SXSW: Calgary’s Chris Kneeland presents cult brand secrets

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Some brands have legions of loyal fans who are more than just customers. From daily Starbucks drinkers to hockey fans who worship at the alter of the NHL, these “cult” brands empower their customer bases as advocates. That’s the philosophy behind Cult, a marketing engagement agency based in Calgary. On Friday, the agency’s CEO Chris Kneeland is set to present the secrets of the cult brands he’s worked with and studied at South by South West in Austin, Texas.

Ahead of the talk, Marketing caught up with Kneeland to learn about his six-point approach to cult marketing and the brands that do it best.

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Chris Kneeland

“Too often advertising tries to make mediocre things sounds great,” Kneeland said. “We say flip that on it’s head: do something great, then you don’t need a lot of advertising to tell people about it.”

He cites one of his clients, Calgary’s Big Rock Brewery, as an example. The brand pulled money from its ad budget and put it into product development. “They just made better beer,” Kneeland said. “Once they had better beer, people started to say Big Rock is back and is a great craft beer.”

Stand for a powerful brand ethos

Brands should spend more time talking about what they stand for and less time talking about what they sell. Take GoPro as an example: the brand became popular online for distributing videos filmed with their cameras – everything from surfing and snowboarding to Ostrich races.

“GoPro doesn’t stand for digital cameras,” Kneeland said. “GoPro stands for ‘Go do something so amazing that you’ll want to make a movie about it and we’ll help you make the movie.’”

Cult followings are built from the inside out

“If you can’t rally your employees, there’s no sense trying to rally your customers,” Kneeland said, listing Pita Pit, another client, as an example. The brand tries to make brand advocates out of its own franchisees and then enlists them to bring their own marketing ideas to the table. One franchisee, for example, held a rock-paper-scissors contest. If you beat the owner, you got a free pita.

According to Kneeland, Pita Pit spends two-thirds less than its chief competitor, Subway, on advertising. Instead, it spends time on workforce development. “Subway just needs a sandwich artist, someone to make a sandwich. Its advertising drives people into the store. Pita Pit does hardly any advertising and hires highly outgoing, entrepreneurial franchisees that come up with crazy things,” he said.

Personify human attributes

The best cult brands act and feel like people, not businesses, according to Kneeland. Harley Davidson is a prime example.

“Regardless of what you look like when you step on your Harley, you’re a bad ass. You transform into the tattooed Hell’s Angel that’s depicted so well in pop culture,” he said.

“Harley has a visual icon they aspire to, even though they know that’s not most of customer base.”

Co-create with your customers

“Mediocre brands spend most of their advertising talking. Cult brands spend most of their time listening,” Kneeland said.

Freematle Media, the production company behind American Idol and America’s Got Talent, takes this approach by asking fans to join the conversation on social media and vote on the show’s outcome.

“This whole genre of programming, you’re not just watching it. You’re the judge and the jury,” Kneeland said. “You participate and pick who the winner is.”

Be persistent

“There are going to be hiccups, challenges and obstacles along the way. Cult brands persevere and remain true to who they are,” Kneeland said.

The Calgary Stampede did exactly that when it faced a massive flood in 2013. Instead of canceling, the organization persisted, even printing Come Hell or High Water on t-shirts (it sold $3 million worth of them).

“There was an intangible symbol associated with the stampede continuing on that was galvanizing. This is now the foundation of what the stampede is going to represent going forward – a can-do attitude,” Kneeland said.

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