workloads, and 3) consumer research derived from areas where redemptions occur.

Remember, your brand is only as strong as its weakest link.If one part of your cult media branding strategy is not linked, your ability to speak a common language to your followers may be compromised.

 

Are you afraid to join a cult?Do not join one.Start one for your brand.Personalize your mission.Give it a face and celebrate it annually with your most loyal customers.One final step.As your devotees reward you with profits, continuously invest them in disruptive Slingshot Technology to sustain your movement.
 

Keep fighting, Guerrillapreneurs.

______________________

Mark Peterson is an entrepreneur, lecturer, freelance writer, author of Guerrillapreneur: Small Business Strategies for Davids Wanting To Defeat Goliaths and host of the podcast Guerrillapreneur: The Art of Waging Small Business Warfare.  Peterson is also the Managing Executive of Ceyero Consulting Follow him @guerillapreneur or @ceyeroconsltg.

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