Within the world of branding and marketing we’re often asked to try and think of ways to increase penetration, awareness and to increase loyalty to the extent of evangelism. This can sometimes be a difficult thing to do, especially as in the world in which we’re living we are constantly bombarded with conflicting and contrasting information about what to buy etc. And these arguments (both rational and emotional) surrounding what we should buy have recently reached a new level. I mean after all, surely there’s a limit to how much meaning you can instill into a soft drink, especially if there’s discontinuity between what you’re advertising and communicating, and how the wider brand and company behaves – Pepsi, I’m looking at you.
However, there is a world in which unwavering belief and complete loyalty are seen as core norms, and that is in the world of cults.
A cult, as defined by Douglas Atkin in his book ‘The Culting of Brands’ is:
‘A group of movement exhibiting a great devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing. It is normally innovative in its ideology, exhibits an acute sense of belonging to a well-defined community, enjoys exclusive devotion (that is, not shared with another group) and often enjoys voluntary advocacy on the part of its members’
Sounds like a dream for any brand right?
Within this post we’ll look at why people join cults and the techniques that cults use to acquire new converts, and what the world of branding and marketing can learn from it.
Who would join a cult?
One of the main misconceptions surrounding cults is that they’re a safe-haven that is exclusively sought after by disillusioned and vulnerable individuals – those who are so broken by society that they must seclude themselves from wider society. The issue with this is that the main source of conversion, is that of charismatic protelysation. How would cults grow to the size that they do (the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stands at over 16 million members worldwide) if they were populated by truly anti-social individuals who weren’t particularly charismatic? Furthermore there has been numerous sociological studies that show that cult followers aren’t psychologically weak people, but indeed come from a broad variety of backgrounds.
According to Douglas Atken there are 4 steps to joining a cult:
- An individual may feel that they’re different or alienated from the world around them
- This then leads to a sense of open mindedness
- They try to find somewhere in which their difference is actively celebrated
- This in turn leads to joining and self actualisation.
Another important nuance that is central to Atkin’s work is that the joining of cults is not synonymous with the surrendering of individualism. In fact, it is a celebration of it. By joining a cult individuals are allowed to be more different and individual. It is this crystallisation of identity that is one of the most compelling reasons to join a cult.
How do cults get people to join them?
The charismatic protelysation is only one of the many tools that cults have to convince people to join them. Another is the idea of ‘love bombing’. Love bombing is ‘the practice of overwhelming someone with signs of adoration and attraction’. This was a technique used by members of the Unification Church (or the Moonies), and helped to create an atmosphere in which the new member or potential convert would feel welcomed and in which their difference was celebrated.
This is similar to the idea of ‘Hot-housing’ which is a technique that Mormons use in their recruitment. Both tools lead to quickly making close bonds between potential converts and the cult itself, and present the ideas that formulate the cult within the context of unadulterated love. This then means that the idea of joining the cult is now presented by your new friends, and to turn one’s back on the cult is to turn your back on your friends – an idea that makes many people uncomfortable.
Finally, the very nature of a cult will lead to alienation. Cults know that they do not appeal to everyone, and that they don’t need to. It is the very nature of being familiar yet different that helps to entice people to join them. If they were the same as the rest of the society in which those individuals felt alienated from, then their membership would be nonexistent.
So what can brands learn from this?
- Your consumers are the best tools for converting other individuals. You don’t need to build fake friendships in order to convince people to buy into your worldview and to try your product, the best people to do this are your consumers. Therefore a customer centric strategy and great customer service is key to getting these people to proselytise the wonder that is your brand.
- Don’t be afraid to alienate people. The old adage of ‘when you speak to everyone you speak to no-one’, is one that definitely still holds true.
- Hold a world view or have a brand meaning. This is truly your moat, and acts as your point of differentiation from other brands that may sell the same or similar products.
- Don’t be afraid to hold a worldview/view that is distinct. There is a fine line that needs to be carefully followed with this. If you’re too distinct and out there you’re completely unfamiliar and so will only be tried by a small number of people, but if you’re just the same as everyone else, you’re irrelevant.