Introducing the cult brand index

What is it about a brand that compels someone to wear a brand (literally) as a badge of honor?

I was out with friends at my favorite East Village watering hole last weekend, pining for the bartender’s attention, when I noticed the tattoo on the forearm of the gentleman next to me. He was a classic New York hipster – skinny black jeans, plaid shirt, Harry Potter glasses, and a boisterous beard.

I turned to him: “Is that an Apple tattoo?” He laughed. “Yeah. I’d be lying if I said I was totally sober when I got it, but sure, I’m an Apple guy.”

You’ve probably met someone like him – the Soul Cycle fanatic, the BMW diehard, the Zappos addict. Some brands are particularly adept at fostering a special connection with their customers – they become not just consumers, but evangelists of the brand. But what is it about a brand that compels someone to wear a brand (literally) as a badge of honor?

This is a question we’ve been investigating in depth, lately, at Incite. It started this summer when one of our clients came to us, with a picture of a man with the client’s logo shaved into his hair. Our client has been experiencing unprecedented growth as of late, and they wanted us to help them chart a path for intelligent growth, such that they don’t lose the secret sauce that makes their customers shave the brand’s logo onto their heads.

And so our journey into cult brands began. We met with followers of various cult brands from all walks of life across the country to understand their relationships with the brands they so fanatically follow. Then we explored the relationship from the brand side – we investigated the likes of Harley Davidson, The Honest Company, Trader Joe’s, Chipotle, and Lululemon to explore how they interact with their customers.

We identified 5 common characteristics of cult brands (and each of these buckets has a series of more granular sub-characteristics). We’ll give you the gist:

1 / Potent Product Reception – paramount to a relationship with a brand is an affinity for the product or service itself. It’s first and foremost about the product.

2 / Origin(al) Story – while every brand has a story, not all are worth telling. A compelling origin story is a point of differentiation and something people gravitate to.

3 / A Platform For Palaver – cult brands distinguish themselves through a unique, two-way communication strategy, creating a conversation between the brand and customer.

4 / Strong Sense Of Self – cult brands are grounded in a clear idea of who they are and what they stand for, actively promoting this sense of self, and stay true to it, not matter what.

5 / Reasons To (Be) Believe(d) – a brand’s actions only take it so far before it rests with the individual to internalize the brand. How effective a brand is at creating passionate believers out of its customers is the hallmark of a cult brand.

And so, the idea for the Cult Brand Index was born – a scoring rubric based on these 5 cult brand characteristics, upon which any brand can be assessed on its proficiency in the elements that actually drive cult fanaticism, and lasting customer loyalty. Here’s what we did:

1 / First, using Google Consumer Surveys, we asked Americans to nominate cult brands across a variety of industries. That gave us a list of 106 brands across 10 industries.

2 / Then, we fielded a survey in which we asked respondents to rate a series of attributes (based on the 5 cult characteristics) on how important they were in determining a brand’s cult-ness. This gave us relative importances of each attribute in determining cult-ness.

3 / Among customers of each brand, respondents rated a 3-4 brands on those same attributes.

4 / The result: a Cult Brand Index score for 106 brands

So what brands have built the best cult followings in America? You’ll have to wait till our next blog post Tuesday to find out. Or if you’re going to the TMRE in Orlando, swing by our presentation Tuesday at 4 PM in Panzacola H1, where my colleagues Jesse Epstein and Rocky Prozeller will take you through the index in person.

In our next blog post, we’ll share the top few brands in each category. Spoiler alert…Apple won the tech category. Apple tattoo guy would be proud.

For more information on the Cult Brand Index and its impact on your brand, please get in touch.