China Brand Cults vs Western Brand Cults

Sep 8, 2022

“Brand cult” is a term often used to refer to brands with highly loyal fan bases whose behaviour verges on fanaticism. The most significant difference between the cult following of a brand and usual brand loyalty is that “followers” of brand cults tend to be very defensive of “their” brands, have a strong sense of belonging, and actively help promote the brands and their products. 

The term “cult” was first used to describe some Western brands and the unique phenomena they created. However, we can observe something similar in China as there is a growing passion for building its own local international brands instead of being a global factory. 

Brands like NIO and Xiaomi have attracted attention due to their fans’ extraordinary enthusiasm. Brand community members volunteer to promote the brands through self-initiated events or community/fan gatherings, which have subconsciously become part of their self-identity. However, despite them bearing such similarities of being “brand cults“, we see different approaches Chinese brands have taken to become brand cults compared to their western counterparts.  

Best of the Industry vs Most Suitable Choice

Usually, the brand cults we see in the West are top players in the industry, with strong innovation, leading technologies, and the best products to offer. But interestingly, that is not necessarily the case in China.  

Xiaomi cannot compete with Apple on innovation. Instead, it has taken a different approach to attract consumers – it aims to achieve the best balance point between technology, design, quality, and price through its products. It continues to benefit those who can’t afford to buy Apple by adapting the newest technologies. Under this strategy and co-creation with its core consumers, Xiaomi formed its cult-following: Xiaomi offers the best experience within a limited budget. It might not be the company that is leading in technology. Still, to MiFan (what Xiaomi fans call themselves), this is the company they feel genuinely recognises their needs and the company they consistently return to due to this emotional bond. 

Founder as a Spiritual Leader vs Founder as Your Friend

The different positioning of local brand cults in China vs brand cults originating in the West leads to the distinct difference in the founder’s image as part of their marketing strategies. Brands like Apple, Tesla & Harley Davidson often come with a story of the legendary founders and their path to personal success. Apple epitomises the inspiring story of Silicon Valley, in which Steve Jobs transformed his garage start-up into the world’s most successful tech brand. Elon Musk of Tesla is known for his vision, ambition, and persistence. 

Famous leaders of brand cults in China – such as Xiaomi’s CEO Lei Jun or NIO’s CEO William Li –stand in front of the stage to introduce their products rather than portray themselves as “successful people” who are “leading” the brand and the industry. They want to project the image of a cordial old friend accessible to their users. They show up as someone always willing to serve and listen to the needs of their customers to ensure what they make is what consumers want.

Following vs Deep Co-Creating

Based on different positioning of the brands, there are also particular ways to engage consumers. For example, brand cults in the West, especially tech companies with cutting-edge innovations like Apple, often see themselves as inspiring leaders who create a future vision to be followed by their fans. In contrast, Chinese brands like NIO and Xiaomi choose to cultivate the brand together with their fans through co-creation.  

In 2020, NIO Day hosting became a competition as the brand started receiving applications from car clubs in different cities. The selection process seemed almost like applying for the Olympics. First, representatives must present why their city is the perfect choice by introducing its culture, entertainment, safety, the site chosen for the event, and even the COVID situation. Next, nominees entering the final round are invited to NIO headquarters to deliver their final statements. Then, the city car clubs volunteer to prepare for the application, gather votes and plan for the annual celebration. 

In addition, freedom is given to consumers to celebrate their own brand day and let them decide what they want to see. In 2019, the main NIO Day event lasted for about one and a half hours, in which only half an hour was the brand’s new product launch. The remaining hour was dedicated to performances prepared by NIO car owners and the brand’s interaction with consumers. 

Other than that, NIO car owners have actively contributed ideas to the company vision, product development, and brand promotion. This process of “deep engagement” and “achieving something together” creates a strong sense of ownership of the brand among its users. This leads to high loyalty and intense commitment – the fans consider it a point of pride and are enthusiastic about showcasing their love for the brand.  


Not all brands become brand cults, but it would be helpful to learn how we can possibly have more consumers who constantly come back to us. By analysing brand cults in China and comparing them to their Western counterparts, we aim to show different approaches to building brand loyalty in the market.  

The Chinese brand examples are worth referring to for brands with limited resources that cannot directly compete with top brands in the industry – they don’t need to become the best to build their own brand cults. Instead, it is a competition to find the most suitable way to engage their consumers and establish a long-term relationship based on their market positioning. 

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