Develop Your Own Cult Following

From underground phenomenon to national icon, your business can be a leader in its own right.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the March 2001 issue of . Subscribe »

Long, flowing robes. Brainwashing. Mass suicides. Strange, but cults have gotten a bad rap over the years. Actually, it might be just the lifestyle choice you need to make. Think about it: Aren't you tired of being an anonymous sap? Start a cult, and you can be its leader! You can sway the opinions of thousands, maybe millions of people-and become filthy rich in the process. You can take over the world! (Insert your maniacal laugh here.)

At this point, you're probably thinking, "Hey, man, it's cool-we all got our point of view . . . um, I'm just going to step away from my computer and run now."

Don't lace up those Nikes just yet. We're not about to suggest you shave your head, stockpile weapons, set your compound on fire and start serving mass quantities of Kool-Aid.

Instead of Jim Jones, think Dow Jones. Starbucks. Ben & Jerry's. Krispy Kreme. They may not seem like cults on the surface, but each company has a core following that has brought in mucho moolah. But the money isn't what gives it cult status. McDonald's, if it wanted to, could purchase the planet. So could Time-Warner. But nobody thinks of those two companies as having cult status.

Attaining a cult status is something like going to a party full of people who are hipper and better-looking than you. If you try too hard to fit in, they'll see right through you, and you'll spend your night making conversation with the valet parking staff. Like a cube of Jello, the secret to becoming cult-worthy is hard to grasp.

Heard On The Street: Your Company's Name

Bolt. The brainchild of 35-year-old Dan Pelson. The teenagers love it. "Oh, sure," you're probably thinking, nodding your head. "Bolt. Drink it all the time. Has that extra kick of caffeine."

Um, no. That would be the soft drink, Jolt, which has something of a cult following of its own. This is Bolt, as in Bolt Inc., or, as the teens know it, And they do know it. is more than a Web site; it's a platform where young adults discuss and dis popular culture, from cars and clothes to Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. There's a Bolt shopping section, with over 450 items, and Bolt provides free e-mail, voice mail, message boards, instant messaging and wireless services. Bolt has more than 3.5 million registered users, with as many as 15,000 young adults signing up every day. And although Bolt withdrew its proposed IPO in November following the dotcom bust, the company still has big-name advertising partners such as AT&T, Procter & Gamble and America Online.

Pelson probably realized he had a cult following when he heard a report come in from the trenches one day. A Bolt sales rep had been strolling through the streets of New York with a bigwig client, and, as they passed a crowd of teens gathered in front of MTV Studios, the bigwig said, "Well, this is your client base-let's see if they've heard of Bolt."

The sales rep looked squeamish, but he waded into the throng anyway and asked the crowd. "Bolt!" the girls exclaimed, adding: "Tag me, tag me!" It's a reference you'd understand if you were a regular. But never mind that. You're likely more interested in how you can achieve the same results with your customers.

If your company doesn't exist yet, identifying a cult-potential product or service is a good first step. "Some products will probably never have a cult following-floor wax [for instance] is not very romantic or exciting," says John Burnett, a professor of marketing at the University of Denver. "So it's important to look for products that have those kinds of components. Food. Beverages. Technology. Sports."

But choosing "food" is pretty broad. "You have to locate a good niche that's not being served in the market," says Burnett.

And that's just what Pelson did by deciding to focus on teens. "The Internet is a tremendous medium for empowering disenfranchised communities," says Pelson. And who feels more disenfranchised than a teenager? With 1 billion of 'em on the earth, Pelson knew he was onto something.

Know The Rules.And Get A Cult Of Your Own

It took a while for Bolt to catch on. Pelson's company does almost no advertising. As he says, "We don't do Super Bowl ads-and we're not going to, as long as I'm around."

It was a quiet first 18 months at Bolt, and then its registered users started numbering in the thousands. After that, says Pelson, the numbers multiplied exponentially, and the money started pouring in. Thousands of teens spreading the word will do that for a company.

Bolt makes money even if the teens don't buy a thing. For starters, companies that target teens pay Bolt good money for research on teens' interests. And the kids know it, says Pelson. "But they also know we're not selling their names, so they're not getting added to mailing lists. And they understand there's value to this because they're getting a great service, and we have to make money."

Which brings us to a few valuable rules of developing a cult following:

1. Have an honest relationship with your customers. "That's how you create loyal users, because they trust you," says Pelson. "And that's important with any consumer, particularly teens. If they trust you-and they don't really trust us, they just trust the platform-then they reward the business with loyalty, by attracting their friends without us having to tell them to do that. And the end result is the [3.5 million users]."

2. Customers should feel like they belong to an elite club. That's why Bolt doesn't advertise. The more your product is widely known and available, in a sense, the less valuable it becomes. As Burnett notes of Coors, based in Denver: "People used to steal the stuff and take it to other states because it was so high in demand. I remember when I used to teach at Virginia, people would pay $50 for a case of Coors. So that's an example of a company that was a cult, and then they went national, and now they're just another supplier."

3. That elite club should have an interesting image. "Starbucks started out in Seattle, a romantic, interesting city," muses Burnett. "It probably wouldn't have had nearly the same success if it had started out in Newark."

Of course, you can follow all the rules, but if you don't pay attention to your product or service, your cult will be quite small-like, consisting of your mom and a few close friends. Of the aforementioned household-name cults, Burnett notes, "People are willing to pay a premium price because the products are excellent." Now, if you do sell floor wax, all is not lost. You may never convince the general public that floor wax is exotic, or even crucial to their well-being. But you could sell to restaurants, hospitals or any organization that needs a clean tiled floor. You could develop a floor wax just for hospitals and be the cult leader of hospitals everywhere.

It's not as silly as it sounds. Chi Modu, 33, and Steve Proctor, 34, are founders of ephotos in New York City, which has no cult following to speak of. But a company within their company,, does. Their clientele?

Entertainment editors at magazines and newspapers.
Modu and Proctor, both photographers, co-founded ephotos in 1996, and in 1999, they developed (no pun intended), a company that provides photos of minorities, especially celebrities. So may not have Jennifer Aniston, but they will have Jennifer Lopez. And entertainment editors know this. Newsweek, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Vanity Fair, The New York Times-they all use

Modu and Proctor could have stuck with ephotos, of course, which will likely have that picture of Jennifer Aniston, but is easier for a harried editor to remember. "The editors are always under pressure," says Modu. "So if you can bring them relief and keep in mind your job is to bring them relief, you'll know how to get them on your side-because they're always under the gun." Their strategy seems to have worked. In 1999, ephotos brought in $500,000-and 70 percent of that, estimates Proctor, came from

As you think about developing a cult following, remember, you can only do your part; your customers have to do the rest. Starbucks' founders and employees, for instance, made their coffee and gave the stores a pleasant atmosphere to sip in-but it was the masses of people, dropping in all day long, that inspired bookstores to implement cafés, coffee bean stores to pop up in malls and You've Got Mail to feature Starbucks in a movie about something that, you could say, has the biggest cult following in the world.

You can't pay your customers to like you that much. But they can pay you.

Geoff Williams isn't much of a coffee drinker, but his newlywed wife almost convinced him to put in the wedding vows, "I will love, honor and buy you Starbucks Frappuccinos for the rest of my life."

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