Derek Sivers

The Culting of Brands - by Douglas Atkin

The Culting of Brands - by Douglas Atkin

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Unique fascinating dissection of cults and why they work. Then how to apply those lessons to marketing your business.

my notes

Cult paradox:
1. An individual has feeling of difference - even alienation, from the world around them.
2. This leads to openness to or searching for a more compatible environment
3. They're likely to feel a sense of security or safety in a place where one's difference from the outside world is seen as a virtue, not handicap
4. This presents circumstances for self-actualization within a group of like-minded others who celebrate the individual for being himself

Cults flatter you : make you feel special and individual, recognized for who you really are.
Cults need to separate themselves from the status quo.

To create a mutual sense of separation:
1. determine your organization's sense of difference
2. declare your own difference with doctrine and language.
3. demarcate yourself from the outside world
4. demonize the other

clearly declare your removal from the status quo. declaring what you believe means declaring what you do not.
passionate commitment is in proportion to the strength of the vision and ideas in the theology. members want to commit to something.
daily acts of demarcation : these are the things that immediately separate the cult and its followers from the rest of society.
proper use of ritual, iconography, symbols, rules, texts, language, and appearance.
identifying an enemy and dramatizing a threat will galvanize the community's sense of separation, unity, identity.
condemn the other as a photographic negative of self.
Nike brand of self-achievement demonizes "not doing it".


For real commitment, members need to feel they have a relationship with "an other" or "others". Buy-in to ideology or benefits comes later.
"I liked it a lot because I liked the people."

1. Focus on the person
2. Get the right membership. (Well-socialized people who will engage new prospects.)
3. Create opportunities for meeting and interaction between members and nonmembers.
4. Let reps focus on interaction. Remove distractions.
5. Love-bomb new members.

jetBlue : it was a failure of the person that sowed a growing hatred between airlines and customers.
jetBlue : we want to "remove ourselves from the category"
jetBlue business model was "brilliant in its heresy"
management fixated on how jetBlue personnel would bond with the customer.

Populate the INTERNAL CULT with the right kind of membership and motivate them to perform, then you'll recruit the right kind of membership externally and turn them into advocates.

Create myths and stories that carry the moral for you.
(jetBlue example of pilot that came into the cabin and gave his cellphone to anyone who needed it, as apology for being late, not his fault.)

Socially successful peiople populate successful cults.
Recruit socially attractive people.
The cult doesn't want losers.
Get the best staff to recruit others like themselves.

Increase opportunities for people to meet and engage.
Let go : don't force your members to sell the brand. Don't burden staff with too many tasks.
jetBlue : passengers are asked to help clear their seat for the next passenger. brilliant move that frees up time for the attendants to be more social and helpful.


The idea of belonging is such an underestimated principle in marketing.
We've gone too far with one-to-one marketing : seeing customers as isolated individuals.
Community marketing : cultivating, serving, infusing brands into communities.
Marketers should be obsessed with communities, not just fret about how to market to an impossible number of individuals.
Communities : the human race demands them, needs them. Belonging is fundamental.
We need to talk to others to know what we think :
"The subjective reality of the world hangs on the thin thread of conversation."
In the face of terrifying chaos, a craving need to make sense of it all.
Each member reinforces the believability of an interpretation to the other.

People have less time to spare : do not wish to commit themselves to organizations that have large obscure objectives.

The more cult members are around eachother, the stickier the bond.

Have a rigorously applied program of contact.
Keep tabs on membership and prospects, placing extra focus on recent recruits. Database constantly updated. Don't let anyone disappear.
The membership runs the program themselves. Not corporation to customer, but customer to customer. A big difference.
A sense of responsibility among members for the welfare of eachother and the group as a whole. (a critical indicator of the strength of a community)
Create a self-sufficient world of contact and care.

BMW club refers to all members as "president"s, in recognition they own the brand.


Membership must share experiences.
Members feel an obligation to eachother and the group as a whole.

Critically important is whether the cult feels an equal sense of responsibility toward its members. Is their investment reciprocated?
Pre-dispose a culture towards mutuality. Responsibility can be embedded as an idea within the doctrine and its codes of behavior.


Everything anyone does in our organization does to succeed is based upon helping others.
(sales team helping customers. managers helping employees.)
The company structure requires each person to help others in order to climb the ladder of success.

Must have a meaning system.

Sort and repaint the world into a picture of how it should be.

There are dangers to including real people in the symbolic system.


For all the benefits of belonging, the member has paid a price. If that commitment is not matched by an equivalent reward, including the feeling that the leadership is as committed and has paid an equal price, then the results can be disasterous for the cult.

Organizations rot from everyday organizational intertia:
Minor concessions, group think. Every time a limp idea is chosen for expediency, every time a mediocre message is approved out of fear, every time vision and care is subsumed by mechanism and compromise, you'll find an institution slowly rotting at the core and alienating its fans.


Apple : "Marketing is about values. We have to be very clear on what we want our customers to know about us.


Cult leaders can be more successful if humble.

Focus acquisition investment on the conservative majority, those who are slow to adopt the new, but when they do are slow to leave it.

The most effective way of finding new people is personal referral.

An explicit appeal for trust in the face of newness. Returning to already accepted values.


At one extreme, a cult can be so offensive that society can not tolerate it. Other times, cult might be so tame it becomes indistinguishable from its surroundings, making it irrelevant.
If you neglect to properly manage this tension, your cult will die!


People say, "Teach me how to get this cultlike enthusiasm for my project." We'd say, "Well - what do you believe in?"
They'd say, "Whatever we need to believe in to do it." We'd say, "If that's your attitide, you'll never make it."


Ensure there is a cult within the organization, not just among its members.

Cult destroyers : a lack of percieved mutual investment, decline of internal cult that sustained the ideology, and too much tension.

Ownership must be shared with its membership for it to thrive.
Consumers are demanding a greater role in the shaping of their own community.
A member who feels they have helped model the brand will likely be an evangelist for it.


Consider your service from the perspective of its "linking" value to a community rather than its "use" value.
Marketers need to ask how their brand can best support a community, versus simply how the product is delivered and used by individuals.


Be ever so humble, for that is the way to gain lasting allegiance from your customer group.


No decision is made entirely rationally.
Emotional disposition towards brand can give an advantage wven when the product is out-featured or out-priced by competitors.
Become more dependent on emotional ties.