Archive for October, 2017

There were two aspects of human life that Freud found difficult to understand, inasmuch as whether they were driven by the Id or the Superego. These are religion and politics.

What drives us to choose our religious beliefs, assuming that we aren’t already born with these firmly entrenched? And our political affiliations?

Consider patriotism.

There is recurring evidence that successful military recruitment depends more on inner motivations of patriotism and self-actualisation, rather than any offers of wealth. This is the crux of jihadist recruitment as well. We find great individual satisfaction in adhering to the ideals of our nation. We find the Id very much in play.

On the other hand, we also find our sense of being through adhering to a larger group. The cause of the group is our cause. We are only too happy to conform to the dictates of what the group demands. An order has to be maintained. Be it a religious edict, or a political whip. The Superego is not challenged.

There is enough proof that almost all religions or nation-states hawk similar ideals. And even the most fanatical adherent is not likely to have studied the texts on the basis of which he will lay down his life, much less question their logic or relevance. The logical Ego is seldom, if at all, called into question. Which, perhaps reinforces the fact that religion and politics live truly at the extremes, making a constant switch between the Id and the Superego.

Switch the elements in the context of brands and marketing, and we’re not far from talking about what every brand manager dreams about – working on a “cult” brand, if not creating one during his lifetime.

While there are many explanations about cult brands and how to create them, could we build them on the basis of the same Id-Superego compulsions that mark religious or political adherence? We know, in any case, that they too owe their success in large part to unquestioning followers!

This then would be their logical construct, on the basis of Freud’s ego-states:

  1. Cult brands offer an ideal that attracts the believer at an individual level, and
  2. Cult brands have a distinct culture (that even non-users can see).

It is important to stress that both conditions have to be fulfilled by the brand to achieve that “cult” status. The choice of words here is deliberate, too.

Cult brands are not just about products, but about higher values (hence the word “ideal”), and the greater that ideal, the stronger the adherence to the cause.

Hence, Apple does not sell computers, it sells the chance to be exceptionally creative. Harley-Davidson does not sell motorbikes, but the chance to be exceptionally individualistic. Marlboro is not about the taste of a cigarette, but that of the great outdoors.

It might be argued that this is the basics of brand-building, i.e. selling benefits instead of features, but cult brands take this to the extreme. And the values, once established, are not lost track of: It must take courage to not talk of processor speeds, or horsepower, or tobacco blends when the competition is talking about them. But cult brands keep such information elsewhere for the seeker, not in their public face. Ideals are paramount, and the focus of any promise.

(A good test for this need to preserve ideals would be to ask if brand extensions or new launches retain the values of the original cult brand.

(An ad for the new Beetle stated, “The engine is in the front, but its heart is in the right place.” Is the heart of the new Beetle in the same place as that of the original? Or is the new product a victim of the same pretentiousness that the original was fighting against?

(Or the relaunch of the Nokia 3310. It has been decided that the new phone will come only with those games that it had when it exited the market.

(Which of the two do you think will regain its cult status?)

If the Id is satisfied through values, then the Superego needs “a distinct culture that even non-users can see”. Part of the user’s need is to belong, and his Superego can be satisfied best when he adheres to a cult that even non-users recognise. This is what we could call the brand’s culture.

So whether we know them intimately or not, whether we see them perform the rituals of their cult or not, we do know how Apple users behave before the launch of a new product, or how Harley-Davidson bikers dress, or what kind of brand extensions are to be found for Marlboro cigarettes.

The existence of a strong user culture around a cult brand is a must, whether or not it is to everyone’s liking. More often than not such cultures are born out of accident (the sixties’ generation making the Beetle an icon, or films like Easy Rider doing it for the Harley-Davidson), but, like religious cultures, brand cultures, too, can be manipulated – through rituals, symbols, heroes and more.

If the Id and Superego are reinforced by well-defined values and distinct cultures, then what role does the logical Ego have to play in the building of cult brands?

The premise of this Freudian analysis is that consumer choices are like other decisions that we make – a resolution of the demands of the Id with those of the Superego, with the guidance of the Ego. It is logical, then, to assume that most of our choices would lie between the two extreme ego-states.

However, when the nature of the product is such that it borders on near reverence – either out of absolute adoration or subjugation, as with cults or cult brands – and there be no middle ground in our choices, then we can state that the Ego has little role to play, if at all.

Let us not forget that cult brands get differentiated also because they do not follow the logic of others. Apple never tells us just how much faster or slower any Mac is compared to other computers, we just get to know what chip it uses (and users will tell you that it works at the “right” speed!). And the more other manufacturers focus on what chip is powering their products, the more Apple stands out from the crowd.

The myths surrounding cult brands emerge from their idiosyncrasies as well. Harley users know that the bike is not known for its brakes, but that is part of the Harley-Davidson experience. As with Apple, we do not know the horsepower of any bike – only torque is specified.

Of course, this does not mean that brands should be allowed to float, and that we should just hope that someday they shall have a cult status. We can help the process along. This could be done through simple tweaks to existing practices.

As mentioned, brand promises should be articulated as goals for self-actualisation, and organisational efforts should be to help buyers achieve those goals. Even I-Phone advertising is about creative expression. (The odd-ball in the portfolio, to this writer’s mind, is the Apple Watch, but it finds its legitimacy in delivering other functions through its handy format.)

Brand culture needs to be identified, defined and built upon. This cannot be dictated, but has to be nurtured. Meta-data should help, as would a willing ear to the ground.

And, of course, brand managers need to have the courage to ensure that their brands get enough time to gain the traction to get cult status. After all, most religions that have stayed have been around for at least a thousand years or more!


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