Becoming A Cult Brand

How To Obtain a Really Devoted Following

It's a foolproof marketing technique - turning customers into slavish, unthinking, devoted followers of products. In other words, zombies. It's a strategy that can create legions of pod people dedicated to a particular brand, leaving all rivals in the dust. The best customer a brand could have is an actual cult follower.

"The people who join cults are most likely to be like you," writes adman Douglas Atkin in The Culting of Brands: When Customers Become True Believers. "The popular image of cult members is that they are psychologically flawed individuals, gullible and desperate. While some do conform to this image, the majority do not. Demographically, they tend to be from stable and financially comfortable homes and are above average in intelligence and education. They are, in fact, a desirable target audience."

On the flipside, it seems reasonable to assume that the best spokesperson a brand could have is a cult leader. One need look no further than Oprah. When she puts her seal of approval on miracle butt paste, tubes fly off the shelves.

Sure, maybe there have been a few, shall we say, unfortunate relationships between brands and cult leaders, but the savvy cult marketer shouldn't be deterred. It's hard to think of a better product placement than the Beatles and the Manson family. Of course, there have been other partnerships.


David Koresh and Camaro

FTR Side-Becoming A Cult Brand

Branch Davidian leader and polygamist David Koresh famously tooled around Waco, Texas, in a classic 1968 GM Camaro SS. Koresh was the perfect match for this muscle car. The testosterone-fueled preacher allegedly bedded hundreds of teenage girls, bullied a flock of submissive churchgoers and fought the FBI like his name was Rambo. Although the manly Koresh did not survive the fiery "siege of Waco," in which the Davidian Mount Carmel compound burned to the ground, the Camaro did endure - complete with dents from the FBI assault vehicle that rammed into it - and was later sold at auction. Take that, bankruptcy.

Marshall Applewhite and Nike

FTR-Side-Becoming A Cult Brand

Applewhite founded Heaven's Gate, a UFO-worshipping sect in San Diego that believed the world would end with the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet. On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the cult, on orders from Applewhite, committed mass suicide by swallowing phenobarbital washed down with vodka. All of them died wearing brand new, identical, black and white Nike apparel - shirt, sweats and sneaks - apparently in preparation to "just do it" in the afterlife.

Jim Jones and Kool-Aid

FTR Side-Becoming A Cult Brand

Be careful that a larger brand doesn't steal your thunder: The Jonestown tragedy in Guyana, in which more than 800 members of the Jones cult committed mass suicide, has forever been wrongly linked to Kool-Aid. The popular phrase "Don't drink the Kool-Aid," referring to people who blindly follow authority, is one of the lasting legacies of the Jonestown massacre. And yet the powdered drink that Jones laced with cyanide to kill his followers was not Kool-Aid but a knockoff rival called Flavor Aid, a product of the Chicago-based Jel Sert Company. Flavor Aid still commands a sizeable share of stomach, as marketers like to say. But nobody says "Don't drink the Flavor Aid," do they?


Rajneesh Chandra Mohan Jain and Rolls Royce

FTR Side-Becoming A Cult Brand

Rajneesh was an Indian mystic who promoted promiscuous sexuality and became known as the "sex guru." After traveling the world, he and his followers settled in Oregon and established an ashram that attracted notoriety for prolific sexual hijinks, drug use and a large collection of Rolls-Royce Motor Cars. The Bhagwan (it means "blessed one") bought his first Corniche in 1980, had it plated in armor and afterward demanded a new Rolls for each day of the year, ordering two a month from dealers. All told, the Bhagwan owned more than 100 Rolls Royces; the commune featured a service center staffed by Rolls engineers. The car company was pleased, especially by the Bhagwan's "Rolls-Royce-a-day" diet. "We thought this was a splendid idea," an executive told the Associated Press. They were not so happy, however, with the Bhagwan's taste in customized paint jobs; many of the motorcars were covered in psychedelia.

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