The Power of Cult Branding:
Search of Your Best Customer
By BJ Bueno & Scott Jeffrey
Some called them brave – others, crazy. The American
motorcycle manufacturer born in a Milwaukee shed in 1903 drifted out
of greatness in 1965. Japanese motorcycle makers began churning out
less expensive, superior quality bikes. Worse yet, unreliable
engines were plaguing this great American legacy – the curse of any
Led by CEO Vaughn Beals on February 26, 1981, thirteen brave
Harley-Davidson Motor Company executives decided to buyback their
failing business in an $81.5-million leveraged buyout. Now, these
thirteen strong had no choice: turnaround the company or let it die.
focus primarily on generating the next transaction. Customer loyalty
is perceived as unattainable to merchants who figure, “We might as
well try to squeeze one more sale out of them.” But if you’re
battling for the next transaction, over time, you're destined to
lose. Customers who choose you based on price will leave you for the
Businesses with passion and heart build relationships with
their customers. There are decision-making factors that far exceed
price, selection and location. A company like Wal-Mart is masterful
at connecting with customers and offering them an intangible benefit
they can’t get anywhere else. Do you think millions of people shop
at Wal-Mart everyday because of price alone? If so, why do you think
people drove 20 miles past their local K-Mart to shop at Wal-Mart?
Both retailers had similar products with comparable prices. Wal-Mart
made the customer its boss, an approach heralded by founder Sam
Walton himself, and Walton’s loyal patrons felt it.
A rare few
businesses go a monumental step further. A Cult Brand is born when a
benign group of individuals rally around a brand’s lifestyle.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung called it the participation mystique.
These brands spark a magical participation with their customers;
they embrace a certain way of being, aligned to a specific set of
You can be a corporate attorney running frantically from
meeting to meeting, but when you enter a Jimmy Buffett concert you
morph into a Parrothead. Litigation, conference calls and the stress
of daily life slide into shadow. Now, you're all about burgers,
cocktails and connecting with friends in the paradise of
Cult Brands embrace what psychologist Abraham Maslow called
B-values – values that inspire humans to grow and reach their
potential. B-values include truth, goodness, beauty, wholeness,
aliveness, uniqueness, perfection, completion, justice, simplicity,
richness, effortless, playfulness and self-sufficiency. Within any
Cult Brand you’ll find B-values being awakened in their beloved
customers. Trekkie conventions and Mac User Groups embrace the value
of uniqueness. Margaritaville personifies the values of aliveness
Unlike destructive cults that damage people and their
surrounding communities, members of Cult Brands behave in
constructive ways towards their communities. Here, people fulfill
deeply-rooted human needs and enjoy the lifestyle the brand offers.
Within these coveted communities, you get to be who you really are
-- you are allowed to be happy, to be yourself, to be weird together
and feel weird no more.
Few authentic Cult Brands grace the business world, but we
know who they are. Their customers make sure we do: Apple,
Harley-Davidson, Oprah, Ikea, Southwest Airlines, Linux, Vans, Star
Trek, Jimmy Buffett, WWE and VW Beetle – the list isn’t very long.
Cult Brands have been in business for an average of over forty
years, fueled by the people who love them the most.
Our decade of research and study of Cult Brands shows that
great brands don't happen by accident. Unequivocal customer loyalty
– to be chosen over and over by a core group of customers who refuse
to shop at your competitors – takes conscious effort.
Cult Brands don't
just foster casual relationships with their customers; they find
ways to play an integral part in their lives. They embrace their
customers like members of a loving family, providing a safe
community for them to be who they really are. These brands are bold
and courageous – often disliked by many, but loved by a precious
few. We call these special few Brand Lovers.
These customers love their brand for reasons they probably
don’t fully understand, but they love their brand nonetheless. A
small legion of Brand Lovers will do more for the growth and
sustainability of your business than all the transactional customers
in the world. Not convinced? We’ve found that Pareto’s Law (the
80/20 Principle) holds: a small percentage of customers can drive
over 80 percent of profitability. It costs five times more to
acquire a new customer than keep an old one. Most importantly, the
customers who love you the most – your Brand Lovers – spread the
word and create new customers for you (just ask anyone who owns a
Mac, an iPod, or an iPhone).
Are all of your customers contributing equally to your
profits? It’s unlikely. There are certain customers who choose you
more often. These precious few are the lifeblood of your business.
Do you know who your best customers are? Without this
knowledge, you will take yourself out of business or your
competitors will do it for you.
company really listen to the feedback and suggestions of its
most loyal followers? What are these customers saying?
to be appreciated. They want their suggestions to be heard and
used. How do you reward your best customers? If you haven’t been
rewarding them, do it quickly before someone else does.
can do more to show its customers appreciation for their
business. What are new ways you can show your customers that you
“listen” and that you appreciate them?
Oh, and in case you’re wondering, those thirteen Harley-Davidson
executives listened intently to their Brand Lovers the way only Cult
Brands do. In 1984, they released a new engine called the Evolution
that extinguished many of their quality concerns. More importantly,
they worked hard to strengthen their relationship with their
customers, forming the Harley Owners Group (HOG) in 1983 – an
international customer club with over one million devoted owners.
Did their $81.5-million buyout pay off? A $10 billion company
valuation seems to answer that question quite nicely.
Read other articles and learn more about
Bueno and Scott Jeffrey.
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