The new marketing question. Will they follow?

Everyone’s abuzz with the news: mainstream brands don’t have the pulling power they once had. Put it down to any number of factors: disenchantment with globalisation; saturation of mass market brands; anti-establishment factionalism – whatever the cause, suddenly the huge, globally omnipotent mega-brands are finding themselves impinged on by a new phenomenon – the deliberately and decidely obscure cult brand, a badge recognised and demanded by those “in the know”, ignored by everyone else.

The idea itself is nothing new. Publicity-shy elitist brands have been around for some time – but they have tended in the past to revolve around high-end lifestyle products, the highly technical or collectables. Increasingly, that’s changing as new companies hook into new generations of consumers who don’t want what everyone else has.

These people take huge comfort from the fact that what they know and like is unknown to the majority. These buyers are also more cynical, impatient and monied. And they firmly believe that kudos has nothing to do with presence. They select as a group … and their loyalty is to themselves. Credibility is everything, and obscurity is attractive because it’s non-mainstream and non corporate.

The result has been the rapid emergence of companies that cultivate an ardent following by not cultivating a mainstream following. Companies like Deus ex Machina ( produce specially hybridised bikes for people who want to feel that they have a bike made for them and them alone.

Cult branding is branding with a twist. All the attitude of a successful brand, but without the mainstream, predictable promotion. The big idea, expressed through Chinese whispers – and gaining strength, mystique and respect with every telling. Accessible too. Because suddenly, a cool idea, a gap in the market, some media attention and a domain name is just about all you need to start the cult ball rolling …

How did I find out about Deus? Simple. My friend Andrew Haines told me. And I told others. And we all went to the website … Why? For the same reason you might. Because it’s new, it’s different, it’s a talking point and because it’s small. Huge, global brands are now associated with huge global corporations – and huge global corporations are the object of considerable animosity from an increasingly politically and environmentally aware youth.

Right now, small is precious, unknown is uncorrupted, and ideas are the emerging credentials currency. It’s a huge opportunity. But only if you’re the right kind of company. And only if you have the street-wise understanding of your markets to leverage the potential in ways that are acceptable. If you have these abilities, then perhaps you qualify to brand yourself as the new kind of savvy business owner.

Building a following isn’t anti-branding. It’s anti-mainstream branding perhaps. But it is different and it is successful precisely because it shuns traditional forms of promotion. It’s not about being self important. It’s about being cool important. It’s about the recognition of like-attitude.

10 ways to build a following:

1. Understanding is everything. A vibrant, dynamic insight of who you want, exactly how they think and precisely what they are and will be looking for. Cult branding has its roots set deep in the soil of “gut-feel” marketing. It’s a God-given gift most of the time. If you’ve got it, then you have the single prerequisite you need to consider creating a following for your business.

2. Plan to appear spontaneous. If you want to build a following, you need to appear casual. Blind ambition is not cool. Rewarded individualism is. And don’t get carried away with your own importance. Corporates get fixated with who they are, they believe their own hype, and the power of their brand overshadows the experience – at least in the eye of the cult brand devotee. If you want to create a following, chill!

3. Stuck for an approach? Option 1: battle the mainstream. There’s nothing like controversy, outrage and conventional disapproval to project your idea into the loving arms of those looking for the alternative. Often it’s a case of the ruder, the better.

4. Option 2: make an old idea new. Revival is a wonderful thing. If you’re looking for a way to create a following, look for something that is so “out” it might just make it back to “in”. That tends to mean it’s quaint, ridiculous or just plain weird. It’s human nature to love the idiosyncratic.

5. BYO attitude. Remember, a cult brand doesn’t have to be targeted at the young, just the young at heart. It needs to have chutz and charisma. And it needs to feel true to itself and to the people it wants to do business with, whatever their age and stage. Cults feed themselves with attitude and quiet self belief, but the brand needs to feel effortless and natural. And it needs to be smart. Customers must be able to experience it and be hooked – not just by the offering, but by the attitude that accompanies the offering. Self righteousness is a wonderful thing if that’s what you’re looking for as a consumer. In a cult brand, it can also be remarkably profitable.

6. Nothing to do with size, everything to do with mindset. Cult brands have a honed sense of self. They think and feel small, because intimacy and engagement are two of their biggest selling points. They seem special and exclusive, no matter how successful they may become.

7. Limit your ambitions. The key, and the challenge, is to remain genuine. Cult brands are created by people with passion, and that deep sense of love and commitment triggers similar emotions in everyone else. That’s what makes them so attractive. If you are seen or sensed to have sold out, or if suddenly your brand doesn’t ring true, it’s game over.

8. Get the right media play. Cult brands unashamedly leverage press coverage and viral marketing networks. Get the right coverage in the right media or by the right reporter, and it will send the email and the hotwired gossip circuit into a frenzy. Let them spread the word. Long live “cc.”

9. Consider all the media possibilities. Today, most exclusivity followers are fluent with a range of media. Don’t just give them access to more of what they want, give it to them in a plethora of formats and ALWAYS plan for a sequel. Every successful cult needs a follow up idea to the one that launched it.

10. Don’t try to be popular. A cult brand is unassuming, unapologetic and on the hunt for like minds. If customers don’t get it, don’t convince them. Don’t even try – or you’ll sink your credibility. If customers are off the radar, that’s generally where a cult brand will leave them.

Be warned though - building a following in lieu of a mainstream, highly profiled brand is risk-return marketing. The risks are significant, because the dependence on intuition and difference is so high. The exposure to the whims of fashion is also enormous. And it takes enormous courage and self belief to go there, stay there and adapt to the market’s forces from there. But get it right, and keep that going, and there’s every chance that you can quietly amass credibility all the way to the bank, whilst remaining, well, largely unknown – by the majority, anyway.


He owns a restless mind, a passion for words and business, and an unrelenting curiosity. You quickly get a sense of all that when he presents.

After university, Mark Di Somma turned his love of writing into a career - working in radio and then in ad agencies, before starting a direct marketing agency. A chance assignment prompted him to diversify into brand strategy. It quickly became a passion, then a career, and finally the Audacity Group, his thinking and writing consultancy.


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