Cult Wars: The Making of a Cult Brand

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Why do people camp outside the Apple Store days ahead of an iPhone launch? What makes users swear by Superhuman over Gmail? Why do thousands pledge allegiance to Dave Portnoy as he mints a new generation of day traders? What goes through the minds of people who tattoo the Liquid Death logo on their flesh in their quest to “murder their thurst”?

Cults have been around for generations and are typically viewed as harmful organizations that spew dangerous beliefs and rhetoric to their followers. However, the psychology that drives the most successful cults can be incredibly powerful in brand building. There has been a meteoric rise in cult brands that play at a higher level than their peers; brands that infuse their followers with a great sense of pride and purpose who then go beyond rationality to see their brand win.

Notable companies such as Apple, Harley Davidson, Lululemon, and Tesla have paved the way for younger startups like Superhuman, Robinhood, Lemonade, Fast, and Lambda School, among others, to rise up and build an army of loyal followers. These cult brands don’t just play at a higher level. When executed properly, cult brands become powerful institutions that deeply influence how their followers view the world, spend money, and even behave in public.

Becoming a cult brand doesn’t happen by accident; in fact, it’s incredibly intentional. I’ve long considered myself a student of cult brands, carefully studying how they launch, rise above their competitors, and rally their followers. In this piece, we’ll analyze the psychology behind cult brands and the strategy towards becoming one.

Create An Enemy

At the center of every cult brand is an enemy; a manifestation of spoken and subliminal messages, ideas, and beliefs that highlight how this brand is radically different from the rest.

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These enemies embody the despised status quo that people tolerate because of the lack of alternatives.

  • When Superhuman launched, they took aim at the dreaded inbox that takes forever to conquer and declared themselves as the fastest email experience ever made.”
  • Lemonade faced off against the traditional insurance industry, well-known for its misaligned incentives and painful claims process. Lemonade set the stage by delightfully challenging us to forget everything we know about insurance.
  • Fast waged war on the most hated user journey on the internet: passwords and check out. Fast has become our savior, relieving us of the tedious and painful login and checkout process, even without a product in-market.

Great enemies have the perfect balance between being well-known and familiar, yet rarely admired. And the most clever enemies are broad enough for each follower to visualize a manifestation of the enemy on their own.

In fact, defining the enemy is often the most important step towards becoming a cult brand, especially in markets with just a few players. In the late ’90s, Apple’s famous “Think Different” campaign helped start the movement of picking sides: “I’m a Mac, you’re a PC.” The paradigm continues today as “are you Notion or Roam,” not “which workspace tool do you use?” Enemies are meant to clarify and divide people. They create wedges for followers to stake their claim as Copilot vs. Mint, Superhuman vs. Gmail, Dave Portnoy vs. Warren Buffet. If your enemy doesn’t polarize and cause debate, you haven’t landed on the right one yet.

[Sidenote: In late 2018, State Farm created an attack ad mocking the new wave of tech-forward insurance companies. While the ad didn’t name any particular brand, Lemonade took the initiative to insert themselves as the victim of State Farm’s attack. Lemonade’s genius quick thinking to play the “victim card” resulted in thousands of people fighting for them on Twitter, bashing State Farm, and joining as new followers and paying customers.]

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Build The Velvet Rope

Have you ever wondered what makes someone join a cult? In reality, there’s little difference between joining a religious cult and a brand cult. In his book “The Culting of Brands,” Douglas Atkins notes a theory called the “Cult Paradox,” which highlights that people feel most like themselves when they are part of a group; however, the initial drive to join a cult is to discover and clarify one’s individualism, not to find a sense of belonging among others.

This paradox is crucial for understanding how most cult brands are built. When crafting a cult, brands often create a velvet rope, an exclusivity ring promoted by influencers or notable personalities who spread the gospel of the brand. New members join because they strive to align their self-image with the influencer on their quest to discover their true identity, and only afterward connect to the ideology that drives the cult brand.

These velvet ropes come in different shapes and sizes, but most share a common theme of “FOMO” that drives new membership. New members feel an internal surge of excitement and a sense of urgency to align themselves with their role models and idols. (more on that here)

While there are exceptions to every rule, brands that successfully create a velvet rope are often able to drive “new converts” to their cult brand dramatically faster than people joining by first identifying with the brand’s mission.

Sketch The Commitment Curve

The next step in crafting a cult brand is to sketch the commitment curve, the blueprint of how to recruit converts and empower them to become powerful promoters.

The more we invest in a cause, the more we feel a sense of belonging towards it. This understanding of the consumer psyche is critical for brands striving to become cult brands. The more new converts feel invested, the more they will fight for its success.

To map this out, brands often create commitment curves that visualize the roadmap of actions for new converts to take on their road towards becoming the ultimate brand fanatics.

Here’s an example of what a commitment curve might look like for Lemonade:

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In Lemonade’s commitment curve, they encourage converts to continuously interact with their radically different business model, quote and claims process, and delightful content. At each step of the curve, the convert gains more insight into the inner workings of the company and discovers more reasons to fall in love with the brand. Each interaction is carefully curated to highlight why Lemonade is radically different from the rest.

Lemonade also encourages converts to publicly share their impressions of the brand and how delightful it is (see here), which labels converts as early adopters, or even contrarians, that value the shake-up in the status quo. Similarly, Lambda School’s students famously celebrate their enrollment, learnings, and job offers publicly, and at times are encouraged to respond to critical posts with positive testimonials. These tactics work wonders for bringing new folks into the fold as the hype loop perpetuates potential converts to discover, interact, and join.

It’s important to remember that commitment curves are more of an art than a science. For some cult brands, a milestone could be interacting with the brand on Twitter, sharing a selfie with the product, or simply rallying the troops by building in public (see how Fast does it here). The beauty of the commitment curve is that it is an ever-changing map that defines how converts discover and fall in love with brands. The best cult brands consistently iterate their commitment curves, offering converts more targeted and unique opportunities to show their loyalty to the brand.

(Sidenote: I can’t imagine that Mike Cessario, Liquid Death’s founder and CEO imagined a dot on his commitment curve that included followers tattooing themselves with the company’s logo. The moral of the story is clear: brands need to keep their ears to the ground to spot cult-driven trends as they unfold.)

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Welcome To Cult Status

Throughout the process of creating an enemy, building a velvet rope strategy, and crafting a commitment curve, it’s important to understand what success looks like and how to determine if your brand has reached cult status.

When discovering a new cult brand, there are a handful of markers that point to whether or not a brand has reached cult status, or whether they are even on their way towards it.

Who’s The Enemy?

  • Can you visualize the enemy?
  • Is the enemy a well-known ideology, company, or individual that is despised or rarely admired by a core group of people?
  • Is this brand radically different from the rest?

How Thick Is The Velvet Rope?

  • Which influencers are talking about the brand?
  • At what rate are influencers onboarding other influencers, thus perpetuating a cycle of hype?
  • Given the public persona of the brand, how likely is it that this will explode?

What’s Behind The Dots?

  • Is there an irrational level of consumer loyalty?
  • Are there clever opportunities to transform converts from followers to fanatics?
  • Do converts stick up for the brand in public and make it their business to shower the brand with love every chance they get?

Another important metric is asking “who is the cult’s leader?” All good cults have a cult leader. Tesla’s cult is driven by Elon Musk, Lambda School’s cult is driven by Austen Allred, 100Thieves’ cult is driven by Nadeshot, Barstool’s cult is driven by Dave Portnoy, Roam’s cult is driven by Conor White-Sullivan, and the list goes on. Good cults are always driven by cult leaders who aren’t afraid to be the voice and face of the brand. These leaders are polarizing individuals that complement the brand’s cult status.

The more you dive into these questions, the clearer it will become if a particular brand has the momentum towards achieving cult status.

Cult brands come and go. There’s a long list of brands that have reached cult status with loyal followers deeply and irrationally committed to their success… only to watch it disappear.

Achieving cult status is just the beginning of the journey. The goal then quickly shifts from building the following to stoking the flames that keep the cult thriving. And while there are brands that stumble into their coveted cult status, the only way to make it last is with extreme intentionality, remaining true to radical differences, and rewarding followers for their irrational loyalty.

So, what’s the takeaway? Great cult brands drive wedges between schools of thought, alliances, communities, ideologies, and even other brands. They do this by spreading their radical differences with those searching for individualism. Ultimately, with a lot of luck and incredible attention to detail, these select few cult brands become a destination for their followers to belong, thrive, and fight for their cause. Once you’ve reached that coveted cult brand status, hold on and never let go.

Thank you to Alex Kantrowitz, David Stark, Blake Robbins, Gaby Goldberg, Cory Moelis, and Domm Holland for reading earlier versions and helping me get it across the finish line!

Written by

investor and startup helper @GroundUpVC, angel investor.

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