It’s over 10 years since I first read it, and recently I’ve been pondering why it was a) so interesting and b) a better business book than any others I’ve read. What was it? Douglas Atkin’s “Culting of the brands”. It changed the way I look at the world. This is called a gestalt switch - once you see it, you can't unsee it.
Well, I like a dry business book in the same way other people like a relaxing massage, or worse, exercise.
What Atkins does is to look at cult religion, and then at cult brands, and then draw the parallels. It’s fascinating. He states that brands like Apple are cults. This may not seem revelatory today – but 10 years ago it really was. Apple lays it stores out like churches. You ascend the steps to tech support. Staff are reverently dressed in black. I recently went to the Apple store and I noticed the staff had all been given red t-shirts. It certainly made them easier to find, but it felt like a slip. Less refined. Unlike every other interaction I’ve with Apple, the staff were rude. It felt more like a commercial transaction than it ever had before and I’m not sure I’ll be back. I felt like a number on a spread sheet, just another sucker with a cracked screen. I can only tell you this – the way I felt about Apple, emotionally, changed. Like the time that I stepped on a slug and it squished through my toes.
Atkins says cults provide community and meaning for members – “a place where they can be members themselves and yet also play an important part in a group”. Given this was published in 2004, his assertion that “companies who have built unshakable allegiance using basically the same techniques as those use by the Moonies” is a brilliant sign of the internet businesses to come - especially all things social. His position is that:
And cults are progressive. They embrace new, or fundamentally different ideas. Which come to think of it, is exactly how what people I’ve met on the behavioural economics “scene” are all about. They are cute, socially aware, interested in the world, and into change – change for the better. In many respects it’s a well-defined and committed community, interested in social good. Or in bending minds. Either way, I LOVE those people.
As Margaret Singer puts is in Cults of Our Midst, what the Moonies do when garnering new recruits:
In essence it comes down to this: people buy people, not things or ideas alone. Also, and this was the thought that started me on the shiny path to learning about consumer psychology – we buy not in order to belong, we buy in order to differentiate ourselves. Why? Because:
Emotional attachment trumps rationality!
Apple sell electronics. Harley Davidson does bikes. Coke is flavoured water.
What are you selling? You.
How do you make your customer emotionally attached to you? What would hiring you say about them? How would it make them different? Tell me in the comments. Better still, come along to The London Behavioural Economics meet up on Wednesday night. You’ll probably get unintentionally love-bombed.