Why is there so much love for some companies that, for instance, bikers will tattoo the Harley-Davidson logo on their biceps and gadget geeks will style their hair to resemble the Apple logo? What can credit union marketers learn from these passionate fans? How did companies that sell motorcycles, electronics, sport equipment (Nike) and cars (BMW) build such a devoted following?

Cult brands are less about marketing and selling. They feel more like family that just happens to sell products and services.

Harley-Davidson – Your life. Your Ride

From its launch in 1903, Harley-Davidson motorcycles became a symbol of macho mobility thanks to their heavy frames and the sheer power delivered by their roaring engines. But then the Japanese motorcycles arrived. Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki, with their renowned manufacturing techniques and quality control, began dominating the market. It’s hard to remember but in 1981 Harley-Davidson was on the verge of bankruptcy. Former executives bought the company, and faced the daunting task of putting the company back on its feet.

With a tight budget, Harley-Davidson could not afford conventional branding campaigns. Sound familiar? They developed a strategy focusing less on selling bikes and more on communicating the “Harley Experience”. Their objective was to create a community of buyers who did not own just a product, but belonged to the Harley way of life – freedom, empowerment, individualism. Their target buyers were those who, regardless of income, sex or age, yearn to experience this lifestyle – of course, by strapping on some leather and going for a long ride on an open road.

The success of Harley-Davidson and their transformation from an iconic brand to a cult brand can be attributed primarily to the strong relationships the company decided to build with its customers, offering them more than just a bike.

Defining the Difference between Brand and Cult Brand

Brands are spheres of influence, and the most attractive brands win in the marketplace. They get repeatedly chosen over competition, not once or twice, but week after week, year after year.

Cult Brands are a special class of attractive brands that command super-high customer loyalty and almost evangelical customers or followers who are devoted to them.

When we talk about cult brands, we talk about helpful brands. They help fill the emotional needs and wants of their followers in a positive way. Today’s society is the perfect environment for cult branders and cult brands. It is full of fragmentation, with increases in divorce rates, broken homes and a common feeling of disconnect. Yet, there remains basic human need for security, belonging and social interaction. We all need to belong to a group.

Brands can provide that sense of community – a common passion among many brings a feeling of camaraderie to its followers. Can we imagine where we could take credit unions if we truly built a cult brand as a movement?

A Formula for Success

Cult brands have different audiences, different tactics, but they all use the same formula. How can we apply this formula to the credit union movement?

• People want to be part of a group that’s different. We are a communication-addicted society. We not only enjoy being part of like-minded groups; we also enjoy being different and standing out from the rest of the pack. Are we the alternative financial institution?

• Cult brands are bold. Consumers embrace cult brands and are loyal to them because their creators pushed the limit, took significant risk and produced new and different products/services. Cult brands stay with us. Generic brands fade from memory. Are we boldly stating the credit union difference?

• Cult brands represent a lifestyle. People want to have fun. At their core, cult brands are fun. They make us happy. They cheer us up when we feel down; they help us improve life. Do we make people happy?

• You need to listen and serve your brand evangelists. The primary focus of cult brands is to serve the customers they already have. It’s not only more efficient; it’s also more effective. Do something extraordinary for current members and transform them into brand evangelists. Do we listen to our advocates?

• Cult brands always create communities. Cult brands continually find new ways to give back to their customers for their passion and devotion. They develop strong relationships through supporting customer communities that follow them. Are you giving back enough to your members?

• Cult brands are inclusive. Cult brands openly embrace anyone who is interested in their company. Exclusivity is non-existent. Are you inclusive?

• Cult brands draw power from their competition. They draw strength and unity from identifying a competitor – a group that conflicts with the company’s values and goals. Do you draw strength from contrasting your credit union to big banks?

Cult brands aren’t just companies with products or services to sell. To many of their followers, they are a surrogate family filled with like-minded individuals. They just happen to sell products and services. Credit unions just happen to be a lot better than banks – create a following at yours.