How to catch a cult

By: Charlie O’Connor

When I begin to think about branding, a few obvious companies come to mind such as Apple, Google and Coca-Cola. These companies, among the other “blue-chip” companies, are industry giants who have spent years building their brand identities and customer bases. Something that I find fascinating are the brands that define an entire industry. For example, how many times have you gotten the response, “is Pepsi alright” from a server at a restaurant that doesn’t have Coke. Is that question even necessary: asking for a Coke is not only a specific brand but has become the generic term for a cola and yes, Pepsi is just fine. Another example is when you get a cut or a scrape, what do you need? That’s right, a Band-Aide. I don’t know anyone who calls it an adhesive bandage or any other specific brand. It would seem to me that these representative brands have a significant advantage over the competition based on name alone. These are just a couple of examples as there a many others that we use on a daily basis. With that being said, I can’t help but wonder how companies just starting up, with limited funds and manpower, can build their brands into one of these companies with exceptional customer-based brand equity.

Luke Summerfield gives his opinion in an article called, How to Build a Brand That Attracts Die-Hard Followers. He explains that it all begins by understanding what branding is. His definition is, “Branding is the process of forming memories, emotions and a relationship around your brand in the consumer’s brain.” We see a very similar explanation in our readings about memory and the associations we make with a particular brand through the Customer-Based Brand Equity concept. Our book refers to brand knowledge as the key to creating brand equity and marketers must find a way to represent their brand in the minds of the consumer.

Summerfield refers to a set of four strategies to implement in order to build a brand and turn customers into “cult-like brand advocates”. The first strategy is to brand the customer. The idea he has here is to create the thought that the consumer is an exclusive member of something bigger than themselves. This is important because in order to have continued revenue, you must have repeat customers. What better way to ensure someone will continue to purchase a product than to make them think they are a part of the organization?

His second strategy to implement is random acts of kindness. I certainly agree with this concept as I will always remember if a company gives me something unexpected. Again, creating memories is one of the most important parts of this whole idea brand equity. Brand knowledge is said to have two components, brand awareness which is the strength of a brand in one’s memory paired with the ability to identify a brand under different conditions. The other is brand image, which is the consumer’s perception about a brand through associations held in a consumer’s memory.

A quick example about how I experienced this strategy used by Brooks Brothers. A few months ago I got a rip at the elbow in a relatively new dress shirt. I had spent a pretty penny on this shirt so was less than impressed with the situation. I decided to post a picture with a short comment on twitter @BrooksBrothers to express my frustration. Within hours I received a message from someone at Brooks Brothers apologizing for the situation and insisted that I pick out a new shirt and email them the size and product number. A couple days later a brand new shirt came in the mail with a $25 gift card. This was completely unexpected and created a fantastic brand image for me. Brand awareness is comprised of brand recognition and brand recall.

Summerfield’s third strategy is to disconnect from digital. He explains that personal, non-digital interaction with each other will spark the release of a chemical in the brain called oxytocin, which helps spark emotions and memories, the exact things marketers are trying to create. I believe this could be considered going above and beyond and don’t necessarily believe it to be as important as his other strategies. After all, we are living in an almost strictly digital world and I would rather receive and email, such as in the above example, than for someone in customer service to give me a call or have to go to a local retail store to resolve the issue.

The final strategy he explains is personalization. He states that tailoring a brand experience around an individual consumer is what will start building deep branding connections. I agree with this and am very familiar with why it is important to refer to a customer by their name as opposed to ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. This is especially relevant in customer service as many, if not all, companies use client relationship management systems (CRM). While working at TIAA-CREF I saw this first hand as we would often add notes to clients’ profiles in order to give the next consultant something to talk about with the client to build rapport. This is very important because it establishes an emotional connection with a client who would then be more likely to consolidate all of their financials with the one company they know truly cares about them as expressed with this personalizing strategy.

We have learned from the readings that building brand equity has many components that marketers need to touch upon in order to efficiently create favorable associations in the consumer’s mind. I believe it is imperative to put the customer above all other variables of business. After all, making customer satisfaction a priority equals customer retention and in turn equals revenue. Without marketing, a company simply cannot grow.

7 thoughts on “How to catch a cult

  1. Jeff Marcoux February 6, 2015 / 2:36 pm

    Charlie- I agree with your opinion that disconnecting from digital isn’t necessarily the right route to take. Rather, Summerfield could have suggested that instead of relying solely on digital communication, businesses could supplement their outreach with actual human interaction. I do think it is necessary to create personal connections, as it will have a trickle-down effect through word-of-mouth. We see companies often disconnecting from digital for promotional outreach, but then using that material to produce a digital promotional piece. The two forms of communication effectively compliment each other.

    -Jeff Marcoux


  2. Kyle Jacobs February 6, 2015 / 4:33 pm

    Charlie- I like the idea of establishing a personal/emotional connection with clients. I feel that clients appreciate a conversation instead of being hammered by a monolog by a salesperson just trying to get the client to buy. I have heard of a few companies through career panels that actually discourage making a sale over the phone, rather their strategy is to have the client come in to the arena/event and actually sit in the seat they would be purchasing. Having the client visualize in their seat is much easier to sell them on the idea of being a ticket holder. This example supports your argument on how effective an emotional connection can be and could possibly create that loyalty to the company we talked about in class.

    Also during the Super Bowl I believe McDonald’s had a commercial where they would randomly select customers to ‘pay with happiness.’ Instead of money, cashiers expressed the totals being, ‘one big family hug’ or ‘tell me something you love about your son,’ and things of that nature. This surprised customers and established an emotional response with them about McDonald’s thus increasing their brand recognition and recall.

    -Kyle Jacobs


  3. Josh Peterson February 7, 2015 / 2:59 pm

    Charlie- I would have to disagree with you on Summerfield’s second strategy of random acts of kindness. The term random has a particularly poor connotation in my mind in terms of business planning. This is because it is impossible to have a plan if you are unaware of the action that is going to occur. Secondly this plan seems rather narrow and short sighted.

    I will build off of your personal experience to create a fictional scenario in order to explain this better. Having heard your experience with Brooks Brothers I felt this is a company that cares about their customers and made me purchase a shirt. I also get a rip in the shirt only owning it for a short time. Two things would come to my mind. First would be perhaps this company produces poor quality products as I have already heard a complaint regarding this same issue. The second thought I would have is to complain to Brooks Brothers to get a new shirt. This has two potential outcomes. Either I get a new shirt and I am satisfied or I do not get one and I am dissatisfied. In the first scenario I would then make the claim that Brooks Brothers is not implementing random acts of kindness, rather they are resolving issues people have with their brand in a direct manner. In the second scenario I am left with a negative impression of the brand. Why does this person get special treatment over me? We both had the same issue and both have the same experience with the brand. This would dissuade me from further purchase of their products and impact how I would comment on them to others.

    While I do like the idea of giving a customer some additional value in order to increase brand equity the criteria for these benefits cannot be random and should in fact be very public as to not confuse consumers as to why one person is chosen over another.

    -Josh Peterson


  4. Skye Stewart February 9, 2015 / 12:34 am

    I think it’s completely appropriate you shared that you think it is fascinating that there are brands that define entire industries. I think that not only do certain brands define entire industries, but they also define our entire lives. We say we want a “Kleenex” and someone throws a box of tissues at us. Brands and their names have created their own language that society has come to know and remember. It’s basically a foreign language, but we get it. This is why I think your title is also very fitting, “How to catch a cult,” because that is exactly what brand names have done to us- they’ve caught us.

    I have a problem with the fact that Summerfield suggests that companies should participate in random acts of kindness, though. I definitely agree with this concept and all, but random acts of kindness are not always possible, therefore being kind to only some customers isn’t very fair. While you got lucky with your shirt, the company just happened to see your tweet. Social media accounts with millions of followers are flooded with comments and tags and I can’t imagine that every company would catch all of their followers’ comments about their products and services. I agree that they should be kind to their customers- but if they are going to be kind to one person, they need to be kind to all, always. I think that would be the most important thing in creating a strong and influential brand/company.

    -Skye Stewart


  5. Joe Greco February 9, 2015 / 8:15 pm

    Charlie- I am inclined to agree with you about how making a personal connection with customers plays a key role in brand recognition. The story about what happened to your shirt is a clear example of how Brooks Brother’s was making a personal connection to you as a customer. Not only did they give you the new shirt but also a $25 dollar gift card shows that they truly care about the way they are viewed but also their customers, it is also smart because they know you will spread the good word about their company. I also like the idea of personalization, in my own experiences I have found being called “sir” rather corny at times, I like being called by my first name as it makes me feel as though I have more of a personal relationship with the consumer who I am dealing with. – Joe Greco


  6. Amanda McKenzie February 9, 2015 / 11:14 pm

    I think this was a very interesting article. For some reason, brands are very important in society, and I find it funny that they are compared to cults. Most of us have our iPhones and would never consider switching to android or samsung simply because it is not Apple. Whether cars, clothes, phones, or even food, everything is based off of brand names and brand loyalty. My friend calls paper towels “bountys” simply because that is the brand her family has always bought. Also, I work in a corporate restaurant, and if any customer complains or has an issue, management does not mind comping anything from the bill as long as it keeps the customer happy and coming back. Any brand is really considered a cult. Once we start using a certain namebrand, product or service for an extended period of time, we rarely switch to anything else.


  7. Megan Lac May 6, 2016 / 2:29 pm

    I agree with the statement that “branding is the process of forming memories, emotions and a relationship around your brand in the consumer’s brain.” If companies want consumers to have a positive outlook around their brand they cannot force a brand idea onto consumers. They need to suggest a certain idea or image and let consumers think of their perception of the brand themselves. Branding as all about how consumers think about a brand as you mentioned before that is why businesses need to create a relationship with consumers.


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