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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Lutz

Building and Scaling Your Cult Following

Over the years, passionate members of brand communities have been called everything from fans and die-hards, to “stans.” This year at Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York, speakers shined a light on the value of building a cult following for your brand.

According to Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, over 30,000 products are introduced every year — that averages out to 2,500 new products a month. Of those, 95 percent fail. Having an established brand can boost the visibility of your products and services, but having a cult following can sustain your brand for years to come. Consider Southwest Airlines, LaCroix, In-N-Out, Trader Joe’s, and Apple. All of these companies have cult-like followings that are so passionate about the products and services these magnates offer. These customers love the brands, are loyal, and consistently spread the word across their networks of friends and family. It’s not just the big brands benefiting from a cult following — start-ups and high-growth companies are doing it too.

So, how do you build a cult following?

Join Communities to Identify an Unmet Need

Start by looking for the underserved market within a category and join their most active communities to listen and identify an unmet need. Spend time in different spaces where consumers talk about similar products or services similar to yours. This can be in-person, as well as through online reviews and message boards. To assess the current dialogue, you need to know what the community thinks about the product or service. Ask yourself…

  • What are consumers saying about existing products and brands?

  • What do they want to change or what additions would they like to see?

  • What do they wish existed?

  • What do they need help with?

  • How can the experience be made easier or more enjoyable?

From these questions, you can figure out how your product can fit into the existing space. If your brand or product enters as a solution to current complaints, it stands out. For example, when Chelsea Hirschhorn was creating Fridababy she turned to the pediatric communities around her, listening to what moms and parents were saying and where their needs were not being met, then absorbing these insights.

Create a Frictionless Experience

Once you have identified what hasn’t been done or created yet and asked yourself again: “Does my product or idea solve this?” be intentional in your effort to change human behavior by truly disrupting, innovating, or uniquely solving that problem. You need to create a frictionless experience and show how it is essential to consumers' needs. This is key to building a cult following.

Hirschhorn listened to what her audience of new parents wanted — a safe and easy way to remove mucus from their baby’s nose. She then offered a heroic solution called the NoseFrida. Her audience felt heard and became loyal customers who spread the word about how they helped develop a solution by sharing the problem publicly in the communities that matter.

Build Authenticity and Transparency

Both authenticity and transparency are essential to building your cult following. As a small to mid-sized company, you have an advantage in building these qualities into your brand. Authenticity builds a connection between you and your customers. Transparency shows that you can continue to provide for their needs. It isn’t enough to simply solve a single solution. You need to be able to listen to your customers and consistently respond to their wants and needs. Having a network where you and your business interact with your customers is essential to cultivating a transparent and authentic experience.

Create a Network

Before your doors even open, bring together a close-knit community of passionate customers and give them a place to espouse the best aspects of your product online and offline. Interacting with them creates a positive image for your brand by showing your interest in customer ideas. You can use these events to help build excitement for upcoming products, gather feedback on new ideas, and even inspire your community to advocate for the brand. For example, gaming companies work with game sellers like GameSpot. Creating a symbiotic relationship with sellers can help you expand your network and flame the excitement within your cult.

This does mean that you need to continue asking questions and listening to responses. Surveys can help, as long as they aren’t aggressive. It is more likely that your customers will want to chat on different sites, like Yelp and Reddit. Therefore, it is important to have a presence in a wide range of sizes to interact with potential customers separate from your established site.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of starting and maintaining a dialogue with your customers.

Scaling Your Business

If you establish a cult following early, you can build it as your company grows. Your dedicated following can help push your brand much further than you can on your own. It can provide you with paths for your company that you would not otherwise think to take. As you scale your business be sure to …

  • Keep the dialogue going. Whatever posts and communications you had in the early days need to continue long after your brand is established. This lets the community know that you still care — you aren’t too big to listen to them. That intimate relationship established in the beginning will be appreciated. In turn, it will build the bonds that help you keep customers even after missteps. People are more forgiving of the occasional mistake if you prove that you are still listening and hoping to work with them.

  • Continue to map pain points expressed by your first customers. When you release a new iteration or product, incorporate changes that address those pain points.

  • Leverage public feedback of your customers to understand what people love about your brand. People who are passionate about a brand or product will post about it. You need to monitor social media to get an idea of things you should and should not change. Innovation is often born out of merging the new and old in unexpected ways.

  • Continue to be authentic and transparent. The bigger your brand gets, the more difficult this is. However, it is always worth it.

  • Evolve with your followers. Companies like Blockbuster and Borders are now gone because they did not evolve. You need to evolve, and this includes your dialogue. As you chat with potential customers, see what they need and what they would like in the future. You don’t have to be on the leading edge, but you should strive to be on the front of changes in your industry.

  • Avoid entirely overhauling your brand. After all of the effort to establish your cult, you want to keep customers on board. This is difficult — if not impossible — if you overhaul everything to appeal to a much wider audience. Keep your colors, messages, and language consistent as you evolve to keep a healthy relationship with the customers who have remained with you since the beginning.

Scaling your business means growing it from what you originally established. In the process, that might mean losing some of the people who were passionate in the beginning. They may call you a “sell-out” or feel that you are going in the wrong direction for their needs. This happens to some of the most well-established communities. For example, Etsy was originally created as an online marketplace for makers, curators of vintage goods, and artisans. As Etsy’s business went global, many community members felt the marketplace was less about original and unique goods and more about competing with Amazon.

The goal is to inspire more people than you lose and by constantly communicating and maintaining an intimate relationship with your members. If you show you are invested in them, they are more likely to remain passionate about your brand. If they can see how you address their needs going forward, they are more likely to stick around for the journey.

Keeping Your Cult Strong

It is nearly impossible for a big company to start a cult following. The big names with cult followings — like Starbucks and Peloton — started with cult followings during their early stages. The founders fit the target demographic they were trying to reach and they know how to think like their customers.

Keeping your messaging consistent is part of how you continue to build and expand your cult. Another part is keeping the same core values that differentiate you from the competition. This is not something that should change, although it could evolve as the world changes. Retaining the core message and value is what will help you maintain your cult following instead of losing it over time.

The bigger you get, the more important it is to ensure that you have an online network. Hiring people to help you is one way to ensure that your business maintains that presence. A word or two from you every so often can also help keep that connection that you established in the early days. Social media is a phenomenal tool to keep that connection.

Growing a cult following isn’t easy. You need to really know your audience and understand what drives their passion for your products and services. You have to be obsessive when it comes to listening to your customers, learning from what they say and how they behave and then delivering on the promises you make.


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