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The making of a cult brand

February 16 2016

Shawn McConnell

Nestled deep in the idyllic Belgian countryside of West Flanders lies one of the most sought-after brands in the world. A brand whose product demand far outstrips the supply, and one whose marketing budget has hovered steadily around $0 for the last 175 years. Despite the remote location and total lack of advertising, this company regularly has cars lined up for miles, all vying for the chance to buy their product.

Taken all together, this is the very definition of a cult brand. Particularly interesting since it is a brewery run by Trappist monks. The company is called Westvleteren and their product is a beer that has consistently ranked number one in the world for the last 20 years. All it took to make it happen was virtual isolation, total celibacy, and almost two centuries of dedication to their craft.

But what if you don’t have that kind of time, or stamina? Can a company achieve cult status without a Trappist’s level of commitment? Let’s take a look at three factors that have helped drive Westvleteren’s brand devotion and see what strategies marketers can use to build their own cult following.

Expertise

According to a 2014 study by Epsilon, consistent quality is the highest driver of brand loyalty.1 And it’s no coincidence that the Westvleteren monks have built their following on a consistently high-quality product. When they aren’t worshiping, they make beer. It’s their primary means of supporting the abbey and they do it so well they are known around the world.
Not unlike White Castle. Credited as the first fast food chain, White Castle has been making hamburgers for nearly 100 years. Its founders invented the hamburger bun and the kitchen assembly line.2 And in 2014, Time magazine named the White Castle slider the most influential burger of all time.3

They’ve got the expertise. And the cult following.

White Castle’s commitment to quality and consistency has won the chain millions of customers and fans worldwide. Also known as Craver Nation, White Castle’s fans express their devotion to the fast food chain in a variety of ways. They buy extra burgers to stash in their freezer, make reservations for special occasions, pop in during the middle of a marathon, and burn candles that make their home smell like a steamy slice of heaven.4

Members of Craver Nation  confirm: when consumers can count on a brand to deliver, they’re more likely to return. When the quality of that product is the best in its category, they’ll follow it anywhere.
White Castle Candle

Scarcity

Having a great product will only get you so far in building a following. Nothing excites consumers quite like a limited supply. Take a cue from the monks at Westvleteren who release a limited batch of 60,000 cases each year and sell out within minutes.5 As commodity theory suggests, the scarcity of Westvleteren’s beer increases its value and desirability.6 Not only are fans in anticipation all year long, but grey market prices surge well beyond the original selling price.

Even brands that don’t necessarily need to limit production have caught on to this age-old tactic. McDonald’s has taken advantage of the psychological affects of scarcity with limited time offerings on products like the Shamrock Shake and McRib sandwich. If just reading those words got your mouth watering, check out the McRib locator. This online fan page dedicated to McRib sightings is a phenomenon that would not have been possible if not for the sandwich’s rarity.

McRib v2

Personality

When a brand has a strong personality, it not only differentiates the product, it enables customers to have a deeper connection with the brand. Though Westvleteren beer has no label, I have a feeling you’ve ascribed some personality traits to the brand based on its makers. Just seeing the word “monk” no doubt triggers a certain knee jerk reaction: robes, silence, and a certain level of seriousness. This image has a direct affect on how the company is viewed. As consumers, we assume a sense of reverence and skill goes into every beer Westvleteren makes.

What personality triggers does your brand have?

As marketers, we need to continually ask ourselves what is the perception of our brand? For example: What comes to mind when you see the word “grocer”? Perhaps an old-time general store filled with barrels of pickled goods (just me?). Or maybe you imagine your local supermarket. Now let’s try that again with the words “Trader Joe’s”. A different vision comes to mind: friendly hippies in Hawaiian shirts, exotic frozen foods, two buck chuck, and good food at a reasonable price.

Grocer v2 copy

Every day consumers choose which brands they want to align themselves with. Behavioral psychologists have proven that identifying with a brand’s personality helps consumers communicate who they are and what they believe in.7 When the draw of that personality becomes great enough, customers become cult followers. They wait 60 days for a chance to buy beer in Westvleteren’s case or launch adoring blogs as dozens of Trader Joe’s fans have done. If you want your customers flocking to you and following every move you make, give them a strong personality to believe in.

Of course, not all the brands mentioned above tick every box on this list. But you’ll need to employ at least one of these strategies to reach your full cult potential. No need to stay tucked in isolation in a small remote town. Grow as big as you dare, but never forget to be great.