What Is a Cult Brand?

A cult brand refers to a product or service that has a relatively small but loyal customer base that verges on fanaticism. A cult brand, unlike more traditional brands, has customers who feel a sense of self-ownership or vested interest in the brand's popularity and success.

Brands with a cult following have achieved a unique connection with customers, and are able to create a consumer culture that people want to be a part of. Examples of contemporary cult brands include the Mini Cooper, Goop, Vespa, Zappos, and OnePlus, among several others.

Key Takeaways

  • A cult brand is one that has a fanatic user base, who develops a personal interest in the success of the brand or product.
  • One feature of cult brands is that they speak to a customer's identity, ideology, or cultural milieu.
  • Unlike a short-lived fad, cult brands may persist for years or even decades.

Breaking Down Cult Brands

For devout followers of a cult brand, their relationship with the brand is a mixture of both love and madness. The brand symbolizes a specific lifestyle and becomes more of an identity. To cult brand buyers, buying a product enables them to fit in with a certain group, or culturally as a whole. Cult brands tend to succeed in creating a community based on common habits, choices, or affinities.

Cult brands are an example of what is known as a "benign cult," in which followers are extremely dedicated to a product or service that the brand represents. Such cults are not harmful. They tend to welcome fellow devotees who have discovered a brand that represents them and fulfills their wants and needs without harming them.

Cult Brand Characteristics

Cult brands tend to have several characteristics in common. For example, they tend to be distinctive, meaning that they provide an alternative style or feeling that differs from existing brands. They help people differentiate themselves. Cult brands also tend to represent a cultural shift, often starting with a small group of dedicated followers who spread their message. As such, cult brands also tend to have a compelling, persuasive story behind them, such as an origin story. They also have enough recognition and respect that they are able to create trends.

Cult Brand vs. Regular Brands

A brand, by definition, is a distinguishing logo, mark, sentence, symbol, slogan, or word that identifies a particular product. Companies use various strategies to improve brand recognition and build brand equity. Very recognizable brands include Nike, Coca-Cola, and Microsoft. Cult brands may or may not be widely advertised, but they do tend to exemplify the spirit of the era they occupy.

Companies that attempt to elevate a regular brand to cult status with the use of a marketing campaign may find it very difficult; cult brands tend to be more grassroots in nature and may take many years to elevate to cult brand status. Sometimes one feature or aspect of a company or product will enable the rise of a brand to cult status. Examples could include free, fast shipping, a very permissive return policy, scarcity, a special, unusual ingredient or exclusive product, or an association with an iconic person or event.

Cult Brand vs. Fads

Cult brands are different from fads. A fad is a short-lived "craze" where a particular product suddenly gains a lot of attention among a large population, marked by a temporary and excessive enthusiasm, and then just as quickly fizzles out of style. Where fads are unsustainable and last only a short period of time, cult brands typically begin small and gradually build a steady following. Cult brands persistent in that they tend to last many generations.