The Gathering of Cult Brands: 5 Questions With Chris Kneeland


The Gathering

The Gathering is an annual coming together of the world’s top cult brands that recognizes and rewards brands that build amazing cultures. These cult brands connect with consumers in ways that don’t just get them to buy, but get them to buy in.

“Cult brand leaders create advocates, not ads, and we were fascinated by how they engage audiences differently,” Chris Kneeland, co-founder of The Gathering and CEO of Cult Collective, told brandchannel. “We created The Gathering to shine a spotlight on their activities and accomplishments.”

Every February since 2014, cult brand leaders and luminaries from around the world converge in Banff, Alberta, Canada, to honor each other’s achievements and share their secret marketing techniques with attendees through a series of teaching sessions.

The Gathering

2018’s honorees were Snickers, Gatorade, Jeep, Vans, Jack Daniel’s, Beats By Dre, charity: water, and PlayStation. For 2019, top cult brands being honored at The Gathering are Yeti, the LA Lakers, Marvel Comics, Cheetos, The North Face, Porsche, M&Ms and Lush.

brandchannel spoke with Kneeland about The Gathering and how a brand goes about achieving cult status.

Can you tell us about the history of The Gathering? When was the first event held and how has it evolved over the years?

Chris Kneeland The Gathering

The first Gathering was held in Banff, six years ago, in February 2014. Cult Collective organized the event to honor the leaders responsible for some of North America’s most cult-like brands. At that time, most marketing conferences and advertising award shows focused on ad agencies that created fun campaigns and spent heavily on mass media.

But advertising is a tax that brands pay for being unremarkable. The real heroes within the marketing industry built brands that enjoy enviable levels of customer engagement, benefit from tremendous word-of-mouth, and don’t need to artificially stimulate demand by shouting via mass media or bribing via constant sales promotions.

How does the organization define a cult brand?

Cult brands are businesses that enjoy above average brand attachment, which is a specific audience engagement KPI tied to emotional connection and is based on the brand’s unique ability to better meet customer expectations for their specific category compared to their mediocre peers.

In addition, cult brands have above average levels of brand advocacy, based on actual referrals, not net promoter scores (which is an inferior metric). Being a cult brand is a really good thing. Cult brands enjoy customers who buy more product, more often, at higher margin, are more likely to invest (if publicly traded) or donate (if a nonprofit).

Cult-like followers are quicker to forgive and give brands the benefit of the doubt if/when they make a mistake or provide an inferior product, service or customer experience. Honorees for Top Cult Brand of the Year are recognized at The Gathering only after being vetted via a 36,000-household survey conducted by Brand Keys (which is published annually in their CLEI study), as well as evaluative criteria via secondary research and 1-to-1 interviews with brand leaders themselves, resulting in a  18-point scorecard.

Beginning with the 2019 event, IBM’s Watson is also helping to assess key data points and select the most qualified brands.

Can you give some examples of what the 2019 honorees have done to attain cult brand status?

All of the 2019 Cult Brand Honorees have excelled for a decade or longer at numerous cult brand principles. These brands are not only financially successful, but they are culturally significant and have earned tremendous benefits from their fan adoration. Their lasting relevance stems from thinking about marketing very differently than their mediocre peers, and from taking risks that others can’t or won’t take.

For example, most people forget that in 2008 Marvel “bet the farm” on an audacious “Universe” strategy that more than 30 writers declined, and no studio wanted to touch. They hired a down-on-his-luck actor to play Tony Stark and kicked off a multi-billion empire that few believed possible at the time.

Or, consider that Lush’s entire value proposition is a 180-degree opposite of how the majority of health and beauty brands manufacture and market their products.

And Yeti pursued incredibly niche outdoor enthusiasts and succeeded by being something special to a few people, rather than something average to many people.

Cult brand leaders make many courageous choices, and it’s fun to hear their stories of overcoming naysayers, and how they convinced their unenlightened peers, whose preferences usually skew to more traditional or habitual marketing activities. Cult brand leaders somehow/someway persuaded their organizations to try something bold and enjoyed tremendous spoils as a result.


I see you have a separate category for emerging brands. How are those different from cult brands?

To be a Top Cult Brand Honoree, you have to excel in at least six of the 10 proven cult brand principles uncovered from our decade-old research into cult branding. You also need to have consistently outperformed your category peers for over a decade.

Emerging cult brands are usually younger companies, oftentimes less known due to their regionality or niche category and have not yet mastered six or more of the cult brand principles. But they display several desirable cult brand attributes in their company DNA and have demonstrable beliefs and behaviors that mimic those of the world’s most beloved cult brands. We like to showcase three or four emerging cult brands every year to show business leaders how almost any brand can convert customers into cult brand followers if they simply follow the proven playbook.

What are some of the key takeaways and lessons learned that cult brands have shared over the years? 

My biggest learning has been how cult brands redefine the role of marketing. Mediocre brands treat the CMO and his/her marketing department as a communications function with an over-emphasis on external audiences. Conversely, cult brand leaders treat marketers as value creators —not just value communicators—and task them with the ideation and implementation of compelling value propositions resulting in enviable products, services or customer experiences.

Furthermore, cult brand leaders prioritize internal audiences over external audiences, spend marketing resources on culture-enhancing initiatives, and seek to turn employees into evangelists.

Finally, cult brand leaders universally ignore the “norms” in their industry and intentionally zig while others zag. They display tremendous courage in leading, not following, and seek to challenge the status quo while their mediocre peers are too busy playing it safe.

Get more insights in our Q&A series.


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