Cult brands: How companies build a fanatical fan base

Cover Story

Midwest Express cookie
Midwest Express cookie Credit: Jake Hill Photography

Last updated on November 26th, 2019 at 11:20 am

BizTimes editor Andrew Weiland examined the prospects for the revived Midwest Express brand in a companion piece to our “Cult brands” cover story. Read it here.

Mike Testa, who moved to Milwaukee from the Chicago area in 2011 to attend Marquette University, has been a fan of Kwik Trip for as many years as he’s lived in Wisconsin.

The quickly-expanding La Crosse-based convenience store chain has won over the 26-year-old Mequon resident with its high-quality customer service and “consumer-focused” shopping experience, he said.

In June, Testa started a Facebook group for people who share his opinion that Kwik Trip is superior to all other gas stations. The group, called the Wisconsin Kwik Trip Enthusiast Club, provides a forum for fans to swap stories of their positive shopping experiences, pictures of their favorite products and memes about their mutual fandom.

In its first few months, the group has amassed more than 39,400 members. 

The inspiration for the fan club page emerged out of a debate on a thread of another Facebook page.

“Someone started an argument about the best gas station so I obviously had to pitch in for KT,” Testa said. “One thing led to another and I made a comment that said ‘Wisconsin Kwik Trip Enthusiast Club, anyone?’ Within minutes I had dozens of likes and a few comments saying ‘build it and they will come.’ I built it, and they definitely came. We went from (zero to) 20,000 members in less than a month.”

The group has not only demonstrated the brand’s popularity; it’s showcased customers’ near-fanatical level of devotion to it.

Two group members have gotten Kwik Trip tattoos. One member offered to purchase the group from Testa for an undisclosed “ridiculous sum of money,” which Testa declined. Another member wrote a post saying he and his fiancé would get married at Kwik Trip if it received 5,000 likes. It got 12,000, and the couple is moving forward with their convenience store nuptial plans, Testa said. 

Mike Testa, a 26-year-old Mequon resident, started and moderates a Facebook page for Kwik Trip enthusiasts.
Mike Testa, a 26-year-old Mequon resident, started and moderates a Facebook page for Kwik Trip enthusiasts.

Building brand loyalty

What drives this cult-like commitment to a convenience store brand, or any brand? 

Marketing experts say companies like Kwik Trip are successful at creating highly engaged brand communities, a term for the phenomenon of customers identifying with and connecting over their consumption of a particular product or service. 

Tom O’Guinn
Tom O’Guinn

“Cult (brands) are a subset of that,” said Tom O’Guinn, marketing professor and Irwin Maier Distinguished Chair in Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Cults are just brand communities or tribes that are extreme in their devotion to the brand. And they show their extremity through proselytizing, through being brand advocates, spreading the gospel of the brand.”

Beyond Kwik Trip, Wisconsin is home to a number of brands with devoted followings, including Milwaukee-born Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and the recently-revived Midwest Express Airlines brand.

Harley-Davidson is a prime example. 

More than offering just a product, the Milwaukee-based brand has been successful at selling its motorcycles as a lifestyle. For decades, that messaging has been reinforced by group rides, branded jackets and the brand’s association with values like freedom, independence and self-expression. For Milwaukee-area customers, the company’s local connection only increases their bond to the brand, said Felicia Miller, associate professor of marketing at Marquette University.  

Felicia Miller
Felicia Miller

“It’s about a shared experience, and it’s on a Harley,” Miller said. “It’s not the same around Honda or Toyota. There isn’t the same connection to the brand … Part of it is beyond the product. It’s more than just the bike. The bike is essential but it’s also the values of the brand and how much that aligns with a customer or not.”

Marketing experts point to a few common components among brands with high customer loyalty: a superior product, high-quality customer service and establishing an emotional connection with the customer. 

“If you believe you have a relationship with the brand, that the brand actually knows who you are, and the brand appreciates you – and even though it’s a transactional relationship, they still consider you special – then it catches on,” O’Guinn said.

But, sometimes, brands simply resonate with a subset of customers and take on a life of their own. 

Take Pabst Blue Ribbon for example. 

After decades of declining sales, the unassuming born-in-Milwaukee beer managed to corner Portland Oregon’s trend-setting indie market. That popularity eventually spread to urban areas nationwide, establishing its status as the beer of hipsters. 

“The Pabst people had almost nothing to do with PBR becoming the sort of giant it became among hipsters,” O’Guinn said. “It was like any kind of diffusion. At first it was the bike-messenger crowd out in Portland, they were at the top of the hipster pyramid, and everybody copied it and then it became the cool brand and had kind of a cultish following.” 

Its appeal among that crowd rested on its status as a less commercial alternative to the heavily-advertised big-name brands and a cheap alternative amidst the rise of craft beer.

“Cults are kind of based on myths,” O’Guinn said. “Part of the PBR mythology on the West Coast was that it was a working man’s beer and its parent company was great to labor and it wasn’t advertised much because it was kind of a dying brand.” 

Harley Davidson
Harley Davidson

Co-creating brands

Some marketing experts bristle at the term “cult brand.” They argue it’s dismissive of the real connection consumers feel to their favorite brands. 

“It doesn’t really capture how important this is to people,” Miller said. “We all have brands that if it disappeared, we’d be really upset.” 

O’Guinn argues that brands may be filling a void left by people’s declining connection to civic organizations, churches and other social networks. 

“As trust in other institutions declines – church, government, and, unfortunately, the press – trust in individual brands is still pretty high,” O’Guinn said. “People don’t necessarily trust the corporations that make them, but they do believe Coca Cola is a good thing and an Apple computer is a trustworthy brand.” 

Part of the X factor around cult brands lies in customers feeling they have a role in “co-creating” the brand, O’Guinn said. Brand loyalists want to feel like they are as much a part of the brand as the company overseeing it. 

“It’s this idea of discovery, the idea that the consumer discovered the brand, not the other way around, that they found the brand,” he said. “It’s the ownership of the cultural knowledge that it’s a cool brand. Brands that allow consumers, and even encourage consumers, to have ownership tend to do better.”

Successful brands also know to lean into the values of the younger generations, including perceived authenticity, buying local and knowing where products are sourced, O’Guinn said.

“For millennials and Gen Z in particular, if it’s not real, they don’t touch it …. You have to let them own some of the brand, you have to develop a connection, you have to have them believe it’s small even if it’s big…. You have to let them use it to help form their identity,” he said.

To maintain customers’ perception of brand ownership, it’s important that companies avoid appearances of corporate infringement on the brand community, O’Guinn said. In the age of social media, which has enabled brand lovers to form their own virtual communities around their shared interest – such as the Wisconsin Kwik Trip Enthusiast Club – companies would be wise to tread carefully so as to not disrupt the authentic connections among enthusiasts, he said. 

“Brand communities that work, generally speaking, the lighter the touch they have, the better,” O’Guinn said. “They do want to surveil the brand communities, they want to listen to them, they want to scrape data from the web on them, they want to analyze data and occasionally they want to communicate directly with them. But generally speaking, these groups are kind of ambivalent about the brand talking to them because they feel like they own the brand.”

“Volvo owners kind of feel like they as Volvo owners own the brand and that Volvo is just kind of a caretaker,’’ he added. “Craft beer aficionados feel like they are the real owners of the beer. And they better get listened to or they’ll abandon the beer.” 

The paradox of the cult brand is that, while being niche may engender customer enthusiasm and loyalty, it’s not a winning long-term strategy, O’Guinn said. Cult brands are marginal by nature, and typically only have a small market share. 

Apple, for example, qualified as cultish in the brand’s early days when it captured only single-digit market shares in the tech industry. But now, with more than 50% of the global smartphone market, the company has moved far beyond that. 

“Being a cult brand generally speaking is not a good thing in the long-run,” O’Guinn said. “In the short-run it can be. But if it doesn’t grow out of its cult status into a larger community and a larger market share, most cult brands go away or stay very small.” 

O’Guinn, himself a “huge Kwik Trip fan” who makes about five trips to the convenience store daily, argues the brand, despite its diehard following, has grown beyond cult status.

“Today when I went, the line at 7:30 a.m. wrapped around the store almost twice. That’s not cultish; that’s just popular,” he said. “… Now, is there a brand community around them? Yes. There are people who adore Kwik Trip.  But it’s not a marginal brand. It’s not cultish; it’s just successful.” 

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Pabst Blue Ribbon
LunaseeStudios / Shutterstock.com

Reviving cult brand status?

The revival of the Midwest Express brand, which once enjoyed cult-like status, particularly among Milwaukee area business travelers, presents an opportunity for the new airline company to recapture the loyalty of former die-hard customers. 

In response to its planned relaunch, its supporters have expressed nostalgia for the former airline’s direct service from Milwaukee to numerous U.S. destinations, gourmet meals, spacious seats and freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies.

Those amenities and high level of service helped build the original Midwest Express’ customer loyalty, said Greg Aretakis, president of the new Midwest Express, which hopes to launch service in January, and a former Midwest Airlines executive. The original Midwest Express went out of its way to satisfy customers, sometimes booking them on other airlines if necessary to make up for a flight cancellation, he said.

“A cult (brand) is all about creating expectations and delivering on those expectations,” Aretakis said.

However, the strong loyalty to the brand could present challenges to the new Midwest Express. Happy associations with the brand may bring people through the door initially, but the airline will have to meet customers’ high expectations to keep their business, said Brenda Skelton, a former Midwest Express executive who led its marketing efforts in the late 1980s and ‘90s. 

Midwest Express won’t just face competition from other airlines; the company will compete with perceptions of the earlier iteration of the brand.

Skelton attributes the former company’s ability to capture flier loyalty to its philosophy of putting the customer first. 

“First of all and most importantly, we hired great people,” she said. “Being headquartered in Milwaukee was a real benefit for that. We had a genuinely Midwestern-friendly labor pool from which to recruit people. That would be first. We provided great training and ongoing and corporate culture work around the customer coming first … And then we had a superior product.” 

It continued to build loyalty through a robust frequent flier program and selling merchandise, Skelton said.

How will the 2020 version of the company stack up against the former airline, which experienced its hey-day amid more favorable air industry conditions in the 1980s and ‘90s? 

“The pros are that they’ll get a very easy trial because people have fond memories of the airline,” said Skelton, who today is executive council for Milwaukee-based Siebert Family Foundation. “The con is if they don’t live up to the customers’ expectations, which, frankly, have become mythic in proportion. That’s a real danger from a repeat standpoint… customers comparing the current product and what they remember of the old product.” 

Given the significant changes in the industry over the past few decades, the new Midwest Express will need a new strategy to capture customers’ enthusiasm, Miller said. 

The Milwaukee-based company may not be able to serve full meals on china plates, as its predecessor once did, but it could lean into its local roots among Midwestern customers, she said. 

“Their challenges are going to be how to connect with consumers around the regional, local piece, and not so much around the bells and whistles,” she said. “They have to figure out what the 2020 version of (the airline) is …You still need the cookies, but you don’t need the china.” 

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.