3 Big Secrets of Cult Brands

Every brand’s dream? Cult status: that synergy between brand and customer wherein a brand’s reputation precedes them, fans become enthusiastic marketers, and new products (or shows or location openings) are hotly anticipated and even fought over. Think: SoulCycle, Vans, Apple. But while the marketing and social media presence of these and other cult brands might appear like effortless interaction with a receptive fan base, there are actually concrete secrets brands with cult status employ—techniques that enterprise brands of all kinds (and with all levels of devotion) can use to bolster their audience and entice new followers.

The first rule of obtaining cult status: “Highlight your tribe,” said Spredfast VP of Strategy Spike Jones during our recent Smart Social NYC panel, which focused on how enterprise marketers can make good use of the secrets of cult brands. “Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Let them,” Jones added. Jones was joined on stage for the panel by Alissa Lieppmann, Director of Club Media Strategy at the NFL; Jeff Taylor, Regional Product Marketing Manager at Instagram; and Alexandra Weiss, Senior Vice President of Marketing at Glossier. Each panelist offered road-tested, actionable insights into obtaining coveted cult brand status. Our favorite highlights, in the form of three actionable tips, follow (hint—the key is smart engagement):

Engage Your Community in Business Decisions

Brands with a level of fan devotion that reaches cult status actively engage their fans during company decision-making processes. “Actually involve the community,” explained Alexandra Weiss of Glossier, “Don’t just pretend to.” Weiss offered an example: when Glossier (the web-based beauty product store born from beauty blog Into the Gloss) was creating a new product—a rich moisturizer—they spent two years out in the community (in their case, social media and Into the Gloss) gathering thoughts and opinions from the very people they hoped would purchase their new product. They shared with fans on social every step of the way: communications with their chemist were posted on Into the Gloss, and customers were invited to share their opinions pre-launch. All this meant that “potential customers were hearing from real people they could relate to, not just the brand,” explained Weiss.

“Actually involve the community—don’t just pretend to.” — Alexandra Weiss, Glossier

 

“The natural behavior of the cult was to promote for us and post for us,” shared Weiss, “and we built a program around that.” Glossier now has a program in which everyday consumers act as brand representatives and share their unique points of view about the brand and its products. “We like to put the editorial power and expertise in the hands of our customers,” Weiss said. The benefit of this choice? Glossier’s fan base rewards them with loyalty.

Glossier’s Instagram feed is carefully curated but also artfully undone—including both behind-the-scenes shots and simple editorial inquiries like the Post-It above, asking followers to define what “luxury” means to them.

Communicate with Your Fans Every Day

Another important hallmark of cult brands is that the level of fan interest necessitates a great deal of communication and content from the brand, particularly on social media. But a high level of communication can be difficult to pull off: ensuring varied and interesting posts at a rapid clip that also hew closely to brand values and messaging takes a coordinated strategy, no matter how sophisticated the brand.

Alissa Lieppman, who runs Club Media Strategy at the NFL, shared how her team keeps up with daily communications that keep fans coming back. To find content, Lieppman says she and her team work to uncover trends within their 32 national NFL clubs. “Latching onto trending content is something our clubs have gotten better at every year.” Lieppman added that they also provide a diverse content mix. So, “A Day in the Life” at the NFL combine—content that would appeal only to super avid fans—runs alongside Russell Wilson and Ciara’s birth announcement for their daughter—content with a much wider and more casual fan base. “And we go beyond the game to showcase who these real people playing the game are,” Lieppman said, adding that tying people back to emotion is an effective strategy for building a devoted fan base.

Invest in a Mobile-First Experience

Our panel agreed: Brands looking to find cult status on social must lead with mobile (a sentiment echoed throughout the day). “Successful brands on social are ones that that think of themselves as always in beta,” explained Jeff Taylor, Regional Product Marketing Manager at Instagram. “These brands are willing to fail, to try new things, and they treat their budgets as fluid so they can invest where they see returns,” Taylor continued. Legacy brands can have more trouble with this approach, said Taylor, but the ones that are able to do it find success.

Brands must be willing to fail, to try new things, and to treat their budgets as fluid.

 

“Everything we do is optimized to start a digital conversation,” said Weiss, adding that Glossier focuses on what their packaging will look like for a digital experience versus an offline experience. “We knew the unboxing experience for our customers would involve taking a picture of the top of a jar of facemask,” Weiss said, so they made the top of the jar appealing, rather than the side, as a company displaying their products on the counter in a department story might.

Brands that can express their human side on social instead of sounding like a press release tend to pull higher engagement numbers, Jones told the audience. “That ‘we’ feeling is hard to get,” said Jones, “but it makes people feel part of something bigger than themselves”—and that’s when brands earn motivated, loyal fans.

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Rachel Jamail leads the brand marketing team at Spredfast. Find her on Twitter for a random assortment of thoughts on marketing, yoga, books, and her two favorite (yet very different) football teams - the Texas Longhorns and the Harvard Crimson.