Going From Brand to Religion

My wife K is a member of a cult. As a loyal member, she never gives up an opportunity to proselytize. Over the years, she has recruited our sons and most of her friends into her religion.

The cult she belongs to is represented by a symbol. It has distinct colors. It has a special language that other cult members recognize. They love their religion. They worship at its altars. They sing its praises. They believe that anyone who is not a member of their cult is silly, stupid, or foolish. And they will argue with you if you say one word against it.

When this cult asks for contributions, they give and will give again. They are happy to do it because it confirms in their minds that they have chosen the right moral path. To give, for them, is infinitely better than to receive.

I am talking about the Apple computer cult. My wife and children are Apple users. And though I have happily used PCs for many years, I can feel the day coming when I will yield to their influence and join them on the higher ground.

Apple is probably the best example of a brand that has achieved cult status, but there are others. LL Bean is one. So is Oprah. And The Grateful Dead. Volkswagen is another. Star Trek is another. BMW is halfway between a brand and a cult. So is Mercedes. And Juicy Couture. And Polo.

The difference between a brand and a cult is the level of passion its customers feel about its products. That passion translates into making easier front-end sales, more back-end sales, and far fewer refunds. It also means more word-of-mouth sales, fewer public relations problems, and higher customer satisfaction.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could turn your customers into fanatics? Wouldn’t it be terrific if they were so loyal to you that they would never even think of buying a product from one of your competitors?

How cool would it be if your customers fervently defended you against any and all criticism? How much richer would you be if your customers actively promoted your products to everyone they knew?

If you are wondering how you could turn your business into a cult, you are thinking smart. It’s not easy to create a cult brand – especially for a small-businessperson – but the closer you can get to it the more successful you will be.

So what does it take?

That’s what we’ll talk about today. I don’t have all the answers. (If I did, ETR would already be a cult.) But I’ll tell you a few of the things I’ve figured out, and you can let me know if you have other ideas. Together, we can figure this out.

The first thing that comes to mind is that most cults have charismatic leaders. I’m not sure how well this applies to businesses, though. Steve Jobs is interesting, but I’d hardly call him charismatic. Still, there certainly are examples of strong personalities in the information-publishing industry.

One of the most successful investment newsletter writers back in the 1980s was Howard Ruff. He was a Mormon conservative from Utah who believed that the road to salvation was paved in gold: gold bullion and gold mining stocks. He was immensely popular in his day, with more than 100,000 subscribers to “Ruff Times” who did virtually everything he said. They bought all his products – even the record he made singing hymns and inspirational songs. And they kept renewing his newsletter despite the fact that he had a very bad record of picking stocks.

They loved him because he espoused an idea they had about the world – that it was going to hell in a liberal handbasket and that those who stuck with “hard money” would eventually be saved. He was a brilliant writer. He spoke clearly. He articulated a strong point of view. He was both humble and megalomaniacal. He was, in short, a guru.

I can name a dozen super-successful investment advisors who have since fit into that mold. Doug Casey, Jim Davidson, John King, Steve Sjuggerud, and Porter Stansberry, for example.

Dr. Robert Atkins was the Howard Ruff of the alternative health publishing industry. He was a visionary as well as an immensely gifted communicator. He challenged the American Medical Association power structure by advocating a low-carb diet. He was pilloried in the press but adored by his following. Eventually, he was proven right.

Following in his footsteps were Andrew Weil, Julian Whitaker, Joseph Mercola, Al Sears, and Mike Adams – each with his own unique view of how to achieve perfect health through natural medicine. And they all became very wealthy by developing fanatically loyal followings that bought virtually everything they sold.

So that is one element of cult-like branding: having a charismatic visionary to spread the word.

But not every cult-like brand has a guru at the top. Who knows who heads up LL Bean? Who can name the mind behind BMW?

The Oxford Club is an example of a very strong brand (not quite a cult, but getting there) that doesn’t have a single guru. But it has always had very good thinkers at the helm of its investment advisory panel. And its members seem to respond to them serially, which means that something else is at play.

What’s working for the Oxford Club – and I’d call this the second most important element of cultish branding – is a worldview that is contained within the unique selling proposition of the product franchise. In the case of the Oxford Club, it is the view that the world of investing is unfairly tipped toward the elite and only by associating yourself with elite investors can you hope to achieve the investment results the elite enjoy.

LL Bean doesn’t have a guru at its helm, but it definitely projects an image of how to dress for success. It is practical. It is outdoorsy. It is quality. Every time an LL Bean buyer slips on a moccasin, he feels that he is making a statement about himself as a practical, outdoorsy, and quality person.

Think about your company and the products it sells. Is it clear to your customers what worldview it expresses?

Another element of cultishness is language. Religions use unique terminology when referring to important concepts. These shibboleths are well known to the faithful but mysterious to outsiders, which lends them a magical power that ordinary words wouldn’t have.

A very successful financial guru named Harry Schultz practically created his own language when talking about economics and investing, including unusual spelling that was difficult for the uninitiated to interpret. Bill Bonner does a good job of this in his Daily Reckoning with neologisms like “lumpeninvestorat” (to describe the average “dimwitted” investor) that his readers understand and enjoy.

Matt Furey uses a mix of Chinese and wrestling terms to keep his readers linked to him. And Jim Cramer has a unique vocabulary that millions of Americans relate to. Cramer also has a host of little rituals – like clanging bells and whistles – that have become part of the cultish nature of his mega-popular TV show.

That’s another thing most cultish brands have in common. Ritualistic tools and symbols that eventually become closely associated with the big message and provide followers with Pavlov-like stimuli. The guru will use them when needed to evoke an emotional response. His followers can’t help but respond on cue.

Religions and religious cults have fundamental tenets. (Heavens Gate members believed that the Earth was about to be “recycled.” Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. Scientologists believe that souls are reincarnated.) They also have traditions. (Orthodox Jews walk to Temple on the High Holy Days. Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Mormons wear special temple garments under their clothing.)

Cultish brands can create tenets and traditions too – prevailing beliefs and ritualistic actions that come to have symbolic meaning. When such actions are tied to products, the result is instantaneous sales. In the 1960s, for instance, fans of The Grateful Dead would follow the band around the country, trying to attend as many shows as possible. Some “Deadheads” even started selling food and clothing at Grateful Dead concerts to finance their pilgrimages, and freely exchanged recordings of past live performances.

Apple lovers are very anti-PC. They will always spring for the updated model of the iPod, iPhone, etc., waiting in line for hours on release day if necessary.

Oprah fans buy anything she recommends, propelling books high up the bestseller lists and crashing websites with a rush of orders.

These are some of the elements of cults that can be put to work for your business. I’ve been thinking about how to make them work for my clients, and I have a few suggestions for you:

  • The guru must be authentic. He must believe he has a better way to live, and he must be able to continuously recreate his vision in the form of new and interesting products.
  • The worldview of the franchise must be one that is both emotionally compelling and intellectually avant garde. It has to provide a sense that this is a new and better way to live. It must be forward thinking but not too far “out there.” It must be a tipping point worldview. Then it will sell.
  • The language and rituals and tenets of the brand must be easy to understand and fun to use. Most developed religions lose the fun of their franchises over time. But when they start out and bring in loads of new believers they are always, in some way, fun.

That’s what I have so far.

What do you think helps transform a brand into a cult? Let me know what you think right here, and we’ll figure out how to build on our ideas and make your business a little Apple or LL Bean.

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]

Mark Morgan Ford

Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Wealth Builders Club. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.