Cult status is not something that can be manufactured. It grows organically, often taking years to achieve.
Sometimes built around an iconic product or style, cult status comes when a brand resonates with a passionate community of fans. Above all, cult status with real staying power is achieved by brands who are original in their approach and unafraid to do things differently.
This is the attitude taken by British footwear brand Grenson. “Our organic approach is not to go and find people,” explains owner and creative director Tim Little.
“I remember reading about Nike 25 years ago and they were saying, we do what we do and we talk in the way we want to talk, and then if people like it they’ll come and follow us. That’s what we do, we don’t really go chasing people.”
Little explains that the brand does no advertising or formalised targeting, relying instead on creating products it believes are interesting and different. Established in 1866 in Northamptonshire, Grenson tells the story of its 151-year history in a way that makes it relevant for 2017.
“We talk about our heritage, but we also talk about modern design and how important that is to us and they follow us. And if they don’t they’re not right for the brand,” says Little.
“That’s the only way we can do it. We never ever go the other way that says ‘we’d really like to appeal to that type of person, let’s adapt our tone of voice’ or ‘let’s do a product or an event that we think will attract that kind of person’. It just doesn’t work.”
Cult status that sticks can be extremely difficult to achieve. In the mid-noughties crowds lined the streets waiting to buy the latest preppy jumper from Abercrombie & Fitch or pack out the now defunct retail chain American Apparel.
However, unable to evolve their proposition to reflect changing tastes, both retailers fell foul of consumers who began to find their hyper-sexualised brand of US chic suddenly unfashionable.
The challenge to stay relevant in a rapidly evolving consumer culture has never been a concern for British beauty brand Liz Earle. Launched in 1995 as a mail order business with just four products, co-founders Liz Earle MBE and Kim Buckland wanted to create a simple, ethically sourced skincare range that offered real results.
Rather than relying on high street retailers or ad campaigns to raise its profile Liz Earle grew by word of mouth. It became the first beauty brand to launch on television shopping channel QVC in 1996, selling out in 30 minutes.
Having built up a loyal following for its Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser, Liz Earle has since diversified its portfolio into haircare, make-up and fragrance.
“Exceptional, effective products at accessible prices, together with expert, honest customer service has seen us through over 20 years of growth,” says Julia Anderton, global brand director at the Liz Earle Beauty Company.
“Since day one we’ve been built on word of mouth. Even before social media was a thing, we encouraged open and honest conversation with our customers, building true friendships along the way. I know it’s easy to say that, but we truly take every piece of feedback on board and this is reflected in the brand’s actions.”
The advent of social media has helped Liz Earle go to the next level, says Anderton, through a combination of engaging content and honest expert advice. Working with a community of beauty bloggers built brand appeal amongst a new generation of consumers.
“The word of mouth we relied on at the start has turned into Facebook tags and Instagram shares, and through this we are seeing a new generation of customers emerge,” says Anderton.
“We are becoming a multi-generational brand, with our long-term customers introducing our range to their children. So with this in mind we will be looking at how we can engage this new generation, while still remaining committed to those customers who have been with us since day one.”
Building a new legacy
For cult brands that boast a rich heritage, success is less about relying on the past and more about using their origins as a springboard for the future.
This is certainly the case for Italian streetwear brand Fila, which started life manufacturing sports clothing in 1911. Some 106 years on, youth culture and nostalgia have helped Fila garner respect among style-conscious millennials, keen to buy into…