How does a brand become a “cult” brand?

By: Marc Whitehead, Managing Director, Cult Collective LP (US)

Some brands are born to attract a cult-like following, others learn what it takes over time as they come to “believe", “behave" and ultimately “become" a cult brand.

The leadership of our agency, after studying the characteristics of brands that built cult-like followings, wrote a book called The Fix to explain what they discovered. To summarize - there are 10 traits of Cult Brands, characteristics which represent how these brands believe and behave differently in the service of advocacy, rather than simply acquisition. Things like be remarkable, have purpose, and be pervasive all bubbled to the surface as some of these 10 key indicators.

Brands who embrace these traits understand that the linear, purchase-funnel marketing model taught for decades in business schools is outdated, and that engagement is a more effective and lasting relationship goal with consumers than simply providing entertainment or education to prompt a transaction or other behaviour. Cult brands focus on stimulating attachment, which pushes them to deploy audience-centric tools and programs, monitor success with more qualitative metrics, and empower their internal teams to see the brand from the customer’s perspective. Above all, they believe that marketing is about far more than communications, it’s about creating a customer experience based on a clear and valued proposition, relentless service delivery, and a shared culture that both the brand and the consumer takes pride in.

What makes a retail experience engaging

As I’m sure you understand by reading this so far, I am a big believer that catering to the emotional feelings of your customers are central to creating the very best and most engaging brand experiences, especially in a retail environment. I wish more retailers believed this, but let me share examples of a few retailers in North America who, in my experience, do.

Sport Clips

The need for a haircut is something that, like death and taxes, is a fairly regular and predictable experience for many people. Despite this ritual, there has been precious little innovation in the retail haircut business for decades. The barbershop begat the high priced salon, which begat the low priced strip mall haircut joint. Then, in 1993, Sport Clips was launched. I confess I am an advocate. Going to Sport Clips is an experience. There are big screen TVs in the waiting room, and a personal big screen beside the mirror when you’re seated, locked on 24/7 sports programming. The hair cutters are dressed in sporting outfits, and well versed in sports for whatever level of banter you want to dive into. They open a gym locker and produce a towel, comb and haircutting tools that they explain are just for you. There are services like the MVP, which includes a chair massage while they wash your hair, pipping hot towels, and a recording of exactly how you like you cut so that anyone at any store can treat you like a regular. I will happily pay more than double what I used to pay for a straightforward cut, so I can enjoy a haircut “experience", because Sport Clips are as obsessive with how I feel as how I look.

Cracker Barrel

My first visit to Cracker Barrel, a US chain of what is now categorized as fast casual restaurants, was back in the late 1980’s. On a road trip with my wife and four young kids, we decided to stop in to enjoy a sit down meal at a restaurant that wasn’t familiar for its burgers or happy meals for a change. Boy what a change! The concept of the restaurant is country-style American cooking - meat loaf, chicken-fried-chicken, roast beef with mashed potatoes, etc. A bit of a nod back to simpler times. The porch of each restaurant features big rocking chairs and porch swings, which can be not only enjoyed, but purchased. The entrance to the restaurant required a walk through what was staged as an old time country store, complete with Americana branded clothes, toys and nick nacks from classic brands like Coke, John Deere, Harley Davidson and others, all for sale.

This was a foreign concept for us, decades before the latest trend of Grocerants. If your table wasn’t ready yet, you were fully distracting wandering the store. Once you were seated in the restaurant, you notice an oversized fireplace burning real logs, with several tables for two, complete with checkerboard games for those who have a bit of a wait for their food. And once you were finished and heading out, you could rent audio tapes/CDs for an extremely reasonable price, filled with kids stories to entertain them on the road, which simply needed to be returned at another Cracker Barrel along the route, ensuring a return visit. The food was tasty and affordable, the stop was recharging for a long drive, and we still visit them 30 years later because this nostalgia-concept store has now become part of our own family nostalgia. This is a brand that puts its customers firmly at the centre of an experience that taps into the zeitgeist of nostalgia, without feeling inauthentic or contrived.


Although I’ve tried to keep my examples to those not available in Australia, I need to include this on my list. Apple redefined the retail experience for computer shopping back when they opened the first Apple store in Virginia in 2001, and in many ways it has affected hundreds of other retailers in different categories ever since. I don’t think I’ve been in a client discussion over the past decade with a retailer wishing to reinvent itself who didn’t ask for my thinking about what they would look like if they were more like Apple (a grass-fed beef start up and a network of retail health & wellness stores in the past 3 months alone). There are three things that make Apple engaging and remarkable for me:

1. Everyone staff member can, and will, help

You don’t need to figure out who can help answer your question, or book an appointment for you, or cash you out. Every staff in the store is capable (and willing) to help you with your particular need, or find the perfect resource if not. No one shoves you off to someone else, rather they add someone else to your "personal help team". And if they need to get someone else, they seat you and that person comes to you. For your first visit, this may feel odd, because it is so unlike what you are used to, but once you understand it, you embrace the difference, because you recognize that Apple has put you at the centre of your visit, not the other way around.

2. The experience trumps the product

They never seem to be selling anything. They present their products in a clean and uncluttered fashion, like a museum display. The staff are happy to answer questions, provide suggestions, and explain why you might make one choice over another. A transaction only begins when I decide, not the Apple staffer. And in those cases when I want to expedite my experience, I can grab a product on the shelf and check out on my own device, without the need to engage a staff member at all. I always feel like I’m in control, like I own the agenda of my shop, whether I’m in a hurry or not, whether I need advice or I’m just browsing. Which, of course, makes me want to buy everything!

3. The sale is not the end, but a new beginning

I had the great fortune of managing the Apple account in Canada, and of being a member of the global agency team. One of the first things I learned, was the most important success metric Apple measured - how much more will an Apple loyalist pay for an Apple product, than an IBM loyalist for IBM, Dell loyalist for Dell, etc. They’ve always understood the importance of not only transactional measures of success, but of its connection to loyalty.

You can see this in action in an Apple Store, notably with their Genius Bar. Once you own an Apple product, the brand is there for you throughout the life of your device. Need help setting up your new computer, tablet or phone? An Apple specialist will sit down with you and walk you through it. Want to learn how to use an app or feature? Apple stores run hour-long workshops to teach you. Experiencing an issue with your product? Book an appointment and a Genius member will help solve it. And amazingly, all this is free of charge. No matter what age your product is or whether it is still under warranty, you can get help. They understand that a product purchase is not the end of the marketing funnel, but a fresh opportunity to build loyalty with the brand that fosters lifetime engagement, advocacy and support.


Marc Whitehead is a keynote speaker at D + T Collective and ADMA’s upcoming Hot Topic event: Remaking retail. Get your tickets here to hear Marc speaking on Retail in the 21st Century and why you may not be selling what you think.