The Culting of Brands

The Culting of Brands


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At first glance, companies like Apple and Nike have little in common with organizations like the Hell’s Angels and the Unification Church. But in reality, they all fulfill the main definition of a cult: They attract people who see themselves as different from the masses in some fundamental way. Contrary to stereotypes, most cult members aren’t emotionally unstable—they’re just normal folks searching for a sense of belonging.

Marketing expert Douglas Atkin has spent years researching both full-blown cults and companies that use cult-branding techniques.He interviewed countless cult members to find out what makes them tick. And he explains exactly how brands like Harley-Davidson, Saturn, JetBlue, and Ben & Jerry’s make their customers feel unique, important, and part of an exclusive group—and how that leads to solid, long-term relationships between a company and its customers.

In addition to describing a fascinating phenomenon, The Culting of Brands will be of enormous value to business leaders. It will teach marketers how to align themselves with a specific segment of the population, how to attract and keep new "members," how to establish a mythology about the company, and how to manage a workforce filled with true believers. 

Once a brand achieves cult status, it becomes almost impossible for a competitor to dethrone it. The Culting of Brands will reveal the secrets of fierce customer identification and, most important, unbreakable loyalty.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591840961
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/31/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,164,943
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

Douglas Atkin is the director of strategy at one of New York’s hottest advertising agencies, Merkley Newman Harty. He has worked with numerous clients to increase their cult appeal, including Mercedes, Pfizer, Smith Barney, Fila, and JetBlue. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt

The Culting of Brands

Turn Your Customers Into True Believers
By Douglas Atkin


Copyright © 2005 Douglas Atkin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1591840961

Chapter One


What compels sane, stable, intelligent individuals to sacrifice virtually everything? Why do they throw money, time, sometimes their careers, the regard of their peers, and even their families on the altar of cult belonging? Commitment-true commitment-is exclusionary. Devotion to one thing implicitly requires rejection of another. There is an opportunity cost to everything and joining an unorthodox belief system often demands a very high expenditure indeed.

Devotion to a cult brand also can require significant cost. Obviously, the degree of sacrifice is not the same as that of a cult member, but in the context of consumerism, joining a brand can be pricey, and not just in terms of cash. Why does a loyal devotee of jetBlue leave his home in New Jersey to drive past Newark and La Guardia airports, cross two Manhattan bridges and hack across the endless plains of Queens to take a one hour flight from the airline's home base at JFK? (If you don't live in New York just know that most residents would be incredulous at such an act.) Why does Sean, a student, who can't regularly afford his lunch, feel compelled to upgrade his Mac computer every time anew model is launched just because he wants "to support the company"? Why does the same hungry student buy directly from Apple so that "they get all the money"?

Cult members are manipulated by brilliant psychopathic leaders. That is the populist explanation. And it's as poorly reasoned, and as insulting to its members, as is the idea that cult brand members have been brainwashed by cynical corporations. It assumes that consumers of cults and brands alike are bereft of free will and the powers of discrimination. Perhaps they are flawed by poor emotional backgrounds and educational and financial impoverishment. It's almost inevitable that they'll join a cult because of their faulty upbringing and mental instability.

Research contradicts this interpretation-not only my own, but data collected by scientists and sociologists who have studied cult phenomena for decades. Included among the cult members I spoke with were a senior executive in an M&A firm, managers of corporations, homemakers and students, a clinical biologist, and a financial broker. They were on the whole smart, sane individuals, often in highly respectable jobs, well aware of the choice they had made and reasoned defenders of it to detractors. They were otherwise ordinary in every respect. As Steve Hassan, one of the leading cult deprogrammers in the United States admits: "Since my departure from the Moon cult, I have counseled or spoken with more than a thousand former members of cults of all kinds. These people have come from every sort of background and ranged in age from twelve to eighty-five. Although some of them clearly had severe emotional problems before becoming involved, the great majority were stable, intelligent, idealistic people who tended to have good educations and come from respectable families."

Studies of the populations of major cults by religious sociologists report that their memberships generally follow a similar profile. Eileen Barker, a sociologist from the London School of Economics, undertook a large study of the membership of the Unification Church (more famously known as the Moonies) at the height of its popularity. Her data confirmed that of other academics who had profiled other groups. The cult's recruits tended to come from "conventional and highly respectable homes in which traditional values of family life, morality, and decency were upheld. They tended to believe that their parents' relationships were happy or very happy." In terms of demographics, she found that joiners were largely middle class, disproportionately more so than the general population and that they had good academic backgrounds.

So, these people tended not be damaged by broken homes, impoverished, or rendered gullible by ignorance. But were they sane? Were they ripe meat for the vultures that preyed on psychologically vulnerable souls? Barker continues: "[There is a suggestion that] those who become Moonies cannot really be said to be in their right minds because they are particularly passive, pathetic, or suggestible people. But the evidence suggests that, although a few Moonies might fall into this category, the majority do not; indeed, it seems that, while some such people may be drawn to the workshop, it is precisely those whom one might have expected to be the most vulnerable to persuasion who turn out to be non-joiners."

Ah, but perhaps they were unfortunate enough to have been brainwashed. Anyone, whatever his or her mental state, can fall victim to the machinations of the perverted doctors of psychological manipulation. Even if you have somehow squared your conscience and have opened this book relishing the opportunity to brainwash your consumers, or potential cult members, I'm afraid you're in for a disappointment. The technique has long been debunked as a credible tactic to generate sustained commitment to anything, including cults.

Mainly, those who join cults do not do so because they are emotionally, mentally, or intellectually flawed or because failings in their upbringing have propelled them into the arms of a more loving or supportive environment. Or because they have been victims of sinister mind control techniques. They join for reasons that you or I would recognize, find reasonable, and have acted upon ourselves.

Similarly, near total information, decades of collective experience, and vast product choice make it very hard to hoodwink the modern consumer even if you wanted to. Nowadays, it's not unusual to have your carefully crafted brand strategy played back to you by consumers in a focus group. Buyers nowadays tend to be very media and marketing literate (almost 20 percent of all undergraduates received a business management degree in 2000-2001). The techniques to "seduce" the consumer are mostly open to scrutiny by everyone. Even when the marketing techniques are especially clever and elicit extreme devotion, the seller is often praised by those who have been seduced. As one loyal consumer of Snapple said admiringly in a group interview, "We've been bamboozled by The Man and we know it."

Some cult members have undoubtedly been attracted by the charisma of their leaders, and some brand purchasers are surely a little deluded and extreme. But the majority buy into their respective belief systems for very good, very normal reasons and are quite aware of the criteria that informs those decisions.


The common belief is that people join cults to conform. Actually, the very opposite is true. They join to become more individual. At the heart of the desire to join a cult, in fact any community to which you will become committed, is a paradox. It's the central paradox of cult belonging and the one that destroys this most pervasive of populist myths.

As one cult member unequivocally put it, "Belonging allows the individual to become more himself. You become more you." This is an essential "why" (the central motivation to join and belong) that we need to understand before we apply the multitude of "whats" (the techniques to generate attraction and loyalty) that are derived from it.

How can this possibly be? The mass suicides of the People's Temple and Heaven's Gate cults suggest the destruction of the self, not its development. Even if we put these two extreme (and rare) examples aside, how can belonging to anything result in enhanced individuality?

Actually the paradox is something that almost everyone has experienced at some time. A community of like people implicitly and sometimes explicitly endorses the individual. It's a vital ingredient of the sense of belonging that most crave when they say they are looking for somewhere to "feel at home." It can create an uncritical and even celebratory environment in which the individual can feel confident enough to find and express himself. There is a "safe space" as one cult member said to me, where the inhibitions normally felt among strangers are removed and the barriers to being you are broken with impunity. You may change the company you work for, your neighborhood, social club, and even your friends, to find a place where it is more possible to be yourself with people you consider to be more like yourself.

The Moonies grasped this concept to use as a recruitment tool during their introductory weekends. They effectively accelerated the paradox. If a prospect showed any interest in the group during a street encounter or any other social contact, they were invited to one of the Moonie camps for a weekend. The focus of the stay was to foster intense interaction between prospects and church members. They played games, sang, and prepared and shared meals together. If the recruit achieved anything (like singing a song) they were praised and complimented. The overwhelming feeling that participants reported was of unequivocal love, and absolute support in everything they did.

The cult paradox dynamic can be looked at in terms of these four basic steps:

1. An individual might have a feeling of difference, even alienation from the world around them.

2. This leads to openness to or searching for a more compatible environment.

3. They are likely to feel a sense of security or safety in a place where one's difference from the outside world is seen as a virtue, not a handicap.

4. This presents the circumstances for self-actualization within a group of like-minded others who celebrate the individual for being himself.

The feeling of difference and alienation I'm referring to is not necessarily extreme. Everyone feels at least some separation from the world around him. To not would really indicate that you are some kind of herd animal, perhaps even insane. There can be no sense of self unless you feel somewhat different from the world in which you live.

For some, the sense of separation can be enough to prompt them to search for a place where they "feel at home" or where the meaning system is more in accord with their circumstances at the time. The person may have experienced some trauma: a bereavement, divorce, or accident that prompts them to fundamentally reassess their worldview. For others it can simply be a low-grade dissatisfaction with the status quo. One man explained why he joined a cult: "I believed that life without some other meaning than the day-to-day routine wasn't really worth it, or there just wasn't enough lasting joy and meaning there.... I believed there had to be more." These less-distressed people may simply be open to an alternative when it crosses their path. Active searching or more passive openness are the two circumstances that create an opportunity for cult recruitment.

A woman I will call Joanna fell more into the latter camp. Joanna joined a secretive and currently controversial cult called The Work. She is a successful, attractive, intelligent woman, Catherine Deneuve-ish in appearance. She was fairly typical of many of her urban contemporaries: accomplished but dissatisfied. She had significant responsibility in a major corporation in New York City. However, after years of striving in her career she had begun to feel disconnected from the "the things that were important to me." She had made a series of minor incremental decisions that had brought her to a point that she had never intended.

"I really didn't know how I got where I was," Joanna explained. "I started out as an art major. I was going into the textile design world and then I ended up being a manager of a corporate business. How did I get there? I was not aware of the sequence of events which I think happened more by default than anything else, but I ended up in the spot that I was in."

She realized that she had little in common with her colleagues and she had lost purpose, which for her was intellectual inquiry, ideas, and art. She was introduced to The Work by a girlfriend's boyfriend. The opportunity to reconnect with herself through a group of similar people was attractive enough for her to accept his invitation to attend a "class" in a downtown loft.

It focused on the philosophy of Ouspensky, who taught that most of us allegedly live in a state of "waking sleep," and that man should undertake exercises to force the consciousness to a higher level of awareness. Joanna found the group and this concept intriguing and eventually joined. She stayed for sixteen years (at considerable financial cost and time commitment).

Outside the group was a tolerable but incompatible life. Inside the group, Joanna found "people who shared the same interests, the same values. That was important." She felt a sense of "camaraderie or sense of community." This sense of belonging had a very important effect. "So in this group, although it was structured rather oddly," Joanna explained, "I felt understood, validated, supported. That the things that I was truly interested in were not just poppycock." The "true" unexpressed side of her that had been stifled in a stiff corporate environment was able to flourish within the albeit tight confines of a secretive group.

Joanna's story simply articulates a universal experience. We all have an awareness of our own uniqueness and difference. We might feel uncomfortable or dissatisfied in an environment where it is not recognized and encouraged. Being welcomed into a group where that difference is validated and encouraged by people who are also different, but like ourselves, is a relief and even exciting. This process is recognizable as a human constant, that is, it is common to everyone and is played out daily in all kinds of circumstances whether at work, at a church, in a social group, joining the military or a fraternity, or even buying a brand.


The same paradox can be found at the heart of cult brands. A Mac user I interviewed, a writer, had personal characteristics not unlike those of Joanna's. He's a successful contributor to journals and magazines, articulate, engaging, and bright. Nor was he a typical nerd. Although slightly disheveled and a little bookish, some of the women in the group clearly found him attractive. He told me that "a Mac made me creative. No, actually I was creative to begin with, and in some ways they made me more creative."

This reveals a very intense connection to a brand. Note how his statement echoes the "you become more you" comment that we saw earlier. His association with the Mac fraternity has made him "more himself," he claims. It has taken that part of his identity that he considers his most defining characteristic, his creativity, and accelerated it. That's a pretty important role he has ascribed to a mere brand.


Excerpted from The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin Copyright © 2005 by Douglas Atkin. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Great Cult Paradox: Why People Join
2. You're Different, We're Different
3. We Love You
4. You Belong
5. Culting Is A Contact Sport
6. We're In This Together
7. This Is What We Believe
8. Symbolism
9. Commitment Is A Two-Way Street
10. Go Forth And Multiply
11. Tension: The Management Of Deviance
12. A Cult Is Born
13. The Cult Wavers, A Church Strengthens
14. Who Runs The Cult?


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