02 Apr How To Be A Cult Brand And Why You Should Care
Hi, I’m Dan and I’m obsessed with building cult brands 👋
I think the world would be a better place if more brands tried to bring purpose to what they do and be something bigger than just a product/service that brings greater impact to their community and beyond.
Plus from my very selfish perspective – the more you behave like a cult brand, the more stuff I have to talk about, the more your community engage with you and the easier it is to get the results you want.
I’ve spent years tracking what I consider to be shining examples of cult brands (not easy as there aren’t many).
If you start digging deeper there are certain key traits these brands have. It’s pretty rare to nail all of them and you REALLY have to be putting purpose above profit.
But every brand that inspires a cult like following, every one of them that has a line out the door every day, they’re doing most of these.
From my many conversations with the founders of food brands, many of you want to build more of a community and wish people engaged more with your story. But you don’t often don’t have the time or knowledge to make it happen.
This is how you do it.
The Cult Brand commandments
The TL:DR for those whose attention has been ruined by Tik Tok:
1. You have a great origins story
2. You’re obsessional about your product/service
3. You have a fanatical tribe of superfans because you show your appreciation regularly
4. You do things, you don’t just chat on social media
5. You take a strong position on issues
6. You communicate with radical transparency
7. You build a lifestyle around your values
8. You have fun and take risks
9. You break accepted industry norms
10. You use scarcity/exclusivity to build hype
First, let’s define what a cult brand is.
Cult [n] – someone or something that a particular group of people are very enthusiastic about but that most people do not like or know about.
a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
In its purest form a cult brand is one that inspires a fanatical devotion among its followers.
They take a lot of work to set up and then a lot of work to maintain because if your followers think you’re being fake or selling out, you’ve lost them forever.
But the rewards can be huge.
By making the world a better place through bringing your vision and values alive within your community.
For your business by building a customer base who will support you through the good times and bad and buy anything you put out whilst screaming about you to the world.
And let’s be honest, isn’t it nice to be recognised for all the hard work you do and what you’re trying to accomplish?
#1 You’ve got a great origins story
As someone who earns a crust by sharing people’s stories it is SO much easier when there is a great story to tell – both to come up with things to say and getting people to care and engage with my incredible storytelling skills😉
Let’s start with the example of Flat Iron whom I had the huge pleasure of working with to share their story.
So why did you start your steak restaurant? ‘I saw a gap in the market and thought doing affordable steaks for cheap would be a good way to make money’.
‘I became obsessed with making remarkable steak experiences open to everyone and break the accepted practice that you had to pay a hefty price for this.
So I spent a year researching every cut of meat possible and found the only way to democratise steak was to resurrect the much neglected flat iron cut. My obsession led me to creating my own herd in North Yorkshire so I could learn everything possible about what affects the flavour of beef…
….That herd ended up winning a World Steak Challenge gold medal.’
Which one sounds like a place you’d like to visit? Also which story are you more likely to share when describing your experience? Putting that magical word of mouth on steroids.
Behind every cult brand there is a great story born out of obsession. ALWAYS. The best branding people in the world can’t invent that.
It’s more than just a story though – it’s not just something to fill up social media posts and website ‘about’ pages. A story born out of obsession starts with your ‘why’ – everyone has one, sometimes you just need to spend some time digging to find it.
Why you started should be the base that all your principles and values come from (you have documented those, right??)
It’s the first step to show you’re not a faceless brand but humans trying to make good in the world. This is what shapes who you are, and makes your people, your tribe, think ‘they sound like my people’
And most importantly – you make my life easier 😉
TAKEAWAY: Go through your story again and at every juncture ask yourself ‘why’ A LOT. Why did you make that choice, why does it make you happy, why are you attracted to that market, why do you like the results it gets- what vision does that allow you to carry out ?
Want to go deeper? Also what you don’t like, what you stand against and why. Then put that back into your story – I promise you it will read so much better and make your people connect with you that much more. No one else has made the same choices as you which makes your business unique – celebrate that, don’t hide it.
One final thing – the more you can bring drama to your story, the highs and the lows, the more people will connect. Human, innit.
#2 Obsessional about your product/service
Which leads to…obsessional about not just creating an incredible product/service but continually improving it. Often at the expense of profits in the beginning. It’s never about making money but about creating the best product/service you can. Why? Well you can now answer that question from your story.
All the best cult brands never stop at improving the experience for their customers. No matter the cost, no matter what other great opportunities you have to say no to.
Hi, selfish storyteller again 👋 It makes my life so much easier. People don’t buy your product they buy your never ending process to perfection of both your product and service. Then someone like me has a lot of highly engaging, interesting things of value to talk about.
What might seem the boring, mundane thing you do day in day out is fascinating to your tribe so don’t be afraid to share your processes.
I’m going to dive back into Flat Iron here who are also known for their incredible chips.
They could say ‘Our triple fried chips are great’.
‘It took 128 batches before we finally found the right process to make our chips and we had to create our own dedicated chip kitchen for this. We found there was too much inconsistency using a variety of potatoes so we use a single variety potato from a single farm.
Each portion of chips goes through an hour long process – peel, hand cut, wash 4 times, soak, steam, blast chill, fry, blast chill again, package, freeze, fry and season. These give an incredible texture and taste that is worth every minute of the hard work.’
What sounds better to you? Now think about how your customers will share your story when you give them the tools like that.
TAKEAWAY: Are you sure you’re creating the best experience possible right now? Set some time, get a focus group of customers on Zoom in return for free food, listen to their feedback, test some ideas out on them and see if you can make one tweak or improvement based on the feedback. You get the bonus of doing some solid community building too.
THEN SHARE THE CRAP OUT OF IT!
#3 A fanatical tribe of superans
The people lining up outside Dishoom in the rain when everywhere else is empty, the ones buying all the Paynter jackets within hours of going on sale. The ones boring on about how they only buy XO sauce from Two Hot Asians (or is that just me?).
The ones who scream about you to the rest of the world and buy anything you have to sell.
If there is one thing that separates a cult brand from the rest, this is the one. Ask a cult brand what’s important to them and ‘building a community around our values’ is normally the result they seek from their efforts.
Community doesn’t just mean consumers. It means your suppliers, team, everyone that comes into contact with you.
Dishoom are not the only high quality modern Indian in town, E5 bakehouse is not the only provider of expensive pastries and Hiut Denim are not the only high quality denim in town – what makes people want to put themselves through hardship to get their products?
If you dig under the hood there is a lot more going on that makes people want to line up. It’s the sum of many smaller things going on and the result is a community who are emotionally connected to the business because it gives them meaning to support them and identity to share them.
There are many ways to build a community. This is but a fraction of them:
- Always be chatting to your customers and improving based on that. Show this as part of your process. It’s one thing to do a poll on stories its another to demonstrate you listened and acted on it
- Do this online and IRL
- Reward people who give you feedback – ultimately they’re helping you grow the business – give them respect for it
- Build this interactivity into your story. It’s such a cliche but so true – true social media is a conversation between humans not a broadcast to the masses from a faceless brand
- Surprise and delight at every point – go through ALL your customer touchpoints and get all Marie Kondo ‘Does it bring them joy?’ If not, how can it?
- Find a way to track your most loyal followers. Some restaurant superfans can bring in as many as 50 new people a year to your restaurant – reward them for that
- Reward the online ones too
- Banter online with your customers– be curious and ask them questions
- Do events – whether it’s a special tasting evening, a Zoom cook-along or a Q&A, celebrate your product bringing people together over a common purpose
- Find the people doing good in your local community – give them your time, money or product.
If you can build a community who then go on to build connections with each other based around your product/service, there is no higher place for a cult brand. Your mission is to give them the tools to facilitate that.
I’m going toot my own horn here – I wanted to do some customer research for my client CHIK’N. I also wanted to see what we could do to reward some of our really passionate fans. So I created a series of events called Chikfest for superfans and industry people where we tested out new menu items, got feedback and showed people a good time.
This was all done under radical transparency – no BS, we wanted to hear what our customers thought about the food and also the business in general and we’d do our best to show them a good time.
It’s hard to describe but there was a magic there watching people really connect and debate and discuss the different food. I didn’t realise it at the time but that was a tribe (that cut across all demographic lines) bonding over a shared passion.
TAKEAWAY: Have a think what you can do to make your customers feel part of a tribe and a stronger emotional connection with you. Pick a few of your best customers or biggest commenters on social media and give them something. If you’re thinking of launching a new product or service – break your process down on IG stories and ask people what they think and make sure you share their feedback and your thoughts on that.
If you can, then implement that feedback and share it. You’ll be ticking a lot of cult brand boxes.
Or just do a random act of kindness and drop some food off for some people that need or deserve it.
#4 Strong position
If you have a purpose you stand for things and you stand against things. All cult brands do what they do because they have a purpose. They’re not afraid to share what they’re for and what they’re against.
One of the biggest things for me was Seth Godin’s advice from ‘All marketers are liars’ find your niche and go right to the edge of it as that’s where your true fans who will stay with you for life are.
And those that aren’t with you – fuck ‘em. They do nothing for your business apart from make you question it and dilute it.
99% of all social media is noise. Narcissistic, zero value, ‘I’m doing this because I feel I have to but have no idea what I’m doing’ noise. If you try and be all things to all people you stand for nothing and nobody.
Once you start confidently asserting your position you’ll find engagement starts growing as the people that are with you, they’re REALLY with you. Your tribe are you looking to you to stand up for their beliefs.
I’m a big fan White Moose Cafe in Dublin – they bring a lot of personality to what they do and don’t take shit from anyone and are a great example of how even a smaller business can still build a huge online community by being themselves.
TAKEAWAY: Make a list of 1-3 things you passionately believe in. Now make a list of 1-3 things you’re passionately against (industry bad practices, negative customer assumptions, or just an issue) etc. Now do a social media post for two of those and state what they are, why they’re important to you and how you live those values through your brand
#5 radical transparency
One of my faves and one of the hardest to do. But this is what separates engaging communications spoken by humans from corporate brand voice noise spoken by robots.
You share as much as you can about your journey – where you came from, where you are now, where you’re going. Restaurant opening was a nightmare – share it. Covid forcing you to make very hard decisions, share it. Waking up with anxiety every day because this is so goddamn hard, share it.
People follow people not brands. They want to follow people who are making the best possible go of their brief shot at life – the ups and the downs.
It’s also the science of storytelling. The more drama and emotion you share in what you’re doing, the more it will trigger action- commenting on your post, signing up to your newsletter, hitting the sales button or just emotional connection which will result in action somewhere down the line.
I would caveat this with the most enduring stories that have stood the test of time normally have happy endings.
So while radical transparency is great, you need to be careful not to make it a non stop moan fest either. Your primary goal is to give people value and uplift them.
By all means share the struggles but balance it with struggles you have overcome so people can learn from you and associate you with positive and uplifting feelings.
The first CHIK’N launch on Baker Street was my first first ever restaurant marketing gig and a trial by fire that’s for another time (I left out the bit about being so stressed I couldn’t move my neck for 3 months).
Things got so out of control during our launch week on the 3rd day we had to shut because we’d run out of chicken, it was early days and we had no idea how to deal with the huge surge in demand.
They asked me to make up an excuse to share, something like ‘the freezer broke’ or similar as for a restaurant it’s pretty embarrassing when you run out chicken (it even happens to KFC and they also dealt with it very well).
This didn’t feel right to me. We sold out of chicken – that already seemed like a good story. But there was a dramatic and human story here – we were just utterly overwhelmed and out of our depth with a new restaurant.
So why not own that – surely people would be able to relate and connect better with us ultimately. So I convinced them to go with that (closing my eyes and praying I was right as this was all based on hunch at the time).
A few months after I did exit interviews where I interview customers leaving the restaurant for their thoughts on the experience. A lot of customers remembered we had run out of chicken and it often used to crop up in conversations with other industry people.
We were the guys who ran out of chicken on our opening week because we were too popular. Sounds better than the guys who closed because their freezer broke (not that anyone would remember that).
That was a big learning for me that has never left – always tell it like it is. Your tribe will always respect you more when they can see you’re just humans trying your best rather than a faceless brand.
TAKEAWAY: Pick a story from either a challenge you overcame when you started off, from a challenge you’re facing now or the challenges to overcome your vision for the business and what you did (or are doing) to overcome them.
The bigger the challenge, the more of your emotions you can put into it – how were you feeling at every step as that will make people connect more. Share it.
#6 Do things
It’s one thing to talk on social media. Anyone can do that. It’s another thing to do. All cult brands do things. They put their money where their mouth is. Sometimes it won’t be visible and often it won’t directly be something that generates profit.
It also may have nothing directly to do with the product/service but it should always be something that advances their principles and values.
Don’t do random or shocking just for the sake of it – if it’s not connected to your values it’s ultimately going nowhere, no matter how many times people share it.
It could be launching a book, giving % to charity, feeding the NHS, giving a free burger to a random customer each month.
It always comes back to ‘are you more than just a product/service?’ and ‘am I living my purpose beyond my website about page?’
Your tribe will respond in turn.
I’m going to use another example here from White Moose cafe gifting someone 50 Euros – responding to love with love!
If you do something like that once every 6 months it’s better than nothing but won’t really make much difference. If you’re doing something fun and showing appreciation to your customers every week, that will get you noticed.
TAKEAWAY: Go through your list of values and principles. Pick one thing you can do to demonstrate them beyond your product/service. Want to keep it simple? Do something charitable or volunteer your time. You might get some more ideas from the other commandments below.
#7 Build a lifestyle around your brand
Taking this idea of doing things further, the best cult brands who have have their values nailed down and actively live them then look at other ways to bring this purpose to people to encourage a lifestyle that supports these values every day.
This is one of the highest points a brand can get to, when you transcend your product and become a symbol.
This is ambitious and might be phase 2 for many of you once your business hits a level of stability but no-one said it would be easy!
Maybe some of those ways make you money, maybe they help strengthen your community.
Cookbooks, meal kits, sauce bottles, cookalongs and other events all have value here. They’re not just revenue earners but tools for your tribe to express themselves and live your shared values whilst connecting with others who feel the same.
A great example of building a lifestyle around your values is Lululemon They hit the ground running since day 1, launching spaces that were as much community centres for active yoga types as clothing stores, all born out their origins story.
Have a nose around their community area and Instagram to see how far you can take your business when you have your values down.
TAKEAWAY: This can just be fantasy planning for now but think – what is one non core thing I can do that still fits with values/principles that can bring people closer to my product/service and helps them in their day to day lives.
#8 Have fun and take risks
Having fun and taking risks is a key part of being a cult brand. You know what you stand for and stand against. How about having some fun pushing that to your edge?
Sounds so simple but when was the last time your brand did something fun just for the hell of it. When was the last time you saw another brand do that?
For a lot of brands trying to do good in the world, it’s very hard to talk about your purpose without being preachy and ultimately a bit boring, no matter how important the message.
Oatly are a great example of many things – but for me when it comes to getting a serious message across in a fun, lighthearted and unique way, no-one does it like them.
For those that think Instagram is only for pictures and short inane captions – words count too when done right as you’ll see.
Here they share their sustainability report in a very open way about what they’re trying to do and where they’ve failed and done it with their usual quirky humour.
Check the report out also – you can’t deny they’ve done everything possible to make what could have been another dull snoozefest as interesting as possible both with words and visuals.
A great example that you can bring fun into anything if you think creatively enough.
TAKEAWAY: What’s something random and fun you can do that still fits in with your values? Is there something you want to say that others are too scared too? Can you say it in a fun way?
#9 break the norms
An excellent book on building a unique brand is ‘Zag’ from brand guru Marty Neuimeier which I highly recommend. His central argument is that you really want to be #1-3 in your space to win. If that’s not possible which most times it isn’t then create a new space so you can be #1 in it.
In the shorter term the idea is that you have a service/product that is unique as possible and the best way to do that is going against the accepted norms because often when you start questioning why they exist, there’s a lot wrong with them.
Most cult brands were born out of breaking norms which meant they were suddenly #1 in a new space. Flat Iron doing high quality, affordable steaks with a great customer experience, Oatly transforming oat milk from a hippy-ish product into a fashionable lifestyle choice, Sipsmith breaking the norm that non-alcoholic drinks couldn’t be a luxury experience.
On a smaller level there may be other ways for you to challenge norms in your industry not just with your product, but around customer experience, internal culture, pricing, availability, etc.
This is how you create a new space for you to be the leader and show you have the courage to stand up for your beliefs and be a leader for your tribe.
TAKEAWAY: Make a list of accepted norms in your industry. Find one that seems a bit stupid to you. What can you do or are you doing to go against that? Then share a post on it (but only if you’re currently doing something against it or plan to).
#10 use scarcity and exclusivity
Scarcity and exclusivity are a great way to build excitement, rabid loyalty and sales. A lot of cult brands are born out of the difficulty in actually getting your hands on them!
Sometimes this is just due to availability as a brand won’t make more without violating their principles- see the example of Paynter below or availability of physical spaces like trying to get into Dishoom or Padella.
Other times it can be a limited edition run of either a core product or something related to your values. These are a great way to tick a lot of boxes – have fun, build hype, show your process and why you do things, get your community involved to shape the product and keep pushing your brand and learning so things so don’t stay stale.
Making it hard to get things seems so counter-intuitive but thats humans for you🤷
The harder you make it for people to join the club the more excited they’ll be once they’re in and the more of a status it is to share.
Your costumers are saying ‘I love this brand and their values so much these are the lengths I’m willing to go to prove I live these values’. By virtue of that these are also the lengths I will go to share my identity.
For those that are willing to go through hardship to get your product, make it worth their while. Give them some extra things to make it feel special and the experience to be unique – whether it’s Dishoom giving people free food in the line or Flat Iron giving you free popcorn when you sit down, always reward people for making the effort.
Paynter Jackets make limited edition jackets available just 4 days every year. They sell out within minutes. The rest of the time is spent obsessing over the process of making these jackets the best they can be whilst sharing the entire creative process for each batch in great detail.
This is one of the deepest examples of intertwining the story behind each product to the product itself I’ve ever seen.
People are so involved, in such a deep way it’s a no brainer to put themselves through the pain of trying to get one of these jackets, each one with such a back story to it. You’re buying much more than just an article of clothing, you’re buying everything that went into creating the jacket.
Have a read of their about story too. This is a brilliant example of how an origins story sets up your purpose and values that will shape your business and inform all your decisions for the long term.
TAKEAWAY: What can you make a limited run of? Try and make it something exciting people will lose their shit over. Build up the hype on your social channels – talk about what you’re doing, show the process behind it and say you’re only doing a few of them. Then launch it for a brief window of time. Think of something, however small you can add to this to really make it a great experience for your customers somewhere along the buying journey.
Well there’s a bucket load to think about! Every one of those points can and probably will be broken down into many more blog posts and who knows, maybe a book so I can build Dan’s brand too!
So should everyone be a cult brand – should you?
If you ever saw a huge line for a place or someone sell out online in 2 hours and think ‘that would be nice’. Now you know – you can do it too if you’re willing to work for it.
If every company had some level of purpose even if just making your customers lives better and creating a work culture where employees are proud to represent you and your values it certainly wouldn’t make the world a worse place.
It’s a ton of work and commitment but I can say with some level of confidence that if you focus on asking yourself at every step ‘Am I giving my customers an amazing experience that fits in with my values or am I just trying to tick a box?’ and come at it from a place of serving others, the upsides for you as a human and a business owner are huge.
So I ask again, how bad do you want to create something unique that brings joy to the lives of your community? More than your competitors?
FINAL TAKEAWAY: I threw a lot at you there. So here’s the one thing. When planning your next monthly activities ask yourself what is one thing I can improve on in the list above? Can I share a very honest story that makes us look like humans? Is there some way I can give something to 1 customer, 10 customers, 100 and expect nothing in return?
All the greatest achievements in life have been born out of discomfort. The more uncomfortable it makes you feel, the more impact it will have so close your eyes, focus on your vision and what it means to you and press the button!
Worst case, make a donation to a cause you believe in or give some free food to someone that needs it.
I hope this blog post made you think a bit about ways you can be more true to yourself and generate more love and connection from your customers.
If it resonated with you then feel free to share it with someone who could benefit from it too.
And if you made it this far I’m truly grateful for you taking the time to read this.
One love 🙏