Seven premium branding lessons you can’t miss

Notes from fashion’s new cult


It started when my boss commented that “you’re not supposed to wash them for six months,” as if they were a sacred artifact. But beyond his words, it was the tone that struck me: the calmly superior air of the enlightened.

I’d noticed, but not had a name for, the growing phenomenon of trendoids rolling up their jeans to show the cuff; typically the thread wasn’t the usual gold color, but red, white, black, or navy. And then I discovered the password to this new secret society: selvedge (a contraction of “self edge,” the finished seam of a denim that can only be made on rare and expensive shuttle looms).

Since inspiring such passion is the Holy Grail in marketing, I’ve noted seven parallels between selvedge and religion — and seven lessons for cultivating a premium brand.

Parallel 1: shared virtues of ritual and tradition

Mormons sacrifice two years to doing mission work; Selvedgeites sacrifice initial comfort for eventual uniqueness and alleged durability. Mormons don’t drink alcohol; selvedgeites don’t wash their jeans for as long as possible.

Lesson 1: create a ritual around your product, and celebrate those who follow it — not simply customer product photos, for example, but stories of model believers. (See also: audiophiles and listening to vinyl.)

Parallel 2: emotional decisions rationalized to themselves and others

Muslims believe that Mohammed ascended into heaven from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, while Catholics pray to the Virgin Mary. Selvedgeites believe that their jeans won’t fray like regular ones will, that each pair is a canvas that paints itself, that it’s not about fashion, it’s about caring to own a properly-made garment.

Lesson 2: share a history and mythology to give customers a story to relate to outsiders, and reassure themselves. (Third-wave coffee, micro-distilleries, and custom knives are other categories that excel in this.)

Parallel 3: specialized vocabulary to describe the intricacies of belief

Christians might discuss inerrancy, transubstantiation, the consistory, Cessationism, or other polysyllabic puzzlers; Selvedgeites will talk about about whiskers, roping, gradients, honeycombs, and other terms meaningless to the average jeans-wearer.

Lesson 3: develop a unique vocabulary to give devotées a way to distinguish themselves from casual customers. (The existence of a substantial linguistic subculture reliably distinguishes any passion product — cigars for example — from merely functional ones.)

Parallel 4: prescribing arbitrary behaviors to indicate loyalty

Hindus avoid eating meat, and make pilgrimages to wash themselves in the Ganges river. Selvedgeites avoid putting their jeans in the wash, and make pilgrimages of many days seeing who can not wash their jeans the longest.

Lesson: come up with rules regarding The Proper Way to Use Your Product, to create the requisite sense of importance and instill pride of devotion. (See also: absinthe.)

Parallel 5: visual cues which signal fellow believers

Sikhs wear turbans, Jews the yarmulke, and Muslims the head scarf. Selvedgeites wear the rolled cuff.

Lesson: come up with signals — visual or otherwise — for your inner-circle customers to recognize each other, to give them the clubby, secret-handshake feeling. (The original iPod billboards were an outstanding example.)

Parallel 6: investing everyday items with unique symbolism

For Christians, bread and wine are transformed from food and drink into a representation of forgiveness from sins. For Selvedgeites, jeans are transformed from blue-collar workwear to near-sacred symbol of their escape from mass-produced denim purgatory.

Lesson: make using your product about something more. Humans are questing for meaning in life, and a unique product story addresses this need. Luxury watchmakers do well with this.)

Parallel 7: sacred gathering places with exclusivity and etiquette

Muslims go to mosques; Buddhists and Hindus go to temples; Jews go to shul. Upon entering, believers may take off shoes, cross themselves, burn incense, recite prayers, or give an offering. Selvedgeites gather in wear galleries and forums, where they worship photos, show their shoes, and recite stories.

Lesson: create holy ground for your true believers, with an implicit code of conduct, to reinforce the sense of belonging for initiates, and show outsiders the distinctiveness of the community. (In consumer electronics, the unboxing video is hallowed ground.)

Are there more parallels between selvedge and religion? Have you had success creating a cult around your product? Please let me know in the comments, and happy branding and community-building!

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