How companies become cults

(Credit: Harley-Davidson)

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Just about the best possible thing that can happen to any business is to build a cult following, as these companies and others have done. Intense customer loyalty provides great job security, increases customer spending, reduces price pressure (other than in the rare situations where the following is built mainly around cheap prices), and promotes extraordinary, evangelical word-of-mouth that's more valuable than any advertising.

In short, cult companies set themselves apart, usually dramatically so, in one or more of these areas:

Product: Perhaps ironically, a product doesn't have to be the best to transfix customers, only strike a chord. There aren't many objective arguments to be made that the Mazda Miata or Volkswagon Beetle are the best cars on the road, but both vehicles' fun factor, affordability, and nostalgic appeal (warts and all) has endeared them to drivers for decades.

Service: If your company's service is fantastic -- not good, not great, I mean insanely, over-the-top, beyond-compare fantastic -- customers will stick to you like glue. My favorite go-to customer service company, shoe and clothing retailer Zappos, is pretty much writing the book on that these days. In a consumer environment where there are almost always loads of choices, trouncing the competition in service is often the key to winning customers' enduring devotion.

Community: Harley Davidson (HOG) is the prototypical community brand. Sports apparel company Lululemon, with a very different demographic, is another one of more recent note. But many other companies and products you probably have never heard of have enormously passionate communities built around them. The Lomo camera -- another case where the quality of the product isn't key to the cult (the cameras are in fact loved for their flaws) -- has attracted as obsessive a user community as you can get.

If your business or brand brings people together in some way, whether by common interest, status or cool factor, or even scarcity, you've got the makings of a community, and perhaps even a cult following.

Experience: This can often be a combination of any or all of the first three elements, but it doesn't have to be. It can be a less definable quality. Take IKEA. Although the products have a certain appeal, especially at their value-oriented prices, the brand's real magnetism is the singular experience of walking through the company's labyrinthine stores and taking it all in. That experience makes it very difficult to not buy something -- even if you thought you were just going to browse, you're likely to leave with a Swedish meatball in your belly and a "Kvarnvik" storage box or "Hylkje" mirror in your trunk.

The catch, unfortunately, is that it is very difficult to build a cult following by intention or plan; there's no "cult-building" business strategy that will guarantee elevation into this rarefied atmosphere. And throwing money at it can often have the opposite effect. But there are controllable factors that can greatly improve your odds of making it to marketing nirvana:

  • If you make something and have the option, make it unique, interesting, quirky, or immediately recognizable, even if only in small but attention-getting ways. This is always good business practice, but it's downright critical if you want a shot at the cult club -- lack of differentiation is guaranteed to keep you out.
  • Provide outrageously great customer service no matter what your business. If you think your service is already great, try to make it twice as great. This is probably the one area where you can methodically build an evangelical following. We all know the standard-bearers in this area: Zappos, Nordstrom (JWN), Southwest (LUV), and my very own hometown-based Wegmans. if people have unfailingly extraordinary interactions with your company, that can be enough to cultify you.
  • Engage with enthusiasm. Let your customers into your world and participate in theirs (whether via social media, community events, or prominent support of a lifestyle or activity -- Red Bull and extreme sports are now inseparable, for example). Don't be the arm's-length company that just takes their money.

Many businesses sell good stuff, provide good service, and have loyal customers, and that can be enough to do well. But taking it to the next level -- creating emotional attachment and rabid obsession -- is transcendent. It may take luck, it may happen by accident, but you can definitely put the right pieces in place to help it along.

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    Michael is an entrepreneur who has launched businesses including Skooba Design and Hotdog Yoga Gear travel bag brands, as well as Journeyware Travel Outfitters. Michael sold his company in 2014 and is now focused on writing, speaking and consulting. Learn more about his ventures at