Marketing Brand Purpose Brand Strategy

Originality over optimization: how to build a cult brand

By Chris Tyas | Chief strategy officer



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February 15, 2022 | 5 min read

Brand growth can bring with it risk aversion: keen to protect hard-won wins, we fall back on what we know works well rather than trying what might work excellently. Here Chris Tyas, chief strategy officer at Impero, argues that successful cult brands avoid that trap, following their originality wherever it might lead.

Someone with a a rainbow tattoo and shaved head

Originality beats optimization, says Impero’s Chris Tyas / ROBIN WORRALL via Unsplash

Cult brands come and go. There’s a long list of brands that reach cult status seemingly not putting a foot wrong, capturing an unfair share of attention.

There’s an even longer list of brands that never get close. Supreme, Apple, Ikea, Patagonia – brands that achieve god-tier status are clearly doing something different, but what?

Entering culture: originality and fear

Let me get the disappointment over with fast. There is no map, no recipe, no seven simple steps to entering culture. Anyone saying otherwise is lying.

To enter a culture we need to fail more than we succeed. The key to that is originality. Unfortunately, you can’t copy originality. And, worse, originality has an ugly brother and it’s called fear.

Fear you’ll get it wrong, fear it won’t work, fear you’ll get into trouble. That fear can be inhibiting: why would your trusted creative agency risk hard-won originality in a throw of the dice that might jeopardize it?

In most cases we decide it’s simply not worth the risk. Instead, it’s easier to optimize what we already do until we reach the point of diminishing returns.

We’re taught this ideology in schools and universities. Don’t challenge the question, simply write the answer. But what if the question was wrong?

Originality over optimization

When we see clients stuck in this rut, we often find they have doubled down on the promise of mass, cheap digital marketing, optimizing the funnel and going harder and harder on a three-second message in the hope they can fool consumers into buying. But the truth is consumers will switch off. Brands are too easy to ignore.

Originality beats optimization. In his book The Culting of Brands, Douglas Atkins develops a theory: the cult paradox. It highlights that people feel most like themselves when part of a group. But the reason they join a group in the first place is to find their own individualism.

Think about the idea of joining a gym. You pick the right gym for you, and then need to consider your gym attire, which leads you to a place where you choose from endless patterns and types of tops, shorts and leggings. You want to bring your own style, but also want to feel connected to a group of similar people.

We don’t join a group to be sheep. We join a group to bring meaning to our lives and to contribute to others.

When consumers talk about brands, it helps them contribute to their own sense of individuality and allows them to connect with their tribes.

Cultural contagion: beyond marketing messages

Consumers want brands to shape the world and have an impact. It’s this impact that enters culture. This crossover into the areas of life consumers really care about is what we all want to really talk about. Cult brands know they can’t exist without having an impact beyond their category.

When brands say they want to go viral, what they mean is they want cultural contagion – culture being the impact an idea has on the world, which helps us form our own sense of individuality. And contagion being something remarkable that we share with our tribes.

When brands use mass-reach models they often start with common insight, leading to a common idea, which in turn should lead to something going viral because everyone will love it – right?

But that’s the problem. If we skip the cultural contagion, we skip originality. Without originality, your brand isn’t worth talking about.

If you want to build a cult brand, stop optimizing things that shouldn’t exist in the first place. It’s time to fail more often by pushing the boundaries of originality.

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