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Tomorrow’s Cult Brands: What Every Marketer Needs to Know


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March 12, 2020      |      6 Min Read

Welcome to the age of Cult Brands & "Stan-dom"

On a rainy weekend last Fall, over 25,000 Brooklynites lined up to enter the hottest happening in the borough. The attraction? Not a political rally, music festival or the latest Instagram-museum but the opening of what has become a cult brand. Wegmans, which started as a mom-and-pop grocery store in Rochester over a century ago, drew hordes of skull-cap-clad Millennials when it opened in NYC not just because people crave their ready-to-go entrees and organic veggies, but because they were Wegmaniacs – people who personally identify with the Brand’s foodie-yet-unpretentious marketing vibe.

What is a Stan?

Inspired by the fictitious character in an Eminem song from the early 2000’s, a “Stan” is a super-fan (a marriage of the words “stalker” and “fan”). In recent years, the term has been embraced online, especially on Twitter where it has seen a 513% increase in mentions by people expressing their intense love for a piece of pop culture–and increasingly for Brands.

Whether it’s an eight-year-old having her birthday party at Target, a mom dressing her baby as a tribute to her favorite Brand on his first Halloween, singer Billie Eilish wearing head-to-toe logo’d Gucci down to her fingernails, or a young fan setting Twitter on fire by submerging herself in her favorite snacks, our relationships with Brands is quickly shifting from interested to full-tilt infatuated.

And in our age of social-shareability, displaying our intense love of the Brands we Stan is becoming not just a way to show what we adore, but to show who we are as individuals.

“VALUES” IS A TOP CONSUMER VALUE

Millennials and Gen Z’ers have rewritten almost every rule of marketing, and attitudes toward Brand loyalty are no exception. These digitally native generations, weaned on the Internet, are both savvy and skeptical. They don’t trust a Brand for what it says (the level of trust in corporations has dropped 19% in just three years) and will only reward one for what it stands for—just 25% say they’ll buy from a company whose practices they don’t support.

Above all, these consumers want to see themselves represented and reflected in Brands. Forty-five percent of Millennials say that they expect a Brand to listen to, engage and build relationships with them, and “shared values” ranks second only below “price” for how Gen Z’ers choose which Brands they buy. As the influence and spending power of these cohorts continues to skyrocket, we can expect them to push this paradigm even further.

In a market where values-based Branding is table stakes for earning loyalty, how can your company create a fierce following among young consumers? By creating not just a Brand to like, but a cult to join. Here are the new rules.

CLAN WITH BRANDS

In an increasingly anxious world where Gen Z’ers and Millennials rank themselves as the loneliest generations, young consumers are eager to have their beliefs represented and validated. We call it Clanning—the idea that consumers crave a sense of belonging. Today, more consumers are turning to Brands to find this Cultural Companionship; the cachet of a Brand’s persona has become a way to bolster their own identities.

Two examples of companies that do it well:

  1. Grana, a Chinese fashion brand, which has cultivated and collected many Millennial Stans, embraces a mission of “disrupting the status quo of the apparel industry.” It creates well-crafted pieces with transparent pricing (in fact, their website breaks down their mark-up compared to competitors). It quickly raised well over $10 million from Alibaba’s Entrepreneurs Fund.
  2. Gorjana, an Instagram-favorite jewelry shop (with 183,000 followers), packages its creations with “positive intentions” before sending. It’s currently undertaking a rapid, bicoastal expansion thanks their Stans who laud the Brand’s many “give-back” initiatives (consumers can book in-store charity parties for their squad).

STOKING THE FLAMES OF STAN-DOM

When consumers identify with a Brand, their loyalty becomes personal and passionate. The shift from fandom to Stan-dom means that consumers also wield more power, possessing the potential to influence potentially thousands of others online.

Tapping into the consumer’s organic online behaviors creates a symbiotic relationship: Your Brand will have ready-to-use, authentic content (like Tweets and Instagram posts) to deploy, and your validated consumers hunger to create more. Consider it an expression of our trend Egonomics where customers are craving recognition of their individuality, especially from Brands.

Israeli-based fashion Brand Adika is growing their Gen Z Stan-dom by showcasing personal style and speaking the language of TikTok. After a video featuring Adika’s pink dragon-printed sweatpants went viral and sent thousands of consumers to their website, the Brand embraced the platform as part of their sales strategy. Now, they deliver their looks directly to TikTok influencers (no payment; the recipient chooses to show it or not) and have gained millions of views (and new Stans) on the platform.

Ingrain your Brand into your customer’s lifestyle

In order for consumers to be able to see themselves in your Brand, your snack Brand has to exist outside of the kitchen; your beauty Brand has to vibrate outside of the bathroom, and your auto Brand needs to zoom-zoom outside of the garage.

Take Cheetos—specifically, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. In recent years, this bodega staple has consolidated a cult-like following among consumers who incorporate the spicy snack into their kitchen creations, social-media personas and even personal aesthetics. Consider the strength of the Cheetos Stans: A search of the tag #FlamingHotCheetos on Instagram shows Cheetos-themed parties, Cheetos-inspired hairstyles, make-up tutorials and convenience-store photoshoots where the product is the main backdrop. There are “Flaming Hot Cheetos” playlists on Spotify, and countless YouTube videos dedicated to using the snack as the foundation of a very spicy recipe.

By tapping into how Stans represent the Brand on social media, Cheetos has created content that mimics consumer behaviors, reinforcing the idea that “flaming hot” isn’t just a flavor but an attitude and lifestyle.

Leveraging UGC is a genuine way to show that your Brand is already woven into the lives of your consumer; it can also uncover how your products have earned relevance in daily life. Beauty Brand Glossier has built their own fanatic following (and a $1B+ valuation) by making their marketing completely Stan-centric. It uses UGC to showcase and validate the sub-cultures within their own consumer group, often reposting from #BoyfriendsOfGlossier. The popular #DogsOfGlossier even inspired a real-life collaboration. This is a brilliant example of how to lock in loyalty, given that 78% of consumers want Brands to use social media to bring them together.

Glossier also gives their Stans direct input into their R&D process. The company uses a Slack channel populated by its top 100 consumers where over 1000 messages are posted each week, ultimately inspiring new product creations (like their top-selling Milk Jelly Cleanser) and redesigns of popular products that consumers say needed tweaking.

THE FUTURE OF FANDOM

As our relationships with favorite Brands continue to evolve, you can expect the act of Stanning to become standard practice. In the next decade, listing your “Stan-doms” will be a standard entry for any dating profile. We’ll see the first Brand name to crack the list of Top Ten Baby Names.

If your Brand stands for young consumers’ values and recognizes them as equal partners, you can push their loyalty to the next level. Will your Brand be the first to have consumers pay for the privilege to waitlist for your product? Will they spend more for a priority spot? Will they begin holding Insta-worthy parties and pop-up brunches along the winding queue for a product drop? Will you create Branded co-living spaces, travel experiences, and VR realms to bind them even more closely to your business so they can truly live and breathe your product?

Brands that deeply bond with consumers will win big-league loyalty. If today’s Brand fans aspire to co-creating with beloved labels, tomorrow’s Stans will demand to co-direct and co-own their favorite companies. How will your Brand incorporate decision-making by the uber-obsessed? Imagine a Board of Directors made entirely of your Brand’s Super-Stans.

Is your Brand ready to take fandom to the next level?

Chat with Faith Popcorn about How to Stan Your Brand in 7 Super Steps.

Here’s how

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