Creating A Cult Following Behind Your Brand

Recently, I saw something amazing fold out before my eyes. It was a late Saturday night, all the friends were over and everyone were on the edge of their seats as the movie came out.

Less than five minutes later, I knew we had a cult hit.

The movie we were watching was The Room.

The Room has such terrible acting, story and cinematography that it becomes laughable. But here’s the thing – it’s now building a cult-like following much like those behind the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

You see, this is a movie that has the same feel as a train wreck performance from a major artist.

The atmosphere of the room was high excitement, everyone laughing and couldn’t help but add in their own riffs throughout the film.

It was amazing. Here are a dozen people surrounding a T.V. having a great time watching The Room.

It had me thinking: Is this the beginning of a cult-like following?

Elements of a cult following

There are two other movies which show the same cult-like following as I saw with The Room:

  • Pink Flamingos by John Waters
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show by Jim Sharman

Pink Flamingos is a raunchy indie film which has built a cult following from the edginess of the movie. Decades later, people are still screening the movie and it’s often still banned in many countries for its content.

What was Pink Flamingos success? It not only edged along the border of good taste during its release but jumped over the edge. The simple fact that it offered movie goers a completely new, extreme experience was reason enough to invite your friends to go check it out.

Likewise, Rocky Horror, since its release, certainly hasn’t been called a perfect example of cinematic work but its fans don’t care. Public screenings still happen nearly every weekend in which members and audience participate and interact throughout the movie.

What’s particularly interesting about The Room is how it’s building the same parallels that Rocky Horror has created. People are now showing up to screenings ready for participation, inviting their friends and now creating a high amount of buzz online.

For example: Throughout the movie (I don’t know why) there are pictures of spoons. Audience members caught on to this and now throw spoons at the screen whenever one appears on screen.

A few other participating acts audience members do:

  • Say ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ whenever a character enters. This is because almost every time someone enters, Johnny (main character) always says ‘oh hi’.
  • Whistling the Mission Impossible scene while Johnny sets up a tape recorder to the phone.
  • Throwing footballs around the theater when characters play catch on screen.

In fact, there’s over 30 different acts people have adopted during these screenings – that’s some serious cult following.

What does a cult following do for a brand?

I use The Room, Pink Flamingos and Rocky Horror as an example of how some cult-like followings begin and participate.

It doesn’t end at movies, many recognizable cult-like followings can be found with such brands as:

  • Apple
  • Blizzard
  • The Grateful Dead

The fanatics behind these brands are the same people that spread it to their friends. These are the people that go online, create blogs, chat, write extensive reviews and thoughts about the latest products – these are the people which build a powerful brand.

Apple is well know for a cult-like following. Despite a few flops throughout their business, Apple has repeatedly launched products and services which generate buzz months before any major information has been release. On launch day, a massive army of fan boys and friends fill Apple stores.

Blizzard has also created a cult-like following. In Korea, the entire economy essentially revolves around Starcraft. Despite being released well over a decade ago, many people play Diablo online. And of course, World of Warcraft with millions of players are so fanatical that it’s now the largest MMORPG.

Finally, regardless of whether or not you believe The Grateful Dead creates good music, their cult-like following follows them throughout their tour, attend every show, know every song and defends the band to the teeth. A great example is how you’re not allowed to in any Grateful Dead auction unless you can name a slew of songs that don’t appear on the greatest hits – that’s dedication.

Cult followings create:

  • Instant buzz for new products and services
  • Word-of-mouth marketing to friends and family
  • Early adopters that defend the brand to the bone

These people behind the brand are the true movers – they are there during the beginning, ready to follow the brand into whichever venture.

You see, mainstream is easy, mainstream is safe. The cult-following behind brands are on the edge, these early adopters know that they are apart of a small group of people that are “inside” with what they love months before it ever catches on with the mainstream.

How brand cults influence the mainstream

Let’s take a look at one of the biggest examples of what a cult-like following can do for a brand.

Google.

Google did something different – it kept search very minimal so everyone could easily utilize its features. Yahoo was simply too much with all of its directories and features; Yahoo was simply confusing to the average internet user.

What happened when people began to come online is they’d ask early internet adopters how to search and find information. Instead of trying to explain the whole process of digging through the Yahoo directory, we said “just Google it” – a now well known internet meme and expression.

The early adopters are what made Google what it is today. Sure, people could have easily stuck with Ask, Dogpile, Yahoo and other search engines but the nerds (like you and me) that found we could avoid headaches from non-technical users.

This early following helped catapult Google into the mainstream as more and more users would tell their friends “just Google it”. Not bad for a company worth billions of dollars now.

How to build a cult-like following

There’s no definitive method to building a cult-like following but there are certainly parallels you can follow which will set you on the right path.

  • DON’T TARGET EVERYONE. By targeting everyone in a broad appeal you won’t be able to carve your own mark within a niche. Appealing to everyone means it’s generic and otherwise boring.
  • GO AFTER THE EARLY ADOPTERS. The early adopters are the one that will build up your brand, generate buzz and talk about it online. These people are the ones you want because they will be the most passionate.
  • CREATE SOMETHING NOW. Waiting five years to launch your brand, product or service means you’re giving up time in which you could be building a following. Many people are looking for the solutions now, not in five years.
  • ENGAGE WITH THEIR MEDIA. Certain groups use certain platforms. If your brand following is very active with blogs, appeal to this by providing insider information which they could later write about.
  • HAVE FUN, MOCK OTHERS. Part of building a cult-like following is having fun. Big brands that stick to the line are boring; have fun with your brand, make your following laugh, mock yourself whenever you blunder.
  • KEEP IT GRASSROOTS. The early adopters picked up on the movie through friends or their own accord. When you try to influence others through mass marketing it completely destroys the fun and following. Allow it to naturally spread on its own; let the early adopters build the brand.

I believe a cult following is created when a certain group of people find a product or service which appeals directly to them. Not only does it satisfy the need but gives you something to talk about with your friends.

For example: I’ve watched the movie Hackers over 1,000 times (nearly every week since its release – a few times I’ve watched it 3 times in a day). I’ve met one of my best friends through talking about the movie – we can recite every line. This is a perfect example of a cult-like following: I go out of my way to make time to catch the flick.

I, like many others, strive to be the early adopter. I try to get on the inside before the mainstream picks it up. Learn everything about it, talk about with with friends, influence others to jump on board.

It’s people like you and I that are the early adopters which brands can truly benefit from.

I did NAAAT

I want to leave you with a perfect example of how even a single element of your brand can spread like wildfire.

In The Room, Johnny is dubbed (I don’t know why, I don’t think anyone knows which makes it part of the fun) so each expression is out of place, out of sync and variable levels of emotion.

The now famous line: “I did not hit her, I did NAAAT” is synonymous within the cult following of The Room. It’s so over the top and unexpected that I’ve found that my friends and I now say ‘I did NAAAT’. This simple mention amongst friends ignite discussions of the movie.

That’s the power of a cult following; when your brand has enough power to influence the daily lives without overly bombarding them with advertising.

There’s a certain hip factor when a cult-like following is able to stay underground. It’s much like an internet meme; once the mainstream picks up on it (think lolcats) it’s no longer funny so people then move onto the next thing.

By continually appealing to those which started the cult-like following, your brand will continually grow. Many years from now, after you’ve built your fanatical fan base, you can step back and let your brand go on its own – the cult-following will do all the work for you, they love your brand and the brand loves them.

13 Responses to “Creating A Cult Following Behind Your Brand”

  1. July 15, 2010 at 2:49 am #

    Outstanding post & a hilarious title Murlu!

    I especially like that you pointed out that focusing on a small part of the market and then catering to them once you have caught them.

    I have not seen ‘the room’ and it seems that I probably never will, but your point about things that are odd or even bad can gain popularity just because they are not normal or mainstream.

    Great post. Have a great day!

    • Murray Lunn
      July 15, 2010 at 2:56 am #

      Hey Mark, thanks for swinging by the blog and such an awesome comment!

      I listened to your interview recently and noticed how you said you had a bit of trouble finding your particular niche. I know what that’s like. Glad you found the post to be helpful. It can really show you how no matter how small a particular group is that you can still be very successful.

      I think that’s one common misconception about the web in general when people talk about niches.

      Let’s just say you wanted to make $3,000 a month, right? Well, it’s really unecessary to go after these huge niches because in reality you could make that $3,000 by selling 150 people a $20 item. Now imagine that, that’s only like only making 5 sales a day.

      So this idea that you have to dominate these big niches can be a common misconception.

      I really enjoyed how you were talking about how you simply love to do what you do – providing great value. While on your blog I saw that you’re already building a great following.

      So yeah, even with your community as you have it now it’s still such a huge feat.

      You could make a movie that a lot of people see and forget – or – you can create a cult hit that sticks around for generations :)

  2. Shiva | Web Magazine
    July 15, 2010 at 6:05 pm #

    Creating a Cult would be one of the best way a product/business can get a break but to create a ult following one needs to do lots and lots of hard work and the main thing that is needed is “to have a unique product” “something new”. Only then can a cult following be created.

    Well I too have not seen “The Room” and maybe will never be able to see it but still you have taken out some excellent points from it

    • Murray Lunn
      July 15, 2010 at 8:46 pm #

      Glad you got something out of it Shiva. It’s always really interesting to see cult followings behind brands, products and services. Sometimes it can be the most oddest of things.

      Case in point: look at all the people are are diehard fans of the cheese rolling game they hold in Europe. Running down a hill after some cheese? Totally awesome. You have to be really hardcore to be into that haha.

  3. July 17, 2010 at 12:41 am #

    Hi Murray,

    Love this post.

    I am reminded of that phrase, “it’s so bad, it’s good.” (about cult classics, not your post :) )

    This week I am completely enthralled with the Old Spice guy. Pure genius over there at Proctor & Gamble. Talk about creating a cult – I hated that guy’s first commercial and now I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.

    Let’s hope we find our own cult ideas soon.

    Cheers!

    • Murray Lunn
      July 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm #

      Hey Tammi,

      I was thinking about writing about Old Spice and how they’re shaping up viral marketing but I think everyone is so far into it that they truly understand it. I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s gone over so well. It’s not entirely edgy but the full on social interaction has turned it into a great success.

      I’m sure years from now people will still be buzzing about the Old Spice commercials :)

      • July 18, 2010 at 3:46 am #

        During that Old Spice promotion I also saw a Wheat Thins commercial where Nabisco sent out a truck full of WT to the home of a Tweeter that mentioned WT.

        I think we are just beginning to see how marketers are going to marry social media to traditional advertising.

        Good times.

        • Murray Lunn
          July 18, 2010 at 3:51 am #

          Haha! That sounds crazy. Not sure what you’d do with a truckload of wheat thins but it would definitely leave an impression and because it’s so large you’d easily start sharing it with everyone you know.

          These are really great viral examples Tammi. Instead of companies spending millions on advertising, interrupting our daily lives we’re seeing a rise in passive advertising where we’re the center point – change is good :)

        • July 16, 2011 at 2:51 am #

          The Wheat Thins commercial is as brilliant as the fact that they actually did it. How long do think it will be before that kid is no longer known as That Guy Who Got An Entire Truckload of Wheat Thins? Ever?

          Probably not. He will probably tell his grandchildren about that. Honestly, it’s hard to say what is more viral – the commercial itself, or the word of mouth impact of actually delivering a truckload of Wheat Thins to a tweeter for bad mouthing one’s brand.

  4. Ilka Flood
    July 19, 2010 at 10:31 pm #

    Hi Murray,

    Wow! When I first started reading I was ready to click away. (I don’t like those kind of movies.) But then you went into the good stuff ;)

    I like how to tied it all together. It definitely is a good idea to go after a targeted market if you want to be successful.

    Great article!

    Ilka

    • Murray Lunn
      July 20, 2010 at 9:26 pm #

      Thanks Ilka

      I think it shows the perfect example how it’s almost an illusion that you need these massive numbers on Twitter, subscribers and friends on social networks to be successful. If you just have a handful of highly effective and smart people to network with you can really do some big things.

      Thinking about it more deeply; the biggest CEOs and business owners don’t realistically take opinion and try to keep up with thousands of people, they have a their “go-to” people that get the job done. Of course, the community definitely matters – 100 highly passionate people will be infinity more affective over 1,000,000 that don’t listen.

      What’s your take Ilka, what are your ideas on an “ideal” size of cult-like followers?

      • Ilka Flood
        August 1, 2010 at 6:53 pm #

        I totally agree with you, Murray. I have changed whom I follow on Twitter or Facebook and whom I accept as friends. It doesn’t do me any good to keep up with people I have absolutely nothing in common with.

        What’s my ideal size? Well, each of us knows at least 250 people. Of these 250 (who know you by name by the way) you should know at least 20% very well. Start from there and expand. Ask for referrals!

        • Murray Lunn
          August 2, 2010 at 1:05 am #

          Moderation is key :)

          I like your approach Ilka. So many just want to follow, follow, follow but then you look at the big picture and you have so many people that have nothing in common with you. Yes, it is important to go outside of your comfort zone and find others that may even have opposing views but in the end you’re looking for people that are actually going to connect and … be social :)

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