For marketers, customer loyalty has always been considered the ultimate goal. To reach it, one must first follow the “marketing funnel” by creating awareness for their products or services, stimulating trial, incentivizing repeat purchase, and, over time, maintaining a loyal customer base. Some brand loyalists will celebrate the brand on a higher level and become brand advocates. These desired customers not only reject alternatives (regardless of price), they also proudly share their experience, passion and recommendations for ‘their brand’.
All brands will achieve some modest degree of advocacy. But there are only a few that reach a notable, even legendary level of advocates. Apple is an obvious example, supported by its ecosystem of products and programs that ensnares and holds its loyal customer base. A base that can be likened to a movement with Apple tattoos and a drive to wait hours in line for the latest product. Starbucks is widely considered another, by offering a product and experience so superior, people (myself included) have been known to drive for miles for a $3 cup of coffee – while passing up any number of drinkable and less expensive alternatives.
But is advocacy the limit of brand achievement? Is there anything beyond the stratosphere of brand advocacy?
Enter Cult Status
Way up there, near the edge of space where the air is thin, is a level we identify as the “brand cult” status. Here the customer becomes the brand cultist. The brand cultist not only rejects the alternatives, he or she challenges their very legitimacy to even exist. The brand cultist is not only a loyal consumer of the brand, but remains immersed in it in virtually every waking moment. The brand cultist will steadfastly remain with the brand, even when it stumbles and disappoints, no matter what. The brand cultists, in essence, are defined by the brand itself…and vice a versa.
College and professional sports franchises can and do acquire cult followings, as well as some entertainment franchises and personalities. These entities “can do no wrong” in the eyes of their brand cult followers, because brand and customer are as one. The brand has laddered up to shared values.
Critical to achieving brand cult status is the emotional component of the brand, a factor we’ve discussed often on Branding Strategy Insider. Emotions run high in the competitive arena, be it sports or politics, forging nearly unbreakable bonds between consumers and their brands.
An excellent example of a brand that has achieved this is the FOX News Channel.
The FOX News Channel is a cable news media concept that has hit a phenomenal, serendipitous high with its “news demo” audience since its launch in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, a former Republican media strategist. FOX News took almost half the market in less than a decade by building a brand around a belief system and a clear strategic path intent on understanding and serving their target audience better than anyone else.
Today, FOX News is the most profitable division of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire and is off the charts in terms of brand loyalty, showing no appreciable signs of abating.
In order to understand and learn from the brand cult phenomenon that is FOX News, you need to set aside your own political leanings and look at how masterfully the brand manages the fundamentals. These, coupled with its timing in a marketplace hungry for an alternative to its cable news rivals, help explain how it earned its brand cult status.
Brand Targeting And Positioning
As democrat Bill Clinton was beginning his second Presidential term in 1996, conservatives were harping about the “liberal media bias.” FOX News became the answer to an unmet need to the tens of millions of conservative-minded baby boomers. Positioning FOX News as “Fair & Balanced” was an implied acknowledgement by FOX News to its viewers that the other cable news channels, principally CNN and MSNBC (also started in 1996) were quite the contrary. Though derided by critics and competitors as a false claim, Fair & Balanced is a simple, yet powerful promise and reassurance to an entire generation of viewers in need of a source that was specifically designed to understand them. The kinship was forming. By FOX News’ coverage of 9/11, the audience bond was all but cemented and the brand cult began.
Brand Authenticity And Consistency
The most successful brands have an identity that is founded on an authentic, genuine point-of-view, for many that emanates from the company founder. Steve Jobs was that for Apple. Howard Schultz for Starbucks. Roger Ailes by way of Rupert Murdoch, for Fox News. In establishing the brand, the desire was to create choice – an alternative to CNN and MSNBC. And so, on October 7, 1996, Fox News went on the air to cast the Aile’s Republican vision of the news and opinion. In the 20 years since, it has unwavered in its commitment to that cause. It has certainly helped that the leadership has not changed in this span, key to any brand maintaining consistency.
The Blake Project always cautions against adopting brand positions merely out of marketing expediency. For example, “green washing” in order to appeal to environmentally-conscious consumers. Sooner or later, the truth will come out. Not a factor for FOX News. Its conservative, right wing perspective is at the emotional heart of the brand – and so it is with its brand cult followers who tune in everyday, all day, 24/7.
Brand Dress And Appeal
No other news outlet wraps itself in the American flag to the extent of FOX News. In brilliant fashion, they have tapped into the patriotic duty felt by their viewership. The payoff is a perception of being ‘more American’, closer aligned to the values that the United States was founded on. With American politics so closely attached to the on air product, the strategy has no equal.
To reach cult status a brand must study all avenues to encode the brand in the mind. Fox News took full advantage of the emergence of high-definition TV that began when it began in 1996. The brand pioneered a distinctive visual presentation with ultra-bold graphics and flashy animation that became synonymous with its identity while making other news sets and video look like yesterday’s news.
FOX News brand cultists anticipate the next “FOX News Alert” chime, all while enjoying the view of over-the-top attractive and sexy anchors cross-examining the occasional liberal to keep it all “Fair & Balanced.” Beyond sex appeal and opposing viewpoints, FOX News carefully recruits key personalities from rival networks to build additional associations that help to substantiate the claim.
We tend to think of brand dress in terms of graphic identity standards or as touch points in packaging at point-of-sale. However, FOX News demonstrates that the sizzle can be every bit as important as the steak, with a visual presentation across all of its programming assets that fixates and holds viewers like flypaper.
Brand Content And Architecture
FOX News is unquestionably pro-Republican, pro-military, pro-law enforcement, pro-fossil fuel, pro-gun, and a host of other issues their brand cult is passionate about. And this content is served over a carefully orchestrated and programmed schedule of show sub-brands, each with their own personality but all unmistakably FOX News. The prime time line up is even laddered much like the old GM model of luxury step-up (Chevrolet—Pontiac—Oldsmobile—Buick—Cadillac) with each subsequent show stepping up its conservative firepower. Start the evening with a somewhat pragmatic Greta Van Susteren and up your dosage to Sean Hannity before lights out. After all, as a brand cult follower, you’ve got to get a few winks in before Fox & Friends at 6am.
Every moment is aligned with what their target customers value most. With no exceptions. Iconic symbols, colors, sounds, graphic elements, viewpoints, context, messaging, personalities, leadership, design, lighting and strategy are uniquely synched for an embrace with those most important to its future.
7 Questions For Aspiring Cult Brands
On its arrival to cult brand status, FOX News offers marketers in every business category a valuable example of how to serve your target customer in such a way that there are no substitutes. Only brand insistence.
In planning your own brands’ climb, ask yourself these questions:
- How well do I understand my target customer and connect with them on an emotional level?
- Do we share each others values?
- Is my brand an authentic, genuine reflection of what my company stands for?
- Does my visual brand identity, brand dress and touch points excite or inspire my target customer to want more?
- Is my brand unwavering in its commitment to stand for what is most important to my target customers?
- Does my brand deliver on its brand promise with relentless consistency from the inside out?
- Does my brand have a leadership team capable of keeping us focused on the meaningful difference we create for the long haul?
The Blake Project Can Help: Accelerate Brand Growth Through Powerful Emotional Connections
Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education