Build a Community, Start a Cult or Gather a Tribe? What’s Best for Your Brand?

Words matter when it comes to establishing a metaphor for how you want to go about growing your business and your brand.

Picking the right metaphor can lead you in the direction where your brand’s DNA will naturally survive and thrive. Choosing unwisely could plunge you into an endless pursuit of the hip; or worse, establish you as the flavour of the month.

Before you decide whether you want a brand that requires people to drink the Kool-Aid to demonstrate their loyalty, or one that flashes onto the scene and is gone just as fast, let’s talk terminology.

What the What is a …?

Community: a specialized, non-geographically bound collective, based on a structured set of social relationships, marked by a shared consciousness, rituals and traditions, and a sense of moral responsibility.

Cult: a collective in which people are devoted to something or someone with such fervent, even blind zeal that even their own survival is rendered of secondary importance to their loyalty to the cult.

Tribe: a typically xenophobic collective based on rigid traditions of behaviour, grounded in a mythical sense of superiority and sustained by a competitive mindset that seeks out conflict based on territorial claims.

The difference is clear. Tribes and cults have an obvious pejorative undertone because they essentially create a fanatical, ephemeral audience. Let’s face it, cults are scary! When you think of cults, surely sanity, rationality and logic are not words that come to mind. Furthermore, because of their intense nature, cults and tribes have a tendency to be transient because the energy needed to keep the kind of passion needed to support them alive is often too great for followers to keep up over an elongated period of time. Therefore, they have a tendency to die out over time, along with their gang of crazy followers. As Seth Godin explains in his book Tribes - We Need You to Lead Us, the tribe, like the cult, is leader based and Godin encourages the reader to become the leader of their own tribe. The emphasis is not put on what should drive your leadership, like passion, greater good or creating a support system, but simply on becoming a leader.

This brings us to a very important distinction between tribes or cults and communities. The former have fans and followers while the latter have members. By definition, members contribute to the brand’s purpose rather than merely frothing about it, following it until they get bored and then move on, like a casual would do. Basically, the ultimate goal of tribes or cults is for their leader to gain followers. A community’s goal is to create an environment of support, discussion and improvement for its members as well as for its leaders.

Furthermore, in his book Purple Cow, Godin raises the idea that all you have to do to create a successful business is to be remarkable. Although that certainly is a factor to success, longevity and success are not one in the same. Being remarkable may help you gain success, but brand honesty, purpose and respect will bring you longevity.

So how can your brand build a community while avoiding turning into a transient and precariously based cult or tribe brand?

Create a clear purpose for your brand

Your brand should have a goal, a vision and a mission statement that compose the overall brand purpose which should be greater than just ‘selling’ or ‘promoting’. If you build your brand properly, it should have a personality, a set of values and a greater reason for being than simply making money or shock value, which is what cults are all about. Obviously profitability is important, but people don’t tend to support superficiality over an extended period of time. So when you set a purpose for your brand, you avoid falling into the flimsy nature of cult or tribe following and it becomes easier to build a legitimate, long stranding community.

Create, encourage and respond to interaction.

“Being an audience is not a community.”

The goal is to create interaction between your brand and it’s members so they can contribute in guiding it, creating relevant content and providing useful insights and feedback. Seeing as communities are build around a common purpose or goal, their needs to be mutual respect between the brand and its members in order to create the desired effect. Interaction between brands and fans is superficial and nonconstructive. It is basic and won’t help your brand grow.

Be a leader, not a dictator.

Cults and tribes have dictators. Communities have leaders. Censorship and attacks are qualities of a dictator and harvest a tribal environment. So the role your brand should play is not on of editor or absolutist, but of an enabler for interaction around the common purpose that brought your members to you. Opinions of all kinds should be welcomed and encouraged. Your members should feel like they are on an equal playing field with you and that their voice is heard by your brand.

Communities are perceived more positively by the public, more respected by their members and more authentic to the purpose of the brand. They are inclusive, supportive and engineered for growth and longevity. In contrast, tribes and cults are designed for fast paced, hard hits after which their members quickly move on to something else. Your brand should therefore be reaching for a long lasting community rather than the extreme, but feeble alternative.


Wayne S. Roberts

Wayne S. Roberts

Wayne brings to Blade’s clients over 25 years of award-winning experience in strategic branding, creative advertising and innovative online solutions. His industry background runs the gamut from high technology to apparel, from real estate development to premium beer. Wayne will be filing dispatches on various branding blunders, along with his insights on how the brand community perspective is growing throughout the advertising and marketing industry.

wayne has 75 posts and counting.See all posts by wayne