Cult branding is the phenomenon of building a brand some people love, not a brand no one hates. If we talk about cult in general, we talk about an exclusive group with some particular beliefs and practices. These are the groups comprising of people who just love being part of it, and sometimes, or may be often times, are hated by the people outside of it. Based on the same concept, some companies started marketing their products to target a specific customer segment. When a company designs and markets its product with a very specific customer segment in mind, it ends up creating a social group, something like the cult. This group has customers who love and trust the brand, and have great loyalty towards it. Some famous companies that fall in this category are Apple, Harley Davidson, Ikea and Whole foods.
It totally makes sense when a company builds this cult brand and develops a group of loyal customers. The thing that fascinates me the most is how these cult brands every once in a while captures the mainstream market share. Some of them have become so much mainstream that we don’t even remember or notice that they were actually cult brands once upon a time.
So how do cult brands establish themselves in mainstream market? Here’s my take on it. A new product launched in any market by any company needs to reach a tipping point before it becomes mainstream. Initially, to start with, the company brands itself to gain attention of a certain demographic to which their product has the greatest appeal. These initial adopters of the product help the company, in terms of Geoffrey Moore, cross the chasm. They become the advocates of the product and ambassadors of the brand. This is where the marketing to the mainstream starts. The company broadens its target customer base to strike a broader segment. They get a lot of help from the cult members in this attempt. If the product has that mass appeal to the mainstream World, slowly the cult gets bigger and bigger and as the brand starts taking the mainstream position, the cult shapes itself as the mainstream market.
To support this argument with an example, I cannot think of a brand that explains it better than Apple Computers Inc. Apple has been historically a brand which was loved by a certain group of people who loved using the Apple branded computers with Mac operating systems on it. Apple came up with the same phenomenon of coupling up its proprietary hardware with software when it launched the Apple iPod. iPod worked only with Apple computers and was warmly received by the same people who loved the Apple computers. The cool look and feel of iPod soon started making buzz in the industry. After getting substantial product feedback and a loyal customer base, Apple launched the next version of iPod which could work on Windows powered computers as well. This was the first step Apple took to bring itself and the iPod product into the mainstream. The initial adopters of the brand helped Apple by making iPod a fashion symbol attracting more and more people towards it. Apple also launched iTunes that allowed people to download music one song at a time, revolutionizing the music industry. Next Apple came up with models of iPod to meet the requirement of an even bigger market, attracting everyone with an iPod for every budget. And the rest is all well known. Apple iPod holds more than 80% market share of the US hard drive-based music player market and iTunes has captured more that 70% share of all PC-based digital music download market. So a brand that started with a cult has now captured the mainstream market.
An important point to note here is that the iPod has a mass appeal. It is very important to notice this. Everything aside, a cult brand can only take on the mainstream competitors if it has that mass appeal. But if it does, it is better positioned than any other brand out there of the same strength to take on the mainstream market. Why? The answer is simple, and I think logical, its easier to convert a noticeable brand that some people love into a brand everyone loves as compared to a not noticeable brand that no one hates.