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Fine-tuning fanaticism: A guide to building a cult brand

by Casey Schmidt  |  November 18, 2020

9 min. read

Cult brands benefit from an especially loyal, sometimes fanatic, customer base. There is a big difference between a cult brand and a successful brand, though there are some similarities to be aware of.

Someone giving a thumbs up.

So, what does it take to become a cult brand? There’s no surefire way to make it happen, but there are some ways to give yourself a chance.

This guide will walk you through the dynamics of a cult brand and how you can develop into one.

What is a cult brand?

A cult brand has a special appeal to its customers, intriguing them and keeping them loyal at a dogmatic level. People see cult brands’ products and services as part of a lifestyle choice rather than just a purchase. This creates feelings of inclusion for customers.

How to reach cult brand status

Most brands wish to reach the level of cult brand status, since brand loyalty means customers will stick around through thick and thin. However, it takes unique forms of creativity and originality combined with deep understanding of markets to make this happen. As you already know, there are plenty of successful brands that aren’t considered cult brands. This occurs when a brand has strong brand recognition but ultimately fails to reach levels of fanaticism.

Lightbulbs facing opposing direction.

A cult brand finds the secret to eliciting powerful emotions from their target market, guiding them to find deeper meaning in buying a product or service. This is typically accomplished through advertisements and publications that bring to life subtle ideas that their brand is massively different from competitors. The common denominator is that this brand is a unique idea that is worth sticking with.

Pulling it off requires a solid cultural understanding, creative execution and a bit of luck. But for brands that succeed, it’s more than worth the trouble. To see why, let’s take a look at how brands benefit from cult status.

Dynamic benefits of being considered a cult brand

A cult brand is able to retain loyal customers who use their specific products and services exclusively or near-exclusively over long periods of time.

That means they can invest less in rebranding and product innovation, and worry less about what their competitors are doing. Though renovation and progress is still an important part of a brand that has cult status, it is less crucial.

Two people shaking hands.

Another benefit is that when a brand undergoes changes to their products and services, it will not be met with much skepticism by their target market. This type of change can be costly and time-consuming, but a strong brand is able to maintain customers without massive marketing campaigns intended to justify the changes.

In order to achieve these benefits, you’ll need a strong reference point to consider. Here are some example cult brands that will help you along.

7 examples of cult brands

The following brands have, for many different reasons, gained cult status. Use them as an example to guide your own efforts.

1. Harley Davidson

A man sitting on a motorcycle.

“With Harley, you build it, then you’ve got to take it apart.” – Noah Hathaway

What it is: Harley Davidson is a motorcycle manufacturer that has stood the test of time with its products and events that surround the iconic brand.

Why it’s considered a cult brand: Buying a Harley Davidson motorcycle is similar to joining a family, a family of loyal riders who share something unique and special together on the road. This group of people wouldn’t ever consider buying a bike other than a Harley. While some cult brands are crazes or fads, Harley Davidson has stood the test of time, maintaining cult status over generations.

How it achieved cult status: Harley Davidson adapted the idea that riding a bike should be a luxury while also a sign of freedom. Speed is a large part of other bikes, but the Harley signifies more than performance, and their target market recognized that and bought into the idea.

2. Apple

Apple brand gear.

What it is: Apple is a technological brand that innovates computers, smartphones and other electronics. Part of what makes Apple stand out, besides its popularity and longevity, is its marketing. People often cite the Apple advertisements as effective and the reason they were initially drawn to their products.

Why it’s considered a cult brand: Apple users have drawn a line in the sand, so to speak, when it comes to particular products. If they buy a new computer, it will be an Apple. Each smartphone they buy will be an Apple as well. It might extend even further, to their digital music purchases and other accessories. It’s just not very likely for someone who’s always had Apple smartphones, to suddenly purchase an Android.

How it achieved cult status: There are many ways Apple was able to achieve cult status. The first is that Apple made its customers stick with them by making it inconvenient not to. Apple products are often designed in a way that requires users to upgrade in order to stay on the cutting edge, and these products don’t allow users to make customizations. You’re also accustomed to the specific Apple systems, making it much harder to switch to, say, Windows.

They also present themselves as a forward-thinking brand with aesthetic products that is always going to innovate and give its customers the best technology. Because Apple was able to be such a trendsetting brand, it stands to reason that people would buy their products so that they’d be part of the trendsetters and not the followers. Their senior VP of internet software and services, Eddy Cue, put it best when he said, “I bleed Apple.


The IKEA website.

I mean, I never liked being told what to do. It’s one of the reasons I dropped out of school. Give me something to assemble, I won’t look at the directions, I’ll try to figure it out by myself. It’s why I love IKEA furniture.” – Dave Grohl

What it is: IKEA is a brand that delivers furniture to its customers, which requires the customer to assemble each piece. It also sells other household appliances, but the do-it-yourself items are what seem to make IKEA so popular.

Why it’s considered a cult brand: Some people like the challenge of erecting something that is especially difficult to do so, others like the money it saves. In the case of challenging builds, they enjoy the idea of sharing these moments with others socially. IKEA gives them that chance, while also coming up with innovative ways for customers to change the way their living space looks.

How it achieved cult status: The concept of IKEA spreads quite rapidly through word-of-mouth, especially in online platforms like social media, where it’s a common occurrence to reference the brand and relate to others about the difficulty and accomplishment of piecing together some IKEA furniture. This has made it easy for customers to remain loyal and choose IKEA whenever they need to redecorate.

4. Starbucks

A Starbucks coffee cup.

What it is: Starbucks is a coffeehouse chain that has grown itself into widespread success through unique marketing campaigns and events that make it stand apart from its competitors and keep its customers loyal.

Why it’s considered a cult brand: You can expect that people who habitually buy Starbucks coffee will continue to do so even when it’s not convenient to do so and competing coffee brand chains are closer geographically. The word ‘coffee’ has even sometimes become interchangeable with the word ‘Starbucks’.

How it achieved cult status: When thinking about what lures customers to Starbucks, it’s tough not to acknowledge the impact of writing names on the product has been. It seems like it is Starbucks’s ‘thing’, and this has personalized the experience. It truly gained its cult following by turning coffee into an experience with many different flavors and types of drinks. Also the atmosphere of each location brings to life the things that make a coffeehouse visit great.

5. Crossfit

A man swinging an exercise rope.

What it is: Crossfit is an exercise brand that attempts to get its customers into shape through the use of weights and aerobic activity combined, in a manner that is not typical to other fitness gyms or workout regimes.

Why it’s considered a cult brand: People who do Crossfit generally take it very seriously, competing in specialized competitions exclusively for Crossfit routines, forming relationships with other members and talking about the brand on social media.

How it achieved cult status: The Crossfit brand made an impact by creating a culture that extends much further than working out. Though the workouts are intense and grueling, there is also an aspect of Crossfit that makes it seem like a social gathering.

6. Krispy Kreme

Krispy Kreme donuts in a box.

What it is: Krispy Kreme is a donut and coffeehouse company that has gained a cult following, creating unique donuts that are in a category all by themselves for many customers.

Why it’s considered a cult brand: The Krispy Kreme original donut is a glazed donut that for whatever reason has caught on with a distinct group of people who swear by it over any other donuts. Taste is subjective, but something Krispy Kreme is doing has stood out for many people.

How it achieved cult status: There are a lot of things Krispy Kreme does that people talk about and that gain traction for the brand. One thing is the ‘Hot now’ sign on the stores, that indicates they’ve just cooked a fresh batch of the donuts, which many believe taste even better when warm. Similar to other cult brands, it has taken over the product name in many circles, as some say they are eating a ‘Krispy Kreme’ instead of saying ‘donut’.

7. Red Bull

A can of Red Bull in ice.

What it is: Red Bull is the most popular energy drink brand available, and it has grown into something much bigger than merely a beverage brand. People see the Red Bull logo and think of both energy drinks and Red Bull’s successful sponsorship branding, like extreme sporting events.

Why it’s considered a cult brand: No other beverage brands have the kind of impact in other areas of people’s lives than Red Bull. People not only buy the product, they also experience the brand through many different achievements and sponsored events.

How it achieved cult status: Red Bull attracts many different people to its brand through cool events that don’t relate necessarily to energy drinks. For example, they sponsored a space jump, which was watched by millions live on the internet.

Closing thoughts

At the end of the day, it’s ultimately out of our control whether or not a brand will reach the cult level.

Instead of solely striving for this achievement, look for ways to hit the fundamentals that other cult brands had in place to begin with. Only then do you have a chance to succeed.

If you want to hear more about branding, take a look at our complete branding guide.