A Change in Thinking in How to Strategize Advertising for Canadian Businesses: Interview

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The overriding theme of the 21st Century is accelerated change. Yet one industry remains curiously mired in archaic beliefs and practices, dating back decades. Advertising.

That’s the philosophy of one of North America’s leading marketing engagement agencies – Cult which is based in Calgary.

“Companies are still stubbornly hunting target audiences, unaware they should be making targets of themselves. They continue wasting obscene amounts of money on media campaigns and markdowns, oblivious to the fact that the biggest return on investment is to be had by making their products, programs and people more remarkable. They shout ever more loudly into a jaded void, rather than interacting with those who really matter,” says the company on its website.

“At Cult, we know that true customer engagement isn’t about getting people to buy —  it’s about getting them to buy in. We understand that when customers get involved, contributing their voice, and not just their dollars, they are worth their weight in gold. We know that cult brands spend as much effort fostering their culture and engaging employees, as they do attracting customers. And we believe that, in a world with too many choices and too little time, companies without highly engaged, devoted followers, both inside and out, are destined to drift into irrelevance.”

Image: Cult Collective LP Facebook

Some brands have been successful over the years in building a cult following. Brands like Coca Cola, Harley-Davidson. Chris Kneeland, CEO and Partner of Cult, adds retailers like Home Depot, Lush, lululemon, Zappos.

Chris Kneeland

“Cult is just a provocative label for a business that’s reaping above average benefits from word of mouth – what we like to say advocacy. The majority of businesses are chasing awareness which is why they spend so much money on advertising. They think that if people just know us more the likelihood of them shopping us goes up,” said Kneeland.

“Cult brands certainly want awareness but they’re realizing the best way to become aware of a business isn’t through an ad but through a referral – somebody talking and championing on their behalf. That’s why we like the metaphor of cults. Cults much like religion or fraternities, they grow more by word of mouth. That’s the single biggest symptom. There’s a bunch of other little things about the engagement of their employees, about how they spend money, about how they don’t have to bribe people with discounts as often.

“So cult brands tend to be either a premium price point, a few notable exceptions like Costco and Target, but most cult brands from Porsche to Apple to Starbucks are kind of in the premiumness of their category.”

Kneeland said becoming a cult brand is not the hard part – it’s not like it’s a secret – but the biggest challenge is the idea that good is the enemy of great. Most businesses are content getting customers. Most bosses get promoted when they grow their revenue.

“Chasing some I think inferior metrics that prevent people from transcending from good to great,” said Kneeland.

Image: Cult Collective LP

“The single biggest thing is what do you truly desire. Are you just trying to be successful or are you trying to be significant? Most businesses are pretty content just being successful.” But he says there is a degree of prosperity that can be much more fulfilling.

“Businesses should exist for more than just the creation of profit. I think businesses should exist for the prosperity of mankind and cult brands are so adored not only because their purpose is greater but because they’re the exception.”

Kneeland said it becomes more difficult to become a cult brand the more stakeholders are involved. The higher the frequency of use by customers the higher the potential for a brand to have a cult following.

According to Cult, here are eight points to become a cult brand – some common traits that enable brands to better connect with customers:

Be Remarkable

“Too many businesses have commoditized offerings and must shout (i.e. paid media) or bribe (i.e. discounts) in order to be noticed. But cult brands create products, services and/or customer experiences that are actually worthy of people’s attention. They are more substance than sizzle and do at least one thing so exceptionally well that their fans can’t help but talk about it.”

Have Purpose

“Every business exists to generate profit, but cult brands also live by a noble brand purpose. Audiences often care more about what a brand stands for than what it sells, so cult brands have mastered how they weave their desirable ethos into their audience engagement strategies.”

Build from the Inside Out

“Cult brand leaders understand that no company can become beloved externally if it’s not first beloved internally. They prioritize culture and redeploy marketing resources away from advertising and margin-eroding sales promotions into a host of properly executed internal engagement pursuits.”


“Mediocre brands emphasize transactional relationships via creative messaging and media plans, whereas cult brands have learned how to shut up and listen. Cult brand leaders systematize how they solicit customer input and gain actionable insights, as well as how they encourage customers to amplify word of mouth.”


“Cult brand leaders find creative ways for their fans to assemble together, virtually or physically. Whether it’s supporting third party-initiated activations or developing desirable destinations for followers to partake in elevated branded experiences, they make it easy for followers to gather and revel in their togetherness.”

Create Rites & Rituals

“Cult followers want to feel like insiders, knowing things and enjoying access that others don’t. Cult brand leaders spend less time creating marketing communications and more time creating lexicons, traditions, symbols and privileges that help best customers feel like valued members of an exclusive club.”

Be Relatable

“Cult followers treat specific businesses like close friends and seek out brand personalities and value systems that align with their own personal preferences. Cult brands perfect how they personify human attributes, and consistently bring their relatable persona to life across all aspects of the customer journey.”

Pick a Fight

“Cult brand leaders target the alienated and intentionally appeal to those who want to separate themselves from the mainstream. A large number of cult brands provocatively challenge market leaders and attempt to derail the establishment that is more comfortable playing it safe by trying to please everyone.”

Article Author

Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training.

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