What do Starbucks, Crossfit, Southwest Airlines and Taylor Swift have in common? Cult followings -- followings so strong that people look for excuses to bring them up in conversation or sing their praises on social media. There are reasons why you’ll probably never see anyone Instagram their coffee cup from McDonald’s.
Here are three strategies to create a cult following for your brand:
1. Give people something to talk about.
One of the many reasons I fly Southwest is because it has no change or cancellation fees. Every time I have to change or cancel my flight, I do it with ease on the airline's online portal and find myself wanting to share this dreamy experience with the world. Any time someone talks about checking luggage, I feel like I’m programmed to tell that person Southwest checks your first two bags free. I find myself serving as a Southwest marketing rep for free because it has so many beneficial and unique features to talk about.
Similarly, Taylor Swift gave $1,989 to a fan who was struggling to pay her student loans. Of course, this generous act was shared, tweeted and posted everywhere. The value of her donation just so happened to be the name of her new album, 1989. Coincidence? I think not.
At my company, Headbands of Hope, we give a headband to a child with cancer for every headband sold. We even send you a confirmation email telling you which hospital your donated headband went to. We want to create reasons for people to talk about us.
One time, I was in Starbucks (shocker) and I saw a girl wearing one of our headbands. I did a little experiment and told her I liked her headband. She immediately told me all about my company and our donation model (without knowing who I was, of course).
Unique features of your company compel people to want to share with their following. It’s up to you to give them something to talk about.
2. Make them feel a part of a “club.”
When I get the luxury of visiting the west coast and going to In & Out Burger, I order my burger “animal style” at the counter. Animal style is just a “special” sauce and toppings that's not listed on the menu. I took my parents to In & Out for the first time and felt like such an insider when I told them about this “secret” that isn’t really a secret because everyone wants to tell the next person about it. Because it’s not listed on the menu, people feel like they’re a part of a special group for knowing about it.
Similarly with the Starbucks secret menu, it gives people a certain sense of accomplishment to order a Frappuccino that the next person might not know about. It goes back to generating buzz by making people feel like they have insider information. Therefore, they feel like they’re part of a club.
Another word that pops into our heads when we think of cult followings is Crossfit. Crossfit is notorious for people talking about the brand. Why? Because it’s a unique workout experience that “non-crossfitters” maybe wouldn’t understand. They create their own terms and lingo such as calling the workout a WOD or the gym a Crossfit Box. Some of the WODs even have women’s names like “Fran” or “Cindy” so no matter what Box you belong to, you can drop those names and know what the other person is talking about.
With Southwest, once you receive a certain number of miles or points, you’re granted Companion Pass Status. This allows you to designate one person to fly with you for free for an entire year. A lot of airlines and businesses have certain loyalty points and statuses you can meet, however a companion pass isn’t just early boarding. The pass shows your status through inviting someone else to join you, making it feel more like a special “club.”
3. Humanize the experience.
One of the most important factors in a cult following is the deeper connection to an audience. There needs to be a level of a relationship, not just a transaction. Your audience needs to feel like you have their backs and you’re not just a money-generating machine.
Speaking of machine, one of Southwest’s taglines that it puts on a picture of a plane is: “Without a heart, it’s just a machine.” Southwest even creates other reminders that there are humans in the company by still using manual boards in airports to post flight numbers and other information instead of using digital screens.
I was flying Southwest recently when its systems crashed. It was all over the news. Airline employees passed out pizza to all the passengers who were waiting because of the delays. Pizza may not have gotten me to my final destination, but it was sure better than an automated voicemail apology.
Chipotle is another one of those companies with a cult following that demonstrates the human factor. A few times I’ve been into a Chipotle and there’s a sign talking about where its chicken came from this week. The eatery chain also prints inspirational sayings on bags that I’m guilty of Instagramming once or twice.
If you follow Taylor Swift on social media, you’ll see her and all her glamorous friends singing "Blank Space" in front of 60,000 people. But you’ll also see her post photos of her first gig, on just a small fold-out stage in a park with a flimsy banner that just says “Taylor Swift” in red font. You’ll also see her wearing gifts from fans, such as a sweater a fan knitted of her album cover.
To build trust with your audience, they need to know there are real people behind your business. When they submit a comment, it should not be answered by some robot. When they walk in your doors, they shouldn't be greeted by a script at the counter.