Do you have a favorite movie that not many people have heard of? Or do you go to a coffee shop that you wouldn’t substitute for anything else? Or, perhaps, do you have a favorite product your rave about to everyone you meet?

Well, you might be in a cult – knowingly or unknowingly.

Cults have been around for a long time, but I’m here to talk about the relatively normal ones. You know the type: the cults that watch a marathon of Lord of the Rings or sit outside tech stores at 4 am for the newest product.

As it turns out, we can learn a lot from the films – and brands – that inspire a cult following. In this article, we take a close look at what makes cults tick and how they’re built.

What is a cult classic anyway?

“The term cult [classic] film itself was first used in the 1970s to describe the culture that surrounded underground films and midnight movies, though [the term] cult was in common use in film analysis for decades prior to that.” – The Culture Wiki

However, the modern-day meaning of a cult classic is much broader. It can refer to any form of media that has attracted a dedicated and passionate fanbase that is cult-like. Cult followings can extend far beyond films, too. It’s just easier to explain the concept by starting with film.

The idea of cult classics is that the fanbase becomes so involved that they create their own subculture. You can see examples of this in the documentary for Galaxy Quest or in the “participation site” for Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Need to find a cult classic film fan? Don’t worry – they’ll tell you! They will be able to talk about the topic for hours on end, recite quotes, watch it ritualistically, and can give you endless facts on the subject.

What makes a film a cult classic?

There are a lot of paths a film can take to become a cult classic. For example, The Room, which we wrote about in an earlier article, subverts every possible rule of good filmmaking…and good taste. The result is a movie that is confusing, surreal, and entertaining for reasons the creator never intended.

On the other hand, you have critically acclaimed and financially successful films like Easy Rider, which came out in 1969. That film really captured the counterculture / hippie ethos of the late 1960s. It even wound up in the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1998. In other words, cult classics don’t have to be flops.

And of course, it’s not just deeply meaningful films and indie flops. You can have high-profile movies that bomb at the box office and then become cult classics too. One example is Marvel’s first feature film, Howard The Duck (1986). With George Lucas at the helm, he bizarrely gave the audience duck nudity, bold physical effects and then tried to market it towards the PG audience. It didn’t work out.

HOWARD THE DUCK, 1986. (c) Universal Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

Though the most consistent way of a movie becoming a cult classic is that they bomb at the box office but release on VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray/streaming and earn way more. A film that comes to mind is Fight Club (1999) that challenged what masculinity means. It only made $39 million at the opening, but then upon DVD sold 13 million copies of it which paid for itself. (It also inspired people the wrong way too – creating real-life fight clubs. So much for the first rule of Fight Club.)

To show you what I mean, check out these figures from The Numbers. It shows the classic cult classic pattern of massively increased DVD sales- going from 3 million in October 2006 to a whopping 34 million by November 2009.

So to bring it together – there are a lot of ways to create a cult classic film, each relying on a different strategy. The one thing they all have in common, though, is the ability to really connect with their audience.

Modern cult followings – how consumers identify with products

Cult classic films often need a political message, bad box office numbers, or to generally be weird. Cult brands, on the other hand, are different. Companies need to sell products and generate revenue, and branding is just one way of doing that. So cult classic companies manage to be both popular and cult-like.

Is your head spinning yet? Here are some examples of how brand cult followings subvert that by having popularity at the forefront while still keeping the culture intact.

The CULTure of the Bean

One modern cult that comes to mind is the cult of coffee. It dates back to the 16th century in Turkey.

Now I love a good coffee. I own a grinder and multiple apparatus for making coffee, so I understand the depth that people will go for the best coffee.

But for the everyday commuter, Starbucks is most likely their coffee haunt. Starbucks’ culture runs deeply within its brand. As they say on their website, Starbucks aims “to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.”

They went from $19.5 Billion in 2005 to a $138.18 Billion company in 2021. That’s an incredible, $118.68 billion increase in 6 years. And the way it did this was put so poetically by Lisa Essett, “Starbucks puts the ‘cult’ in ‘culture.’”

By Sikander Iqbal, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
Starbucks Coffee – more Starbucks than coffee

Starbucks markets what its customers want, which, strangely, is not coffee. That’s right – a coffee culture without the coffee.

Just consider this for a moment. Most people go to Starbucks for their unique and well-marketed specialties like pumpkin spice latte. Not shockingly, these drinks make up 75% of the sales that Starbucks sees on any given day.

And with any loyal following, if you try to tell someone that Starbucks coffee is bad quality and attempt to convince them to drink “proper coffee”, you will quickly get into an argument. There are even articles written about “How to Break Your Starbucks Habit” which shows how influential the sweet bean juice is. Point is, the actual coffee – not the beverages, but the coffee itself – is nothing special.

Customers go to Starbucks, recite arcane-sounding orders like “grande skinny caramel machiatto.” They spend a fairly large amount of money, and walk away with their drink. Starbucks fans are loyal.

The point is that Starbucks is not a coffee shop. It is a Starbucks. It is a unique, specific experience that no other company can imitate. It’s not about the coffee. The long drink names, the tangentintally coffee-related menu, the architecture, the decor – it’s all consistent and specific.

This is where Starbucks’ fans devotion comes from. There is a “true” Starbucks experience, and that’s what customers are really going for. This is why the business is so successful.

Harley-Davidson: The All-American HOG

By and large, a cult following is not something you can go and make like a business plan. All you can do is start developing brand loyalty with your customers. It’s over time that they stay and influence other people, forming a subculture that no other brand can imitate.

Harley-Davidson is the perfect example of an influential brand with a cult-like following. They were founded in 1903 and have been running for a whopping 118 years. That’s more years than the two biggest tech brands Microsoft and Apple combined!

Their musclecycles are impressive, loud, and look badass – all of which appeals to the target audience of middle-aged male Americans. As of 2018 men aged 45-50 makeup 81% of the 13 million motorcycles owned.

So how did Harley-Davidson corner the market on this specific type of “cool”? Well, the reason largely comes from the organic creation of a male-dominated counterculture post-war. It was fueled by post-second world war veterans that lacked male friends and who struggled to reintegrate into society.

(Incidentally, these motorcycles were also used in the counterculture film Easy Rider.)

But Harley-Davidson isn’t just a legacy brand that was important in the post-WWII era or the wild 1960’s. No, Harley-Davidson sold 180,000 motorcycles in 2020. To the customers, they are not just bikes, they are lifetime investments. And this investment has kept customers loyal with a million-plus member community marketing club, Harley Owners Group.

Like Nike shoes, Harley-Davidson motorcycles are moving advertisements, which helps build the mystique. That’s part of how they keep bringing new fans into the fold.

However, a Harley-Davidson is not cheap and a new Sportster S will set you back $14,000. But because people see the bike as an investment, they stay away from cheap substitutes.

As shown above, Harley-Davidson has been influencing the American audience for over a century by having deep roots in its history and culture. It organically created its target audience and has kept its momentum to the modern day. It’s a brand that every American knows with eight percent of U.S. households had at least one bike in 2018.

Brand identity on steroids – the psychology of cult followings

Cult followings may sound like brand loyalty on steroids. And yes, that’s more or less right. But it’s deeper than that.

There is a meaningful difference between customers repeating their purchase and customers considering a brand part of their identity.

All hail the mighty brand

Fanatical customers have varying degrees of fanaticism, but all of them share one thing in common. They will be loyal to a brand and will purchase without hesitation. This is why you see queues outside Apple’s store at 4 in the morning whenever they have a new product debuting. As many as 51% of iPhone owners upgrade to the new model as soon as their provider allows it.

This is a form of brand tribalism wrapped neatly with a bow of consumerism. It’s formed around not just consuming as the individual, but around believing as part of a collective. People don’t just buy Harleys, they become Harley owners.

In Tribal Marketing: The tribalisation of society and its impact on the conduct of marketing by Cova and Cova (2002), it was found that there are four different roles amongst consumer tribe members. These range from low participation (the Sympathiser), to active Members, to Practitioners and lastly to Devotees. All possess a different level of emotional attachment.

Let’s take Apple as an example. A Sympathizer likes Apple products but doesn’t own any. Actual product owners are Members. Practitioners by multiple products. Devotees sit outside the store and feel personally attacked if you don’t like Apple products.

Symbol-intensive branding, a way of identity

Do you buy pins to put on your bag or stickers to put on the back of your laptop? If so, you’ve bought into a brand’s identity. This is part of symbol-intensive branding, a practice where brands use strong symbolism to allow customers to express their identity through the brand.

There are five types of symbol-intensive brands:

  1. Authority brands such as Rolls-Royce
  2. Solution brands such as Microsoft
  3. Icon brands such as Starbucks
  4. Cult Brands such as Harley Davidson
  5. Lifestyle brands such as Apple

These 5 types of brands give consumers a chance to identify as something they wish to be. For example, if you’re driving around in a Rolls-Royce and step out in a Gucci coat, you’re evoking a sense of authority and wealth.

This is because those brands have built up their business and cultivated an image that matches their clientele. And as humans in a social society, we want to feel that we have an identity. Brands sell us an identity that we want to have. And even though our identity fluctuates throughout our life, there are key moments when you can say I identified as X, Y or Z.

What Have Cults Taught Us That Can Be Implemented Into A Business

Unfortunately, we weren’t left with an A to Z on how to build a cult following. That’s part of why this works so well – there is no standard playbook. Every cult following is different because it grows organically. What we do know is that cult followings form in similar ways. 

Both cult classic films and brands develop identities that connect with fans. In the case of brands, the people in charge have worked to cultivate a subculture that makes consumers feel like they are part of something bigger. This, in turn, enhances the identity and connection with the brand.

If your business doesn’t have a clear identity, it would be a good idea to start directing your business into one or two of the 5 types we listed above. By setting your sights on a specific type of symbol-intensive brand, you can more clearly communicate the basic type of identity you wish to provide consumers.

Brand loyalty is every business’s dream, as it brings repeat customers and new customers for a long time to come. Think about what you can do to turn rank-and-file buyers into ardent fans.