Whether we like it or not, cults are very effective in building a following of devotees. Beyond the manipulative and unethical aspects of cults, there is a lot marketers can learn from cult leaders.
1. Provide Clear And Simple Answers
A cult leader is the only one who can provide cookie-cutter answers to followers’ existential questions; shortcuts to help their followers make quick judgments without even processing the information. Then, repetition (or what we in marketing elegantly call frequency of exposure) leads devotees to recall and accept these answers as universal truths.
2. Leverage Urgency And Scarcity
Cult leaders rely on scarcity and urgency to prompt devotees to take action. The phenomenon is described as FOMO, or fear of missing out, in popular culture and marketing. Learning outcome: Build limited series and exclusive access to products and promotions for your most valuable clients.
3. Remember Every Hero Needs A Villain
Cult leaders promote a sense of adversity toward outside enemies. They cultivate an “us versus them” mindset that demonizes non-members and, in turn, strengthens the bonds of devotees.
This is the core idea behind tribal marketing—single out a brand’s audience based on members’ affinities, interests, and shared beliefs. Nonusers miss out on the benefits of the products. Users or members of the tribe feel superior to groups of outside nonusers.
4. Lock Your Audience In A Funnel
One thing multi-level marketing, airline loyalty programs, and Scientology have in common is that they funnel people into an ascending scheme that usually starts with a freebie or something very easy to achieve. Once in the funnel, members are constantly upsold on the benefits of progressing to the next tier. Scientology puts its members through 15 levels which can take decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve. In a similar vein, many members of airline and hotel programs end up booking flights and rooms that are more expensive than competing alternatives to ensure they secure a certain status tier in the brand’s loyalty program.
5. Emphasize The Emotional Over The Functional
Cults appeal to pathos—using emotions to persuade their audience through metaphors, storytelling, and the passionate delivery of a speech or personal anecdote. They tap into their followers’ desire for belonging, acceptance, security, and love. In contrast, ethos persuades through credibility and trust, while a logo relies on evidence and logical reasoning.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Dr. Emmanuel Probst, excerpted from his book Assemblage: Creating Transformative Brands
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