Chris Kneeland is co-founder of Cult Collective. The company is based in Calgary, Alberta.
What is Cult and what does it do?
Kneeland: Cult is an audience engagement firm. That means we help brand leaders better connect with customers, prospects and staff in ways that significantly impact business performance, marketing return on investment and internal productivity.
We call our agency Cult because we believe implementing proven cult brand principles will result in enviable levels of brand attachment and customer advocacy. We have 32 staff with offices in Vancouver, Toronto, and Las Vegas. Our focus is helping businesses better understand what their most important audiences are thinking, feeling and doing, so we can create, enhance, or better deliver compelling value propositions that drive desirable behaviours and result in cult-like devotion.
Perhaps our biggest distinction between traditional advertising agencies is that we oppose the overuse of mass media and markdowns. Both practices distract brand leaders from solving real problems and deplete precious resources. The most beloved brands make impressions more than buy them, and don’t rely on bribery to gain trial.
Can you give me a sense of your client base and reach?
Kneeland: We work with 12 to 14 courageous brand leaders annually from multiple industries and across North America and Europe. For example, we helped The Home Depot in Atlanta launch their home services division, Juul in San Francisco launch a smoking cessation vaping device, Keurig in Boston reclaim their dominance in home coffee, and Hilding Anders in Switzerland maintain their market dominance throughout eastern Europe.
Also interesting to note is that we invite 1,000 brand leaders from the most iconic, enviable cult brands from around the world to a three-day event called The Gathering (www.cultgathering.com) hosted annually in Banff. Next year will be our seventh event and it’s become one of the most prestigious business conferences in the world. I’m incredibly proud of what my team has created and look forward to that event every February.
How has business been for the company considering the tough economic challenges in Calgary in recent years?
Kneeland: Ryan Gill and I birthed Cult in Calgary in 2012. We love raising our families in Calgary and have attracted top talent given Calgary’s reputation for being a great place to live. But, we do very little work in Alberta. We work with ATCO in Calgary and F12 in Edmonton, but generally speaking very few Alberta-based clients have displayed the bold ambitions necessary to gain cult-like followers.
The vast majority of our clients are in Toronto or the U.S. Those cities have a greater abundance of cult-capable brands, and/or less conservative leadership with greater desires to shun traditional marketing practices in order to achieve heightened levels of brand relevance and customer adoration.
And frankly, with the strength of the U.S. dollar, we’ve been aggressively pursuing work south of the border so we can work with more iconic brands as well as benefit from the favourable foreign exchange rate.
When it comes to branding, what does it take for a company to develop a cult following?
Kneeland: The overriding theme of the 21st century is accelerated change. Yet the advertising industry remains curiously mired in archaic beliefs and practices, dating back decades.
Too many companies seem content wasting obscene amounts of money on paid media campaigns and markdowns, oblivious to the fact that the biggest return on investment is to be had by making their products, programs and people more remarkable. They shout ever more loudly into a jaded void, relying on creative storytelling rather than building value propositions that people actually care about.
Cult brands understand that true customer engagement isn’t about getting people to buy — it’s about getting them to buy in. The most enlightened brand leaders appreciate that when customers get properly involved with a brand, they are worth their weight in gold. And they know that in order to achieve cult-like status, they must spend as much effort fostering their culture and engaging employees, as they do attracting customers.
In a world with too many choices and too little time, companies without highly-engaged, devoted followers, both inside and out, are destined to drift into irrelevance.
What’s your vision for Cult in the near future?
Kneeland: My team and I advocate for significant change to how most businesses go to market. We wish more leaders displayed the ambition and courage necessary to achieve their businesses’ full potential by delivering customer value that is beyond the ordinary.
We will continue to advise and assist brand leaders to adopt new paradigms and embrace proven principles that allow them to reap the benefits of having cult-like followers. In particular, we will continue to refine our three core offerings that teach organizations how to believe in proper audience engagement practices, how to glean insights and test specific activities so they can behave like the world’s most adored brands, and how to become a cult brand by transforming their organization inside and out.
Those who get it right will inherit the Earth.
We will travel wherever and do whatever is necessary, because we find tremendous joy in participating in these transformations that result in careers changing for the better and companies improving to the point of market dominance.
Mario Toneguzzi is a Troy Media business reporter based in Calgary.