Brands are becoming bigger presences in our lives by the day and, more and more, what we buy, and who we buy it from is a clear and personal choice. Where traditional markers of identity — like nationality or religion — have blurred, consumerism is stepping in, and by selling a set of values and a lifestyle with their products, certain brands are developing a deeper relationship with us.
“There have been a lot of discussions about how, basically, subculture is dead,” says Protein’s strategy and new business director Zeenah Vilcassim. “Previously subcultures were built around political movements, communities of people who had things to rally behind. You could argue that nowadays, particularly in fashion, that doesn’t exist because everything is so fluid.”
According to Vilcassim, consumers are looking for new guidance and brands are bringing them together. “Something like 89% of our audience don’t associate themselves with a religion anymore,” she explains. “But offline and online, people still crave community. That is something that has never gone away.”
Hannah Robinson, visual editor at LS:N Global, the insight and inspiration arm of London trend forecasting agency The Future Laboratory, suggests something similar. “We’re losing trust in governments and traditional institutions, so brands are starting to take on those roles,” she says.
Creating a community and culture to buy into is just step one on the road to cult status. Just as we’re becoming more selective about our spending, brands are becoming more specific about their consumer. What separates the cult brand from its traditional counterpart is often the confidence to not appeal to anyone and everyone.
“It’s really not about demographic or age anymore, but thinking about the mindset and the psychographic you want to connect with,” explains Robinson. The relationship between brick-and-mortar stores and online presence is a key opportunity to make that connection. “We go online for a seamless experience and ease, but the in-store experience is actually more important than ever,” she says.
Australian skincare brand Aesop is known for its chameleonic, site-specific approach to store design, often collaborating with local designers and taking inspiration from the history of the area. “Aesop creates a sense of discovery and excitement in all its spaces,” Robinson adds. For its shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, British design studio JamesPlumb played on the street’s history as one of the city’s first sources of tapped water by gently streaming water from shelf to shelf throughout the store.
As well as putting care and detail into its physical spaces, Aesop reserves a large part of its online presence to promote lifestyle. “They rarely ever focus on the product,” says Vilcassim. “They send newsletters about design and travel, and the content is meant to inspire and connect their audience. They never scream about the brand, they talk about things they’re interested in.”
In the realm of cult brands, streetwear sits on its own pedestal. Since launching in 1994, James Jebbia’s American label Supreme has cultivated a huge following. Initially the brand was largely overlooked in fashion circles because its skater credentials spoke to a subculture. But the very reasons it was snubbed in its early days are the same reasons the brand has achieved its impressive and confident — some might say cocky — aura over time.
What was once considered niche is now respected for maintaining a sense of authenticity. Being authentic is, for Robinson, another defining feature of cult brands, and Supreme’s short-run products, considered approach to retail and clever collaborations with brands like Commes des Garçons and artists like Richard Prince have only continued to propel its cult status. Now, much like the release of a new iPhone, a new drop from Supreme is an event and sees loyalists queuing outside stores in anticipation.
“Apple is another good example of a cult brand because they’re constantly innovating, thinking about their future products,” says Robinson. “Who remembers what an iPhone 2 looked like? It’s not about harking back to the past, but always about moving forward.”
Whether striding forward or looking back, there’s a difference between achieving cult status and standing the test of time. “I’m not sure where some of these brands will be in 10 years time or if they’ll still have the same following,” says Vilcassim. “But I think the ones with the most longevity are probably the ones that evolve with their original consumer.”
Outlined here are five common approaches of cult brands today:
1. Build a creative community
Understand the mindset of your audience inside and out, and look for ways to inspire and connect them.
2. Have a clear message, vision and values
Allow this to manifest in different ways online and offline, through communications, content and retail spaces.
3. Collaborate don’t compete
Align yourself with like-minded brands who share your values to reinforce and strengthen your message.
4. Be authentic
Think about legacy, not heritage, find new ways to be authentic and new ways to talk about it.
5. Be confident
Communicate about your interests and values as a brand, not your product.
A version of this article was originally published on houseseven.com for Soho House & Co.