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HBS Marketing Club conference-Cult Brands: Lessons Learned At Apple, ESPN, and PepsiCo

What gives some brands an extra lift? An avid cult following, that's what. At a session of the HBS Marketing Conference, experts debated the pros and cons of managing a brand that customers truly adore.

Cult Brands: The Lessons Learned At Apple, ESPN, and Mountain Dew

Many brands claim to be popular. Any toothpaste can be popular. So can most any breakfast cereal if it's tasty enough. But here's the question: Would you ever talk about toothpaste or breakfast cereal with your friends?

A few special brands, it can be said, take popularity to a different level. These are the so-called cult brands: Harley-Davidson, Star Trek, Volkswagen, Apple Computer, and several others, according to a new book, The Power of Cult Branding: How 9 Magnetic Brands Turned Customers into Loyal Followers (and Yours Can, Too!). Even Oprah Winfrey is a brand, and a cult brand at that, the authors say.

In cult branding, the management and marketers behind it are willing to take big risks  and they understand the potential payoff.
— Matt Ragas,

That's all fine, but what is a manager to think? How does a brand cross the line from ho-hum to heaven-sent, to be one that customers will really champion? Should every brand be groomed for potential cult status? What are the pleasures and perils of managing a cult brand and its sometimes-obsessive customers?

As revealed at the student-run Harvard Business School Marketing Conference held in November, there are definite pointers to keep in mind. For starters, though, you know you've got a cult brand when customers do the following:

  1. Name babies after your brand. This happened to the sports channel ESPN, said Lee Ann Daly, senior vice president of marketing for ESPN and a participant in the conference session. The three babies, born to different sets of parents in the past 2-1/2 years, are named Espen, Espn, and Espn (again!), respectively.

  2. Become highly emotional when you change the color of your logo. This happened to Apple Computer after it changed the color of its multicolored apple logo to solid red. Some of the original Apple logos, reported Phil Schiller, are now bought and sold on the online auction site eBay.

  3. Drink a six-pack of your beverage every day: a high-sugar, high-caffeine beverage. This is the happy situation for Mountain Dew, said Frances Britchford, vice president of innovation for Pepsi, which oversees Mountain Dew.

Cult brands "dare to be different," observed Matt Ragas, a panelist and co-author of The Power of Cult Branding. Cult brands sell lifestyles, not just a product or service, he added. But cult branding is not a viable path for every company. "I would love to say it is, having written a book about it, but it's not. Most companies don't have the risk-taking mentality….In cult branding, the management and marketers behind it are willing to take big risks and they understand the potential pay-off," he said.

The beginnings of a cult brand
To master cult branding, it is important to know what your company is and isn't, advised ESPN's Daly. A cult brand distinguishes itself from other brands by forging a human connection with the customer in a way that toothpaste or cereal can't.

"If you can find the right way to do it, in a way that is entertaining and interesting and perhaps delightful and makes people talk to each other, that's the beginning of a cult," she said.

"We are fans first," she added, speaking of herself and her ESPN colleagues. "With ESPN, we could have shoved down people's throats the idea that we were an authority, but instead what we try to do is celebrate the fact that we're fans."

Even though every product doesn't have cult potential, there are many examples of mainstream products that have reinvented their image and achieved cult status, according to PepsiCo's Britchford. The Mountain Dew soft drink has been a cult product since its successful "Been there, done that" ad campaign targeting the youth crowd. Hit though it was, subsequent campaigns for Mountain Dew have kept tweaking the image to maintain momentum.

The cult/fetish customer is more passionate and therefore contacts you when he or she is most upset.
— Phil Schiller,
Apple Computer

Hush Puppies and Abercrombie & Fitch are other mainstream brands that have turned into success stories. "Timberland was out there for many years before it achieved cult status," said Britchford. These brands became cult brands because customers could find a sense of belonging within that product category and wear it as a badge of honor.

One hard lesson for companies, Britchford said, is to stay one step ahead and shake things up when everyone at the organization is feeling most cozy.

Another challenge for cult brand companies is to keep evolving in a way that doesn't alienate core followers, added Daly. The tastes of people who watched ESPN when it began in 1979 are different from the tastes of viewers aged twelve to nineteen who are just now coming to the channel. The programming mix needs to speak to both audiences, although the ad mix does alternate its target audience by using in-jokes for one or another group of viewers.

"Change is good," said Ragas. "Bottom line, if you stay authentic to what you originally stood for and true to the core, they may give pushback but they will accept it."

Love the hate mail
Though no panelist complained about their customers, several did admit that cult brands inspire great passion in their followers, and that can lead marketers into a non-stop balancing act.

Said Schiller, Apple's senior vice president for worldwide product marketing: "There are strange people out there and they seem to have a personality that has a strong affinity to attach to things like cults. And you have to deal with those people because they are your customers. You have to care about your customer…I get 300 e-mails a day and I have to respond to every one. Some of the customers are screaming and swearing and angry.

"What you find is the cult/fetish customer is more passionate and therefore contacts you when he or she is most upset. So you get a lot of angry customers who feel they have the right to fight for their brand and [that] it's something bigger than any one person and any one company, and they're fighting with their passionate views...You have to deal with their rage and accept it and be proud of that, that the reason you're getting this hate mail with screaming and swearing is because they love your product, they love your brand."

A cult brand can also constrict by making the press and Wall Street analysts too eager to typecast your company, sometimes negatively. "One customer in tie-dye with long frizzy hair shows up at a meeting and they go, 'A-ha! I knew you were that kind of company," lamented Schiller. "Accept it, and market past that," he advised.

Smart companies regard their cult brands as an asset and never rest on their laurels, realizing that even a brand people love in its present form has got to grow and change to survive, panelists said.

Added author Ragas, "All these brands help give people an identity. People like to be different. At the same time, they would like to be part of a group that acts different. Cult brands hit on that fine line."

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The panel session "Brand Cults," moderated by Alan Webber, founder and editor of FastCompany magazine, was one of several at the student-run HBS Marketing Conference held November 23, 2002. The conference, titled "Rewriting the Rules of Marketing," drew 225 attendees and was organized by the HBS Marketing Club.

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Does Your Product Have Buzz? Tap Into an Online News Group

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