The makers of Tylenol recalled millions of bottles right away, airing alerts warning people not to take the capsules and setting up a hotline, said Doug McIntyre, chief executive of Cult Marketing. Read More >>

Cult Marketing Gets Jiggy!

How did Cult Marketing help the Dublin Irish Festival shatter their all time best attendance record last year?  By doing what we do best, creating fanaticism. So, as the marketing agency for DIF, we continued our successful campaign and added even more fun cult tactics to the list.

Fans came out in droves this year. We saw folks ‘getting jiggy’ at the Killian’s Celtic Rock Stage, ‘wigging out’ with traditional Irish dancers at the Cardinal Health Ceili Dance Tent and lining up for the gathering of the Red Heads.

Check out some of the highlights from this year’s campaign that got folks talking and spreading the word for DIF.


Bud light Cult Marketing

Bud light Cult MarketingA Duesenberg was just like any other luxury car … correct? And if you like Anchor Steam Ale, well, you’d be just as happy to pop open a Bud Light, yes? And a Mac user might switch to a PC on a whim, is that not so? … Guess again! Obviously, the answer in all three cases is a resounding “no!” But what is it about some products or people that gives them a “cult following?” And what can companies learn from this cult branding phenomenon when it comes to marketing their products?

Not just any product attracts a cult following. It isn’t enough to be of high quality, or even to be very distinctive. The cult product does more than provide a service. For one thing, it promotes an image. Your use of a cult product tells people something about you. Therefore, cult brands tend to be higher involvement or more personal products, not everyday consumer items.

It also makes you feel a part of a select group – a member of a tribe that believes passionately in something. In some cases, these kindred souls even band together as though they were members of an exclusive club, with their own rituals, jargon, and dress. Think the Marines or Harley Davidson bikers.

In short, what sets cult products apart is that they lend the customer an identity and a strong sense of belonging. It is human nature to want to belong, and people like to associate with people who have similar interests. Therefore, the cult brands act as the bonding agent that draws people together.

What does this mean for corporate America? There are some decisive advantages for the brand that has a cult following. There’s the obvious benefit of a fanatically loyal customer base, but it doesn’t stop there. Consumers that are part of a cult following are not nearly as price-sensitive as other types of customers. Since the brand has no real competition, price wars are out of the question — customers will pay full price for their brand without hesitation and are often the “early adopters.” Furthermore, they will provide free word-of-mouth advertising for the producer by encouraging others to “join the club.” This is the type of customer that companies dream about.

According to Doug McIntyre, President of the Columbus, Ohio brand marketing firm Cult Marketing, most marketing dollars in America are used to replace the 20-25% customer attrition that most brands suffer every year. Fickle, disloyal customers wind up costing as much in marketing expenses as they contribute to profits — a net-zero gain for the company. In a recent study, only 18% of national advertisers believed they were receiving a positive return-on-investment on their TV advertising dollars! By contrast, cult consumers will stick with their brand, year after year. That is why McIntyre advocates flipping the traditional marketing model in what he calls “Reverse Branding” – brand marketing from the inside out.

With so much to gain, why aren’t all companies striving to develop cult followings? In some cases, companies have not fully realized the rewards of such an approach. Or, unlike cult brands, they try to be all things to all people – they are unwilling, or perhaps afraid, to stake out a niche. “Cults always have a very specific and defined point of view,” points out McIntyre, “and if you don’t agree with it, that’s OK with them.”

In other cases, companies want to develop cult brands, but can’t figure out how. It’s just not that easy to develop a product that people fall in love with. Effective cult branding is more than just generating hype – the product itself, and the image it projects, must have a special appeal that draws people in. Likewise, the cult following must be genuine and thrive at a grass-roots level. In fact, the more a product appears to be the slick output of a corporate brand marketing machine, the less likely that a cult will develop.

So, for a business, both the advantages and challenges of cult status are great. Some believe that cult products can be developed effectively, but not by traditional marketing methods or a business-as-usual approach. “What you need to do is start with what we call a ‘deep dive,’” says McIntyre. “You need to understand the total experience from the customer’s perspective. What’s the emotional impact? How does it fit in with their lives? We use ethnography and other research techniques for this. Then it’s a matter of looking at the complete package – the product, the retail experience, the website, the advertising, the way representatives look and act – everything that enhances or detracts from creating a cult experience.”

After developing a deep understanding of a company’s cult customers, the next step is to develop ideas based on the marketing techniques employed by cults and cult brands. Continues McIntyre, “We have identified 13 Laws of Cult Branding. These are the characteristics of cults and cult brands, and how they market themselves. We use these 13 Laws as our toolbox for ideas. It’s amazing how many powerful ideas you can generate from these 13 points.”

Trade show marketing strategies

Trade show marketing strategiesA trade show is like a modern day bazaar – a veritable open market of hawkers and vendors urging you to buy. In this chaotic environment, how do you succeed? How can you promote and market your brand without getting lost in the crowd? How do you land the hot leads, get the order, or at least have a real conversation about your service or product?

At Cult Marketing, we believe in the Sun Tzu philosophy that “the war is won before the first battle begins.” In the case of a trade show, it is certainly the truth; your brand marketing strategy going in must be airtight. You must carefully define your target audience, determine how you engage with them, how you make them aware and interested in your offerings, and how to motivate them to seek you in this environment. This is all possible only through careful ethnographic research, strategic planning, bold creativity and maybe a bit of show business.

Careful Ethnographic Research: What do you know about your target audience? In Sun Tzu terms this is known as “intelligence.” First of all, who is attending this trade show – potential customers/clients, competitors? What are they interested in? What are the characteristics of the attendees? The first thing you need to do is make sure the trade show is right for you as a presenter by assessing all these variables and comparing them to your objectives, product/service offerings and sales strategies.

Strategic Planning:
If you’ve decided there is a good match between what you do and what attendees are looking for, then what is your plan to move attendees down the AIDA continuum (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action)? How will you get their attention, what will tweak their interest, can you actually get them to move to action? In this case, the call to action will be defined here as conversation, a lead, a proposal, or in a perfect world, an order. You also want to be sure that your current brand marketing strategy is prepared to handle these conversions (have a trade show related landing page created on your website, for instance).

One thing you need to do is start the awareness process weeks or months before the show begins. Your target customers should be seeking you out by the time they get to the show because you have intrigued them well in advance. So, remember to invest in a solid pre-show campaign. Don’t skimp here and spend all your money on a crazy booth stunt.

Bold Creativity: There is nothing quite as dramatic as the instant feedback you get at a tradeshow. If people flock by your booth on their way to your big competitor, you can only sit there and pretend to look busy. In the meantime, it is too late. If your creative efforts are not the result of a well thought out extension of your strategy, they will fail. They will also fail if your message is presented in a boring, uninteresting or expected way. Remember the first rule of creativity: you must get their attention. If you don’t get their attention, everything else you did is completely wasted.

Show Business: This one is tricky as many companies feel a bit embarrassed about going over the top. But, it’s OK to push the envelope as long as it is well done. I remember a Kohler booth that had the “Bond Girls” coming up out of a pool of water. Yes, it was expensive as hell, but it was fabulous and the booth was overrun with prospects. The rule here is if you can’t afford to do it right, then don’t make the attempt.

Last but Not Least: You need to close the deal after the show. You need the order, the PO or even better, a large check mailed to your doorstep. This is where having a pre-show strategy incorporated into your brand marketing efforts pays off. Have a custom sales follow-up for each and every prospect. You should know more about them after the show than you did before, so capitalize on that information.

Trade show marketing can be fun if you are prepared for the battle. Find a good strategic and creative partner and carefully chart out every step of the process. Leave no detail to chance. Now, please enjoy the show!


BPAn oil spill is a tragic – but all too real – possibility for an oil company. By the nature of their business, you would think oil companies would expect an incident like the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil well explosion to happen. It should not be a surprise – anymore than an earthquake in California would be a shocker. But, as the latest oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has shown, these environmental disasters are all but impossible to prepare for. The question from a brand marketing standpoint is simple: what the hell should they do given this probability?

As we at Cult like to do, let’s back up and look at the consumers’ view of the industry. The oil companies are really big and really profitable – even when the economy is in the proverbial toilet. In the deep recession year of 2009, when almost everyone was suffering financially, the oil companies made billions of dollars in profits. In a 2006 study of gas price manipulation, the FTC found that the record increases in gasoline prices were “not substantially attributable to higher costs”. It seems the oil companies always take advantage of their financial opportunities with no regard to consumer goodwill. These companies are often viewed as monopolistic, money-grubbing, price-gouging, predatory goliaths. In a 2008 Harris poll of 20 major industries, only the tobacco industry had a lower rating than the oil companies on the topic of how good or bad a job they perform in serving the needs of consumers.

From a marketing and branding perspective, what is there to love about an oil company? Do you trust them? Do you have any affinity to any oil company? Do they do anything for you as a person? Do they make you feel good in any way? The energy industry has to rank among the worst PR and branding industries. We know all about the 1989 Exxon Valdez nightmare which was widely considered the worst corporate PR fiasco of all time. But what has the industry done to counter its image since then?

Gladly, they have made some strides. Let’s take the current Gulf oil spill. BP has a real disaster on its hands, and they have clearly learned a lesson from Exxon’s PR gaffe. The CEO of Exxon was not seen until six days after the Valdez disaster, and then said at a press conference that it was not his responsibility to read the cleanup plan report. He also blamed the media for turning the spill into a big deal. Hell, it was two full weeks before he visited the spill site in Alaska! The media interview refusals by Exxon’s CEO Rawl and his complete lack of remorse highlighted the worst possible PR moves by one of the world’s most profitable corporations. It conveyed an ivory-tower arrogance. Now, to his credit, the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, has learned from Exxon’s PR mistakes and has been on air and is taking full financial responsibility for the spill cleanup.

On the marketing and branding front, oil companies have increased their efforts. Shell has been focusing on advanced technologies and product performance enhancements along with sponsorships like Eco-Marathons, Exxon Mobil has been supporting science education, and BP and others have been focusing on their “green” strategy. Unfortunately for BP, that positioning is tough to sustain given the latest environmental tragedy.

Even so, let’s not pretend the problem has gone away. The brand marketing work of oil companies is far from done. Oil and energy companies must develop a sincere, long-term strategy to create brands that connect with their consumers on an intellectual and emotional level. In short, they need to define a plan to evoke positive feelings from their consumers.

One good way to enhance their brands would be to become good corporate citizens. Oil companies make massive profits, so how about giving back? An exhaustive study by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy shows that the energy industry’s Total Median Giving as a Percent of Revenue (0.05%) is the lowest of any other major industry! [For reference, health care companies give 0.6%, or 12 times as much as the energy companies.] Once again, the oil companies don’t understand the concept of branding.

Maybe the sad reality is there is no motivation for oil companies to care about their brands or their consumers. What are we to do, stop buying gasoline?

Did you know that private labels products now account for up to 45% of all retail sales in key European countries, and 21.5% in the U.S. (Nielsen, 2009)? If you looked at these statistics ten-twenty years ago, it would be a different story. But recently, private label products have become increasingly popular with consumers. Yet, you don’t see these products spending millions of dollars on television and print advertising. Still, in most cases, private label products deliver significantly higher margins to the retailer than the traditional consumer produced goods (CPG) brands.

So, it is surprising that private label strategies are not pursued with the same level of vigor or investment as their branded brethren. Is it because they are completely sold that the only way to spend their marketing budgets is on traditional advertising?

Cult has been working with a large national retailer to optimize their private label product strategy and package design. We employ the same rigorous branding development practices used by the big CPG brands. We conduct deep dives into the lives of the consumers to see how the brand fits into their lives. We employ unique market research techniques to determine what about a private label product speaks to a consumer and pushes them to make the purchase.

Cult Marketing develops concept testing programs to evaluate various design and messaging options, and we have consumers evaluate the competitive products, both CPG and private label. After all, when it’s all said and done, the consumer needs to choose the private label product even when it is displayed right next to the familiar brand icon.

The result is a highly competitive product that can win at the shelf, without a massive marketing campaign. We call this kind of win “the moment of truth” – and if done properly – it can pull the rug out from beneath a billion dollar brand.

People showing Cult following

People showing Cult followingWhen Cult Marketing launched in 2004, we often presented our concept to a prospective client who thought we were speaking in a foreign language. Our ideas about branding and marketing did not mesh with the concepts that years of precedents and convention had ingrained in their minds. A completely holistic approach to the brand experience based on a deep knowledge of the consumer? Our ideas were considered to be “absurd,” our methods and goals “impractical.”

Here’s how it would go:

Client: “We have an advertising agency of record that handles our branding and marketing needs.”
Cult: “So your ad agency completely understands your consumers, develops brand insights, and manages your internet, in-store marketing, direct, customer intimacy, store design, viral, sales, special events, sponsorships, product placements, and PR strategies along with all the other brand touchpoints?”
Client: “Hell no, we have different agencies and different internal decision-makers for each of those areas.”
Cult: “So your agency of record (AOR) defined the brand and manages all those firms to ensure brand consistency?”
Client: “No way. One firm can’t do all that.”
Cult: “Then who owns the total brand experience?”
Client: “I guess our CEO is ultimately responsible for that.”
Cult: “Oh, so he works with all the firms to make sure everything is on track?”
Client: “He/she doesn’t have time for that. He/she mostly deals with financial decisions, acquisitions, Wall Street and stuff like that.”

Well times have changed haven’t they? The fact is the traditional agency model has completely fallen apart. If an agency does not propose an integrated branding and marketing model in today’s day and age, what chance would they have to get a gig? And who is the AOR anymore? Is it the media agency, advertising agency (now often separate), the digital agency, the retail design group or a brand consultancy?

At Cult Marketing, we start with the concept that your best customers own and drive all great brands. We are talking about the people who are already excited and fired up about your brand (hence the name Cult). The people are valuable because they provide insight into what aspects of your current branding are desirable and are creating a positive impact on your target audience – essentially, free market research. The 80/20 rule is still as solid as when it was identified. The point is, you might as well understand this cult customer subculture and their relationship with your brand. Once you do, you can go out and attempt to clone the behavior. Before you know it, your small cult of followers and brand warriors is growing. Make sense? We think so.

The Cult Marketing consumer insights ethnography research team is on the road again, this time in search of the perfect smile whitening system (SWS). Our client, a luxury teeth whitening company, asked us to evaluate several top-secret new product concepts as well as to obtain more information and uncover refinements to their current 7-day smile whitening system. The client’s current SWS is distributed in Sephora, Neiman-Marcus and other retail stores nationwide, as well as through direct sales on HSN and the client’s Web site.

To get real and useful information for our client, we are digging deep into the psychology and emotions surrounding teeth whitening, perceptions of beauty, and the various rituals and practices associated with this deeply personal topic.

We are constantly asked how we are able to recruit people to participate in brand research studies that deal with personal issues. Basically, here’s our recruiting pitch:

“We want you to let a few market researchers come into your home, watch you brush and whiten your teeth, dig around in your bathroom drawers and delve into your deepest emotions around dating, beauty, and self-confidence.”

“Oh, and by the way, we’d like you to create a collage, use the product for 7 days and attend a concept brainstorm session.”

No, we are not kidding. This pitch actually works. But why do people do this?

Surprisingly, compensation is not necessarily the reason many people opt to participate in these types of market research studies. The fact of the matter is people want a voice. They want to feel important and are excited that we – an important market research company – value their opinions and thoughts. After the camera is up and rolling, we have had many people exclaim, “I feel like I’m on the Barbara Walters Special!”

At Cult Marketing, we want our research subjects to feel special and important – because they are. One inspired person can give us the breakthrough insight we need to spawn an idea that will have a huge impact on branding and marketing. It is a unique and mutually beneficial relationship that exists between the Cult Marketing and our research subjects; we rely on them for information while they count on us to voice their opinions.

So we pack our bags and video cameras and travel across the country in search of the breakthrough insight that could mean millions of dollars to our clients. In this case, there was never a “dull” moment.

The Cult Marketing ethnography team has been on the road for months delving into America’s consumer subcultures in search of information and insights. We get many questions about how the ethnography research process works. So, here’s a glimpse at a week in the life of a Cult ethnographer.

Day 1, Charlotte, NC: The two Cult field teams are greeted by snow in Charlotte. Usually not a problem for the teams, but Charlotte is completely unprepared for snow. Except for the main highways, the streets are not cleared and quickly turn to ice. Team #2 goes on an interview in the boonies, follows the GPS to a dead-end road that looks like something out of Deliverance. They get stuck on an ice patch near a secluded, run-down shack with a “Trespassers Will be Shot” sign on the front fence. They eventually made it to the interview and had fun with a big, burly, engaging guy with the name of Ashley.

Day 2, Charlotte: Team #1 drives 50 miles through the snow to visit a really cool outdoor store in the middle of nowhere. If you like the smell of guns, you’d love this place. Got some great insights from the store owner on the decision-making process for outdoor and work apparel and footwear. That night, we begin the data download process. We have new hi-tech cameras with 120 gig hard drives. No more video tapes. We are able to download the interview video files online so our analysts can start processing information right away. Isn’t technology cool?

Day 3, Houston, TX: The Cult team #1 finds itself in a terrible neighborhood. The team is questioning whether or not they should go into the house for safety reasons. The neighborhood appears to be a drug dealer’s paradise. [Cult prefers to send teams of two into the field for safety reasons – usually a male and a female.] After some discussion the team knocks on the door and is welcomed by the research subject, a well-educated, articulate, fanatical brand person who ended up to be a great interview. Team #2 is conducting a shop-along in a mom-and-pop store in the Houston burbs when they find out that their rental car was sideswiped by a dually truck driven by a man with one arm and a prosthetic hook. His honesty is appreciated. Later that night the teams compare notes at Beavers Ice Haus, an upbeat gastropub.

Day 4, Houston, TX: Superbowl Sunday! The teams got in two interviews each. One of the team #2 members is allergic to dogs, so naturally every house she goes into has one, including a 3-legged dog that had its leg surgically removed due to cancer. The interviewee tearfully accepted the incentive check and said it would go to chemo treatments for her beloved golden retriever. Both teams finished early enough to watch the Superbowl game from a pub downtown.

Day 5, Minneapolis, MN: Minneapolis in February is interesting. People here love the winter activities like ice fishing, snowmobiling, and skating. The high temperature was 7 degrees. There were scenes right out of Fargo, but in general the people of Minneapolis are as happy as clams. One young interviewee was excited too be going out later at night to shoot coyotes with his buddies. We learned that you must wear white winter gear and have a clear night with a prominent moon.

Day 6, Minneapolis: After a fascinating interview with a large, energetic woman with a classic Minnesota accent, we were invited to join her ice fishing. We had to run to the airport, but it would have been fun to check out. People have ice fishing houses with heaters, beer coolers, TVs, and plush chairs. It’s like a living room on ice. Maybe next time…

Day 7, Las Vegas, NV: The teams split up. One team went home to Columbus to start working on the key strategic insights; the other to the desert to attend a big trade show. One of the challenges of ethnography is packing for 10-day trips that include frigid temperatures and desert sun. Maybe our next project will be for a luggage company?

Avatar passed the $1 billion in global ticket sales mark only three weeks into release. Pretty damn impressive by any standard. What is the big secret here, the $150 million marketing budget or the amazing word-of-mouth generated by the movie experience?

If you look at movie marketing, many major financial successes are the result of major marketing pushes. But the formula does not always hold. Paranormal Activity was the latest success story in the no-budget, word-of-mouth social media camp to blow the doors off. Made originally for $15,000 – including $500 payments for the two leads – the movie has now grossed an estimated $141,000,000 worldwide as of January 1, 2010. Other box office smashes in the low budget category are The Blair Witch Project, made for $60,000 with $249,000,000 in receipts worldwide, and Napoleon Dynamite with $46,000,000 in receipts on a $400,000 production budget.

Avatar, by comparison cost a reported $400,000,000 to make and market. Of the $1.018 billion in ticket sales, two-thirds were from foreign sales.
Avatar is an anomaly. According to movie distributor Mark Cuban, the average film loses $8 dollars on every opening-weekend ticket sold – Avatar only lost $2 for every dollar in revenue. But here is a statistic to blow your marketing mind: Avatar opened with an average take of $22,313 per theater, and Paranormal Activity – with its tiny budget – averaged $25,813 per theater the two weekends before Halloween.

The financial success of a film is almost always about the quality of the movie, good reviews, buzz, viral, W-O-M, PR, and a whole slew of non-traditional (read non-paid) media. In other words, a holistic marketing approach, the stuff many traditional ad agencies hate.

So back to the original question. Was it mass marketing or W-O-M? Let’s hear what you think.

Other trivia:
Highest ever: Titanic ($1.8 billion, of which 67% was international)
Highest for an ‘R’ rated film: Passion of Christ ($612,000,000, 40% international)