Cult branding isn't easy to do. It's not enough to pump a bunch of money into hyping a product and hope that people adopt it as a way of life.
In order to achieve that special connection with consumers, the brand has to have a unique appeal and be created at a grassroots level.
It has to be something that people want to be a part of, so that they have that sense of both identity and belonging. It's our nature to want to be part of a community of people with similar interests.
And so, a culture is created around the brand based on the personality of a small, niche group. From there, they spread the gospel and recruit more followers.
Wegmans, the regional supermarket chain, is a 90+ year-old family business that has been called "the most family-friendly supermarket in America." It consistently ranks high in customer satisfaction and has a rabid base of consumers across the mid-Atlantic.
On its website, Wegmans writes that in 2003, almost 5,800 loyal customers wrote "love letters" to the company, with almost half of the letters including pleas to build supermarkets in their communities. One letter included rewritten lyrics to "Yesterday" by the Beatles:
A Wegmans store, it seemed so far away.
But a new one opened in Dulles today.
Now I will drive
Towards Wegmans' way.
Wegmans mania reached a new high when a group of musical theatre students in Massachusetts created an entire musical based on the brand. They rewrote popular Broadway songs in praise of the store.
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Lululemon, creators of the preferred spandex of yoga enthusiasts and "cool moms" everywhere, laid the ground for its iconic lifestyle brand in Vancouver. Its first store was designed to be a hub devoted to "healthy living" where people could discuss their athletic endeavors and holistic practices, but ended up being too busy to do anything but sell its products.
Today, in addition to selling $98 yoga pants, Lululemon hosts yoga classes and designates store ambassadors who "embody the Lululemon lifestyle" (one question on the ambassador application asks "how does the lululemon manifesto speak to you?")
In the 1990s, Linux was the operating system that stuck with computer engineers. Early in the decade, they all used UNIX until 21-year-old college kid Linus Torvalds came up with Linux, touting it as an alternative.
What sets Linux apart from most cult brands is that not only did it breed evangelists, but it allowed those evangelists to directly affect the product and brand because it's open source.
It attracted much of the programming community, and as a collective, they created Tux the penguin, which has become quite an icon.
Do you have narrow feet? Wide feet? Are you in the market for those amphibious running shoes, or vegan loafers? If you're searching for hard-to-come-by soles, you may catch the Zappos fever.
The online shoe and apparel retailer, whose motto is "delivering happiness," has amassed a devoted following of footwear fanatics since its founding. Zappos devotees are drawn to the store's seemingly limitless selection of shoes, customer service practices (they offer free shipping and a 365 day return policy), and slightly off-beat culture.
Surge, the Coca Cola-made soda modeled after a Norwegian soft drink, has maintained its following though the product has been off the market for ten years. In its short, six-year lifespan, Surge was able to win over the hearts and taste buds of action sports enthusiasts (think Mountain Dew's target audience).
Some loyalists are still actively campaigning for Coca Cola to have Surge make a comeback. "The Surge Movement: Dedicating to saving your favorite citrus soda," a Facebook group with over 6,000 members, urges members to call Coke's headquarters in support of the soft drink.
Savesurge.org has the same mission, and tells its members that "as long as their are people like us, independent bottlers, and even URGE in Norway - hope will not be lost" and Surge will return.
The Mazda Miata, a small, two-door convertible, is pretty bare bones in terms of amenities. But the $25,000 roadster enjoys a true cult following.
A 2001 Forbes article shared an anecdote where Reverend James S. Massie, Jr. presided over the "wedding" of 250 devoted drivers and their beloved Miatas, where car-owners promised to "love, honor, clean and provide after-market accessories for their vehicles." At the end, Massie pronounced the duos "car and driver."
Today, it seems that the miniature Miata has maintained its allure. One website lists 77 Miata meetup clubs throughout the world, some with strict by-laws.
Vans markets itself as more than a company: it's a lifestyle. The action sports brand has proven itself to be a leader in skate and snowboarding culture that extends far beyond selling apparel.
Vans promotes events that include "Go Skateboarding Day" and sponsors its well-known "Warped Tour," an extreme sports and musical festival. The company is has enough confidence in its brand that it expects to rake in an additional $1 billion by 2016.
To underscore its commitment to the skating way of life, Vans is opening an enormous skateboarding complex in Huntington Beach, California that will include "a 14,000-square-foot skate park plaza, a 13,000-square-foot skate bowl and a 3,500-square-foot skate shop and concession stand." This free public playground will be welcomed with open arms by Vans' Golden State fanbase.
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Coors was the original cult beer, but mass distribution and company mergers resulted in its losing its cult luster. Long ago, Corona also had a close-knit, devoted following — one that couldn't be maintained as its popularity grew.
Now, Yuengling is filling the role. The Pennsylvania-brewed beer is part of the state's local culture, and though its now the second-largest brewer in the United States (that brews all of its beer domestically), it still has a ravenous following.
Yuengling's following is particularly evident in places where the beer hasn't been distributed yet. In 2011, a Northeast Ohio news station reported that when Yuengling began selling its iconic beverage in the area, some residents camped out at liquor stores in anticipation of its debut. One customer expressed his relief that he no longer needed to trek across the Ohio-Pennsylvania border to buy cases of his beloved brew.
The Heineken-owned Dos Equis brand took a much different approach from Yuengling in developing its cult following.
"The Most Interesting Man In The World," the brand's character from its national advertising campaign, has become nothing short of a phenomenon. With his tagline, "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I drink Dos Equis," the character has been so successful in building the Dos Equis community that the beer is now Heineken's key to conquering the U.S. market.
The Most Interesting Man In The World's success can be measured by the 250,620 likes on his Facebook page. He has also inspired a number of memes.
At first glance, the Mini Cooper's appeal may seem elusive. In a review, The Detroit News reported that the fabled car "shares measurements and basic design elements with industrial-size refrigerators." It also compared talking about the Mini's features to "sipping grape Kool-Aid and then discussing the tannins."
But the Mini has allure, demonstrated by fans' willingness to sign up on lengthy waiting lists for their customized cars. For just upwards of $20,000, customers can buy a stylish stick-shift with Euro flair. Great gas mileage is an added bonus.
Harley-Davidson is the prototypical cult brand professors refer to in business schools everywhere. That's because its one of the earlier companies to truly develop a 'lifestyle' brand.
Much of the credit for that goes to the "Harley Owners Group" grassroots initiative the brand fired up in the mid-1980s. Membership started with dealership promotions and spread by word-of-mouth. People had groups they could meet up with and develop bonds — all based around the Harley brand.
It became more than an echo chamber because these people would go out and recruit more Harley enthusiasts to join. Eventually, they created a movement.
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Despite an initial lack of acceptance, within a few years H.O.G. chapters started appearing around the country. The spread of these groups was guerrilla marketing at its best; membership was generated primarily from inexpensive promotions at dealerships and word-of-mouth. H.O.G. groups gave enthusiasts a structured way to meet, swap stories, and schedule rides with other evangelists.
Trader Joe's prides itself on its unique shopping experience and diverse offerings. From its $2.99 bottle of wine dubbed "Two-Buck Chuck" to its "edamame hummus," shopping at T.J's is akin to shopping at your local Farmer's Market or gourmet specialty store, without the steep prices.
Anyone who's been to Trader Joe's during the post-work grocery rush can attest to the brand's devoted customer base. "The I Love Trader Joe's Cookbook: 150 Delicious Recipes Using Only Foods from the World's Greatest Grocery Store" has been touted as a cooking bible for its loyal fans.
One customer, dedicated to making this ode despite security threats from the manager, showed off what Trader Joe's means to him.
Many scooter companies have come and gone in the 67 years since the Vespa was created, but this iconic Italian motorino has withstood the test of time. The sleek bike helped millions achieve mobility in the post WWII era, and still enjoys wild popularity worldwide.
On Meetup.com, there are currently 43 groups in North America dedicated to Vespa riding and culture. "The San Diego Scooter Squadron" and "NYC Scooter Chicks" are among the groups inviting prospective members to join them for bike rides and tip-sharing.
Coca-Cola, one of the most iconic brands ever made, has one really strange branding aberration: "Mexican Coke."
Though branded the same as Coca-Cola, Mexican Coke enthusiasts swear that this version is far better than its American counterpart; perhaps this is because Mexico's Coca Cola is made with sugar, while the American kind is nearly always sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
There are a number of Facebook groups devoted to the superiority of Mexican Coke (including this one with 7,000 members) and those committed enough to finding this version stateside can sometimes score it at convenience stores catering to the Mexican community.
The Volkswagen Beetle remained a symbol of style throughout the 20th century. The car was photographed during the Second World War, Woodstock, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It has also appeared in movie classics including Annie Hall and Footloose. It should come as no surprise that a car that has managed to stay current while respecting its storied history has a dedicated fanbase.
While VW's beloved bug has long been popular with the young, female demographic, recent design changes have been made with the hopes of attracting more male drivers. Let's hope that the 2012 model's squished top doesn't swat away Bug loyalists.
Swedish furniture giant IKEA has amassed a global following of style-conscious twenty-somethings looking to furnish their 500 sq. feet apartments, and novice decorators in search of a good deal.
IKEA's influence transcends providing chic couches en masse. The superstore won the hearts and minds of cost-conscious New Yorkers when the company began operating a water taxi from Wall Street's Pier 11 to its relatively-inaccessible store in Brooklyn.
It has also made its way into pop culture; in the popular Australian television series "Summer Heights High," the main character talks about directing "IKEA The Musical: A Furniture Song and Dance Spectacular."
What about other big brands like Apple, Starbucks and Whole Foods?
The infamous Cult of Mac spans far and wide, with a deep obsession with anything and everything Apple. Starbucks blankets America, driving endless droves of coffee-lovers to its baristas. Whole Foods fans swear by the huge supermarket chain's pesticide free cantaloupes.
Are these followers still a cult if the companies they fawn over have grown into some of the world's biggest and most successful multinational corporations?