From apocalyptic religious cults to the modern-day Church of Scientology, cults have been part of the human experience for millennia. They can be benign and positive – or they can be criminal and deadly.
That’s because cults are just another expression of human psychology. And if we drill down into the core attributes behind cult psychology, you’ll realise that everybody belongs to something resembling a cult. It might be a football team, political party, or spiritual group; whatever it is, we all believe in something greater than ourselves.
So what makes up a cult, and how can we use those expressions of human behaviour to improve our marketing? Let’s dive in with a few examples of what we might consider being modern-day cults.
Did you know that 60% of Britons believe in at least one conspiracy theory?
The internet has given rise to its own special brand of digital cult, the most well-known of these being QAnon. QAnon began with cryptic messages, known as ‘breadcrumbs’, from an anonymous internet source named Q. At its heart, QAnon offers a peek behind the curtain. The world is unstable and frightening, and many believe that our elites are lying to us. Q gives us a glimpse at the reality that has been otherwise hidden from us; a lone voice of truth among the lies.
There’s a reason we believe things for which there’s no evidence and it’s usually a combination of too much information and not enough. Competing information has always existed but the sheer volume of it and the ease of access is relatively new to us. Humans are notoriously bad at comprehending large quantities of data and drawing nuanced conclusions.
So how do businesses take advantage of distrust in a less sinister way? The simple answer is by being the source of information in a sea of distrust. You only need to look at the boom of review sites such as TrustPilot and price comparison sites like Money Supermarket to see that there was a gap in the market for trust.
One of our clients is unfortunate enough to operate as a supplier in an industry with notoriously untrusting consumers. And for good reason. The industry in question gives rise to a lot of bad eggs as well as many good ones. We couldn’t do a marketing campaign for our client without addressing the elephant in the room.
Build a One-Sided Relationship
If you’re of a certain age, or you have children of a certain age, you’re probably familiar with the stars of YouTube or TikTok – and the strong attachments younger people form to them.
In a sense, there’s nothing new about it. We’ve always attached ourselves to public figures, be they musicians, politicians or authors. But the newest generation of public figures offers their authenticity and intimacy as a selling point. Consciously or not, they encourage viewers to build what psychologists term ‘parasocial relationships’; where one side feels a connection that is non-existent to the other.
Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology who has gained a dedicated following of (largely) young men, has fostered a similar relationship with many of his fans. Dorian Lynskey writes that “on Reddit, fans testify that Peterson changed, or even saved, their lives.” This is more than just a public intellectual; for some, this is a borderline-messianic figure. Read some comments online and you’ll see that some even view him as a surrogate father.
As humans, we crave sincerity. Beauty gurus like the infamous James Charles or Jeffree Star have been harnessing the power of parasocial relationships to turn a profit for a long time now and this ‘cult of personality’ marketing is starting to make its way into more traditional industries like digital marketing. No digital marketer alive today could parallel the reach that Neil Patel has, try as we might.
Take us for example, our website is written from the perspective of our founder and name-sake Murray Dare, his laid-back smile is plastered all over it. When you contact us, you are talking to him.
But, like our friend Neil, Murray can’t be creating everything on his site. Like Neil, he has a whole team managing the brand. However, keeping Murray as the face of the company makes good business sense. This is because, psychologically speaking, it’s much easier to place trust in an individual and their personal brand than to trust a team, no matter their level of experience and expertise. Plus, this allows Murray to focus on what he does best – Marketing Strategy. This also allows others to focus on what they do best – writing. Hi, I’m Nick, by the way, Murray Dare’s copywriter. Tell no-one.
By injecting personality into your service and revealing the human behind the business, marketers can build a long-lasting relationship based on trust and authenticity.
Cultivate Your Inner Circle
Humans love being part of something. We’re built for it; our brains release dopamine and oxytocin during group activities. And through social media, we enter into a shared space built of millions of users from all over the globe. It’s a truly limitless community, and there’s something for everyone. No matter how niche your interest is, you’ll always find people like yourself. It’s only ever just one more swipe away.
In fact, the God-like omnipresence that people can achieve through the internet has given rise to many self-professed spiritual leaders. Take Bentinho Massaro for example, a young, spiritual leader who found fame on Youtube and live-streamed his Arizona-based spiritual Bootcamp. Bentinho’s hundreds of thousands of followers were indeed an awakening for anyone who still doubted the internet’s power to form cults.
Rick Ross, author of Cults Inside Out: How People Get in and Can Get Out, suggested that one of the factors that made Bentinho’s cult so powerful was the utilisation of ‘secret’ language that only made sense to those in the inner circle. Curiosity and the need to feel part of something is a compelling human desire and one that can be exploited by savvy marketers.
Harley Davidson managed it in 1983 with a minimal budget when CEO Vaughn Beals launched Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) to connect the brand to its customers. Money was tight but the risk paid off. The simple concept behind H.O.G. was creating an exclusive club. Something that people wanted to be a part of.
Wherever you go, building that shared sense of community and purpose, based around mutual success, will inspire brand loyalty. People want belonging – so give it to them.
There’s plenty here to make for chilling reading. But understanding what drives the behaviour behind cult followings is invaluable to businesses.
The first characteristic of cults is that they build trust by promising an understanding of how things really work. In a time of global unrest and instability, offering customers some control over their lives is a no-brainer.
The second is that cults engender a one-sided relationship between themselves and their followers. The worst of cult behaviour takes this to an extreme, and sometimes deadly, degree. But this dynamic can be positively applied and allow for the building of more meaningful and long-lasting relationships.
The third, and perhaps the most important, is that cults hijack our desire for community. Marketers need to give us common ground and a shared connection; even, in some cases, a sense of family.
Used correctly, we can take inspiration from cult psychology to plan our marketing more intelligently – and give our customers what they want.