In 1982, a very strange thing began happening in the middle of nowhere. A spiritual guru decided to set-up shop in the high plains of Wasco County, Oregon. He called himself Osho. Osho had big dreams. Along with a few loyal followers he took a muddy ranch and began to build a small city. He called his commune Rajneeshpuram.

Slowly people began to hear about the commune. Followers, known as Rajneeshees also generated buzz. Among many peculiar practices, they only dressed in sunset colors, had liberal sexual practices and unique chanting meditations. Here’s the bigger surprise: Rajneeshpuram was not for outsiders. It was not for hippies. It was for people like you and me. Most of Osho’s followers were highly educated, highly professional urbanites from all over the world who fell in trance with Rajneeshpuram.

By 1983, their ranch was over 64,229-acres and housed over 7,000 people. It was complete with real city infrastructure such as a fire department, police, restaurants, malls, an airstrip, a public bus system and a sewage treatment center. But, as with most cults, there was a problem. The people at the top were corrupt and would do almost anything to feed their growing community. They took millions of dollars from their members. They bused in homeless people from Portland to win the vote in local elections and to gain council seats and take over local schools. They poisoned—yes, poisoned a buffet in the nearby town so local voters were too sick to vote against them. And eventually, most of the leaders were either arrested or had to flee the United States.

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Cults have always fascinated me. Why would so many intelligent individuals give up their life savings and move to rural Oregon, wear all orange and worship a random man? Why do cults exist?

I also have these questions for you:

  • Would you ever start a cult?
  • Would you ever join a cult?

For our Science of People book club I chose the book The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin. This book brazenly compares the psychology of cults and corporate brands. In fact, he argues:

Brands are the new cults.

The sexiest corporate brands—Apple, JetBlue, Harley Davidson and more have strikingly similar patterns to religious cults.

Specifically:

  • Cults members are you and me. Cults are not made up of community outsiders, loners or weirdos. Studies of populations of major cults by religious sociologists report that their membership generally follows a similar profile. Sociologist Eileen Barker confirmed that cult recruits tend to come from conventional, highly respectable, often middle class homes with traditional family values. Typically, they had happy relationships with their parents and good academic backgrounds. In other words, they are most likely made up of people like you.
  • ‘Us’ versus ‘them’ is paramount. Religious cults typically shun outside customs and traditional beliefs. Cult-like brands do the same. Have you ever tried to convince an avid Apple user of the benefits of using a PC? They get FURIOUS. They don’t just like their Mac, they love their Mac. I have heard crazy Apple fans speak about PC users as some kind of less intelligent alien race.
  • Like brands, cult members tend to adopt their own lexicon and fraternize more and more with their own people. Ask an Avon woman about what products she uses and you will get a long list of gobbledygook (it means something to insiders, but not to most people).

For this post I decided to do something fun (and hopefully you won’t find it creepy).

I believe everyone has an amazing idea inside of them.

Whether you have a business idea, a book or a creative thought, I believe you can use the psychology of cults to build your following. Yes, I want to teach you how to start your own cult.

 … oh, and please don’t go all Dr. Evil on me using these tips. Your cult is for good. Your idea will change the world for the better. So, let’s do it.

Want to Start a Cult?

In this post I am breaking down Atkin’s research into useable steps for your brand. I also thought it would be interesting to have a case study as I go through each step. My case study is my amazing friend and fierce entrepreneur Paige Hendrix Buckner:

Paige Hendrix Buckner

Paige Hendrix Buckner runs a small but vibrant company based here in Portland, Oregon called ClientJoy. Her company provides beautiful, hand crafted gift boxes to companies and individuals all over the country.

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In her own words: “We’re passionate about gratitude. Founded in 2015, ClientJoy started because businesses needed a way to give thoughtful, personalized and customized client gifts. Everyday, we strive to learn about the best practices in gifting so our clients can spend their time and energy doing the hard work of serving their clients.”

By the way, Paige has NO IDEA I am doing this and will probably see it for the first time in her Google Alerts—so Paige here is how you can turn your awesome company into its own little cult = )

Step #1: Determine Your Difference

What makes you special?

In order to recruit followers, you have to have a mission, a declaration and a why. First, what do you do or sell? Why is it better than everyone else? Then, why do you do what you do? How do you make a difference in the world every day with your product or service? Harley Davidson sells motorcycles sure, but their brand is about rebellion, it’s about freedom and it’s about independence. They sell a lifestyle along with their motorcycles.

  • What’s your what:
  • What’s your why:
  • What’s the lifestyle:

Case Study:

Paige creates an amazing product, but she also has a mission along with her business.

  • What’s your what: High quality, beautiful gift boxes filled with handcrafted, gourmet goods and treats.
  • What’s your why: Support the local Oregon economy, honor local artists and artisans and help brands delight their customers with exceptional customer service and gratitude.
  • What’s the lifestyle: Live local, spread the culture of Oregon and give your customers something to remember and love about you.

Step #2: Target Extroverts

Quantitative studies conducted by sociologists found cult populations are dominated by well-educated, pleasant and socially engaging individuals. So I’m going to be blunt—please don’t be offended:

If you want your cult to grow quickly, you have to have people who love to talk, people who have lots of friends and people who love to talk to their friends about you.

Think about Mary-Kay. Mary-Kay is one of the cult-like brands mentioned in the book. This company survives on the back of female extroverts. Mary-Kay sellers are charming, bubbly and socially connected women who convince (or pressure depending on how you look at it) their friends to be part of the Mary-Kay club.

**Here’s the other benefit to having extroverts: Extroverts tend to be popular, are frequently enviable and admired. We like to be like popular people. You want popular people talking about your brand, but you also want them representing your brand.

  • How can you appeal to extroverts?
  • How can you help your extroverts talk about you?

Case-Study:

Luckily, Paige tends to target office managers, Human Resource departments and concierges—very extroverted job positions. She could ramp this up if she wanted:

  • How can you appeal to extroverts? Don’t just cold call your targets, go to where the mot extroverted targets hang out. Who is speaking at your demographic’s annual conference? Who runs the meet-up in your area? Is there a Facebook group for Concierges? A LinkedIn for local sales professionals?
  • How can you help your extroverts talk about you? I believe Paige has one more group of extroverts she could tap—her artisans. All of Paige’s boxes come from local entrepreneurs and producers. Entrepreneurs can be *not always* extroverted. Can they post pictures of their product in your box? Can they share discounts of ClientJoy for a holiday special?

Step #3: Love Bomb

My favorite part of the book was when Atkins described a ritual called a “Love Bomb” that happens in many cults and brands. This boils down to one big idea:

Love your customer for their differences.

Remember Step #1 of starting a cult? I asked you what makes you different. Your customer is different too, and that is the reason you should love them. Atkins introduced a concept that took me a while to wrap my head around. He explained that the best brands and cults share this mantra:

With us, you become more you.

How can someone become more themselves? Let me explain. Atkins gives an example of a typical cult initiation ritual with a potential recruit. In the first few interactions, cults will give recruits unwavering acceptance and the feeling of belonging.

“They will make you feel special and individual in a way that you are unlikely to have felt before. They will celebrate the very things that make you feel different from everyone else. The members will get to know you deep down and they will love you for what they find.”

Wow. Just imagine feeling unwavering love and acceptance from a group of people. Even the thought gives me chills. He goes on:

“There is an intense interaction between recruits and members in the beginning– sharing meals, singing songs, playing games. Anything the recruit does or achieves is complimented and praised. The overwhelming feeling that participants report was of unequivocal love and absolute support in everything they did.”

Cults don’t sell dogma. They sell belonging. And so should you.

We all want to belong. It’s one of the fundamental aspects of being human. So here’s what I want you to think about:

  • How can you help your customer become more themselves?
  • How can you create a feeling of belonging?
  • How can you understand and love your customer’s differences?

Case-Study:

This is a hard one for Paige because she has multiple customers. She has to convince artisans that their products belong in her boxes. She has to convince companies that her boxes belong in their client’s hands. She has to convince recipients of the box that the box was made just for them.

  • Artisans: Beautifully photograph and create blog posts and glossy handouts featuring each artisan in the box. This honors their work and explains ClientJoy’s why to clients.
  • Companies: Create custom boxes based on each company. Stamp their logo on the top along with ClientJoy’s. Include hand written thank you notes and personal anecdotes from the office.
  • Clients: Make the box an experience of the senses. The box is all about giving the client a surprise of pure joy. Rich creamy Oregon chocolate, aromatic Portland Coffee, a succulent lavender candle and sachet—that’s a tour for the palate. By the way—Paige sends ClientJoy boxes to many of my clients and partners and I KNOW it already does this because they email me about it all the time!

Step #4: Heavy Interaction

Your brand isn’t just about your product, it’s also about who else uses your product. You are selling your community along with your services. BMW owners for example have a directory where drivers can find hot meals, warm beds and local garages if they need them on the road. Atkins cheekily says, “Culting is a contact sport.” Constant, distraction-free interaction between members early on is crucial. In this way, your brand can reinforce the idea that:

You’re different, we’re different. We’re in this together.

He gives the example of Apple. Apple is made up of creative rebels. Fellow Apple users stand together in line for hours. They save each other’s spots in line, share a box of donuts and talk about features when new products come out. And then when these creative rebels get the product, they feel their Apple product makes them even more of a creative rebel.

  • How can your customers interact more with each other?
  • How can you build community around your lifestyle, product or service?

Case-Study:

Paige is already on top of this one. A few weeks ago, she mentioned having a once a year event where all of her artisans and clients come together for a party and get to meet each other. Artisans can display new wares and clients can meet the creators behind their gifts. Brilliant!

Step #5: Lingo and Icons

Many cults encourage behaviors, use lexicon and have symbols that separate their members from society. For example, certain religions don’t drink caffeine. Cults in the 1960s enforced veganism and daily chanting. Apple uses the iconic apple symbol to shout to the outside world. Apple users can easily spot their kin when they see a new Apple Watch sitting across from them on the train. Or when they see the bright partially eaten apple on the back of someone’s new laptop. Atkins calls this second step demarcation. This can also happen with insider words. Scientology uses tons of special words and acronyms that only fellow scientologists will recognize. Livestrong created its own little cult with those yellow bracelets.

  • What demarcates your brand from others?
  • How can your members recognize fellow members?
  • Do you have a special lexicon?

Case-Study:

I think it would be great if Paige could create a badge for artisans to post on their website. This would be a way for artisans to show a stamp of approval and a membership of sorts to a prestigious selection process. Some of Paige’s products are also symbols themselves. If a client gets a lavender candle and puts it on their desk, they will be reminded of ClientJoy every time they look at (or smell) it and people who visit the office can ask as well.

Step #6: The Enemy

This might be my most controversial tip. One part of Atkin’s book goes in depth into what he calls “tension.”

Tension is the management of deviance.

Many traditional cults demonize the other. They shame external ideas, shun outsiders and categorize anything that’s not ‘us’ as the evil ‘them.’ This has tremendous psychological effect of bonding community members and separating from outside forces.

Do you have a cause to fight for or a cause to fight against?

For example, PETA fights against animal cruelty, wearing animal products and animal testing. Some brands are able to fight for something and against something. For example, JetBlue stands for great customer service and fights for humane and affordable air travel. Apple stands for excellent product design and fights against janky products. At Science of People, I often think about how we stand for confidence and interpersonal intelligence, and fight against boredom and awkwardness.

  • Do you have a cause you fight for?
  • Do you have a cause you fight against?
  • Who is the enemy? Do you state it? 

Case-Study:

I think Paige is fighting bad customer service. She is fighting ingratitude. She is fighting against non-local goods. She stands for Oregon, while fighting against low quality mass-produced goods.

Step #7: Making the Familiar Unfamiliar

How do cults get people to do seemingly crazy things? How do leaders convince mothers to give their children poison Kool-Aid before a supposed apocalypse? How do cults convince people to leave their families and donate all of their life savings to a cult leader? Easy:

A familiar face.

Familiarity breeds familiar. Atkins describes an interesting psychological principle about introducing foreign concepts to people. He showcases how many traditional cults use a familiar face to present an unfamiliar idea.

  • Traditional Cult Example: A new cult recruit meets all members at prayer meetings, potlucks and sing-alongs. They all become close friends. A few months later, one of the friends—who is now really familiar brings up the idea of tithing (giving money to the cult leader). This is an unfamiliar idea brought by a familiar face. After all, your friend is asking for the money. And all of your other friends already do it. This makes the hard to swallow decision to give up your hard-earned money easier. Another word for this is peer-pressure.
  • Brand Cult Example: Do your friends use iPhones? Did one of your friends get an iPod when it first came out? How about an iPad? When we see friends use new technology it seems all the more useable to us. Not to mention walking into an Apple Store you meet Apple geeks who look just like you. They are friendly, cool and relatable to Apple’s sweet spot demographic. We think if they can do it, so can I!

This is also how many cults recruit new members. Existing members approach friends, family members and classmates.

Case-Study:

TESTIMONIALS! If one law firm in town sees the testimonial of another on Paige’s website that is going to make them think they are missing out. If one artisan posts a testimonial of ClientJoy on his or her Pinterest, all of the other artisans (and their fans) will see it and want in.

Step #8: I Am a Member

Have you ever heard of a loosey goosey cult? One without membership? No. Membership contributes strongly to the members’ feeling of belonging. Membership should be real, tangible and have a process to encourage loyalty and camaraderie. Here are some ideas:

  • Create a private members area
  • Have applications
  • Have a private Facebook group
  • Charge dues
  • Have an initiation process
  • Run an orientation
  • Start a membership committee

Case-Study:

I know that Paige hand selects her artisans—I think this should be more prominent in the branding. Perhaps have an application for artisans who want to be included on the website, mention in materials to clients that only specially selected local artisans are included in the boxes, etc. I know also Paige has limited supply. It might be an interesting experiment to publish this supply. In other words, use transparency to create ‘membership.’ So emailing clients and saying, ‘This Holiday Season, we only have capacity for 500 boxes. Be sure to get your order in before we run out—if you have ordered with us before we can use all of your previous information and will give you priority on shipping.’

#9: Learn From Your Cultees

I am not sure if I can call cult members ‘cultees’ but I’m going to try. One idea that Atkins proposed that I think is good for any business, cult or brand is to watch and learn from what your customers are doing themselves. For example, here at Science of People we found out that readers were posting great discussions from our articles on Quora. They gave us this idea, and we just made it easier to do what they are already doing.

  • Watch your clients use your product, brand or website. Can you optimize this process?
  • How are your clients talking about or sharing your product? Can you make this easier?
  • What are your clients getting up and doing themselves? Can you help?

Case-Study:

I am not sure if Paige has already done this (knowing her, she already has) but I would love to watch people open their ClientJoy boxes when they get them. Perhaps a few people can film ‘unboxing’ videos and let Paige and her team watch—are they reusing the box? Saving the Jam? Do they want a printout explanation of what’s in the box? Would they use a ClientJoy bookmark or calendar? It would be fun to find out!

#10: Cult Fertilizer

So you have planted the seeds. You have a few flowers. How can you encourage more growth? Fertilizer. Here are a few points Atkins encourages cult leaders to use:

  • Focus on the person, make it all about them. Your brand is not about your product, it is about your customer. It is about their experience, their enjoyment and their solution. When thinking about building your business, put them first.
  • Make mutual commitments. If your cult has a prominent leader (you or someone else as opposed to a product or mission) then the leader needs to have skin in the game. Atkins points out that cult followers want to feel in it with fellow members AND their leader. Whatever you ask of your followers you should chip in 3-fold.
  • The Priest Model. Can you empower your inner leaders? There are two different kind of cult hierarchies: one where the power is centered around one person or a small group at the top and one where the power is distributed to ‘priests’ or inner leaders. The Priest Model is the same thing has having brand ambassadors. You want to empower your most excited members to work with you.

And as always, please fertilize with good. People want to be with a cause that promotes positive change. Be that positive force.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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