“Apple has no customers; Apple has fans”, a popular saying goes. Sure enough, there seems to be something to that. Just think of the scores of people camping in front of the company’s stores before launches, the dedicated online community engaged in tealeaf reading about the next innovations, and, of course, the messiah-like status of its late founder, Steve Jobs.
Apple has reached the pinnacle of branding. It has become a cult. Cult brands have a passionate, loyal following who love a brand for its own sake. They are not just famous brands like Coca-Cola or Amazon but also beloved, trusted, and emphatically defended against any detractor, with a fanbase willing to live the brand.
How does a brand do this? Can something be learned from this feat, or is it just a unique and irreplicable genius of a maverick founder?
Good news! The Silicon Valley fruit company is not the only one who mastered the art of cult branding. Muji, Nintendo, Tesla, Snow Peak, Red Bull, and others are also considered cult brands with a similar enthusiast fanbase.
Three significant factors of cult brand success stand out across the board.
Offer a Unique and Compelling Point of View (POV)
Cult brands offer more than products. They deliver a different but valuable lifestyle in their philosophical underpinning; they provide a unique POV on life.
Take Muji. The fans of the iconic Japanese fashion brand are passionate about its products’ simple, minimalist aesthetic. Muji’s POV is subtractive: taking away visual clutter, simplifying life. The company’s obsession with serenity—from product design to store music—all cater to that. Muji offers, first and foremost, simplicity. Its products are only the carriers of that abstract good.
Nintendo, too, offers seamlessness—seamless fun. While other gaming companies compete in the graphics department, Nintendo went a different route, focusing on gameplay and the connecting experience games offer. Instead of having the most photo-realistic games around town, Nintendo provides a board game feeling for the video console—a unique proposal.
Caption: Not afraid of pixels. Super Mario & Co. always were about gameplay, not about their looks. (Credit: Photo by Sahand Babali on Unsplash)
In short, every cult brand has a POV far beyond a product: Nintendo offers fun, Tesla the future, Snowpeak life in nature, and Red Bull extreme sports.
The best POV won’t help much if the company cannot also convince its core demographic to trust them.
To use Muji again, consider how the brand sprawled into a flurry of new markets and its fans entrusted it with decisions like what fridge should stand in their kitchens, what trousers to wear, and even what kind of houses would suit them.
Muji fans obsess even about the look, feel, flow, and grip of something as mundane as a pen (have a look at this blog, for example). But that’s the trick: Muji made sure its product choices were perfectly aligned with their POV, down to the detail.
Caption: The perfect pencil? Muji fans love it down to the (lead) core. (Credits: Picture from Muji.com.)
Steve Jobs once famously pointed out that it was precisely those choices that its customers paid them for making—partially inverting the logic that companies must follow the wishes of their customers. Instead, they must anticipate them, Jobs thought.
He was right. Cult brands make rigorous choices for what they imagine their customers would want. If they get it right, that inspires trust and, in turn, creates fellowship.
Keep Your Niche Defined but Porous
Lastly, the most successful cult brands leverage niche POVs that are small enough to keep a hard-core fanbase but easy to communicate to a larger audience. As a result, they have the potential to attract a much bigger group of customers who, although not from the core demographic, will benefit from the sub-culture the niche creates.
Not every Red Bull drinker does extreme sports but being associated with it is something most of its customers wouldn’t mind. Likewise, not every Muji item goes to a serenity-obsessed minimalist, but the nimbus of the simple life is something any customer can enjoy.
In other words, their subculture niche is porous. This allows for a dedicated “in group” without excluding average customers. While inside the fanbase, there is room for sub-cultures that keep the brand spirit alive and visible, the brand encourages the universalization of its POV.
And the Leaders?
Naturally, there are other factors supporting cult brands. Charismatic leaders like Elon Musk or Donatella Versace serve as quasi-idols to inspire devout followership. However, there are examples of cult brands with no strong leaders: Nintendo has no guru figure, but its focus on gameplay over graphics (POV), the track record of fantastic games (trust), and the easy-to-love characters (porous niche) are still creating loyal fans. The same goes for Muji or Red Bull. Leaderless cults are possible if the branding strategy is on point.
In short, cult brands have a unique point of view (POV) far beyond the products they create and inspire trust that they leverage to foster a dedicated, diehard fanbase that identifies strongly with this POV and forms a subculture at the core of the brand. All the while, the most successful cult brands work on universalizing their POV to let average customers share in the halo of the cult status. After all, the best niches are meant for the masses eventually.