To create an indelible brand, you’ve got to focus on creating a community and a sense of belonging. Don’t be afraid to be different, to declare your purpose, to demarcate yourself from others and to create solidarity among your customers.

The perception of people who join cults is that they’re sad, lonely, gullible, victims of mind control, and blind followers of brilliant psychopathic leaders. “But the people who join cults are very similar to the people in this room,” said Douglas Atkins, former head of community at Airbnb and author of The Culting of Brands.

In fact, people who join cults are “often stable, intelligent, idealistic people who tended to have good educations and come from respectable families.”

Douglas Atkin, former Global Head of Community at Airbnb Inc., talks about
how community creates commitment at The Gathering.

Atkins focused on the four ways cults, like the world’s most beloved brands, are able to create such devout followers.

The answer is paradoxical: People don’t join cults because they want to conform or disappear, but because they want to be more individual — more like their true selves. The most successful cults and brands take who you are and make you more so.

Cult brands such as Harley Davidson, Apple and Starbucks engage in the following tactics to create this sense of community and belonging. Atkins calls it the four Ds of difference and argues that these are the ways to successfully build a loyal and long-lasting community.

  1. Determine your franchise’s sense of difference. For brands to truly know who they are, they need to define what they aren’t and not try to please everyone.
  2. Declare your cult’s difference with doctrine and language. Once you’ve figured out your purpose, you need to actively declare it so that people recognize it and join.
  3. Demarcate your cult from the outside world. Logos, values, sounds. People can tell one brand from the other through visual and aural cues.
  4. Demonize the other. “Us versus them.” This kind of stance (think Apple versus Microsoft) creates solidarity in the community. The “other” becomes a threat and bands the followers together in opposition.

About The Gathering

Organizers of The Gathering consistently outdo themselves: bigger brands and personalities, more content and dual-track sessions, and ramped up music and entertainment value. But as it grows, the level of access to the hearts and minds of the biggest brand leaders remains unchanged, keeping The Gathering on the calendar of smart marketers across North America year after year.

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Katherine Scarrow is the general manager of Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national media organization.

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