How to create a cult business

Sydney Morning Herald/January 26, 2016

By Claire Dunn

If people refer to your business as a cult, is that a bad thing? According to managing director of the ninth-fastest-growing company in Australia, brand guru Glen Carlson, it's the holy grail of business.

"I'm talking about groups of people so invested, they instinctively want to spread the message and convert new users for you," Carlson, founder of Key Person of Influence, says.

When cult becomes culture, Carlson says, business really hits the sweet spot.

"Take a look at brands like Harley Davidson. Loads of their customers get tattoos of their logo down their leather-clad arms," he says.

"GoPro has a cult following, so does Linux, Reddit, Apple, Alcoholics Anonymous – the list goes on."

Expecting $3 million in sales this year, Carlson's own cult following was more accidental than deliberate.

"It started off just me and my business partner wanting to be known for the success of our clients, and caring deeply about what we did."

In retrospect, it was being "cult crazy" about both "what" they were offering, and "how" that led to success.

"You can't perfume a pig. You need core quality of product. But if you just focus on that you've missed the point," he says.

"We're talking about branding that captures the hearts, souls and imaginations of the market, and creates enough community that it transcends traditional brands."

Stronger than customer loyalty

Australian tea company Madame Flavour quickly gathered a fan base when the first tea bags hit the supermarket shelves replete with hand-signed letters from founder Corinne Noyes.

"People responded in an intensely personal way, saying, 'I love everything about it, right down to the texture of the paper'," Noyes says.

Savvy to regular customer feedback in previous roles working for large corporates with "big trusted brands", Noyes says there is marked difference in the flavour of customer relations her business has cultivated.

"We now measure our success by the percentage of love letters we receive," Noyes says.

"Cult's a strange word but certainly some of the language that we receive from customers – 'I'm an addict', 'I'm a raving fan', 'I have to tell everyone in the office' – points to something stronger than just a loyal customer."

On track to achieve sales of $5 million this year, ultimately Noyes says, it's about giving fully of yourself. 

"Especially in a sea of generic multinational brands, you've got to believe in what you're doing, put your heart on the line and put yourself in the picture."

People buy from people

Placing himself front and centre is how the host of Australia's top marketing podcast Tim Reid found his "tribe'.

"Anyone can shine a light on marketing, and there are people a lot smarter than me. The feedback I get is that I'm myself. I trip over my words and have a laugh. People buy from people," Reid says. 

Founding The Small Business Big Marketing Show eight years ago, and now generating revenue in the "hundreds of thousands," Reid credits his following to creating a "feeling of belonging".

"The bottom line is every single one of us want to belong to something, whether it's a brand or a belief system," Reid says.

"By talking directly to the everyday anxieties, problems and pressures of my audience, people feel connected."

Glen Carlson's 5 tips for building a cult following

1. Have a compelling vision for your clients

It's one thing to have a company vision. It's another to have a clear vision for your customer's future. Know, care and communicate the dream your customers fantasise about.

2. Invest in community

Spend time, money and energy fostering community and connections among customers and alumni. What could you do that doesn't cost the world, but would cultivate a sense of community?

3. Share and defend your values

Tell the world what you think. Pick a fight with an ideology you oppose and encourage people who don't like it to take a walk. They won't like you (and you shouldn't care), but those who agree with you will respect you for taking a stand.

4. Create a niche

Cults are made up of a small group of people who think differently than the majority. If you're trying to help everyone, you'll end up helping no one. Pick a really specific demography, geography and psychographic and build something especially for them.

5. Have a common language

A culture is a micro-niche that grows because you have a community that believes in your vision and values. Embed jargon into your communication in a way that serves your clients while creating a common language for your community.

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