Why business is like... Religious cults

It's hard to think of a more powerful bunch of marketers than those who promote religious cults.

by Jenny Harris
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Bosses might not wish to manipulate customers into purchasing their wares, but an understanding of how cults attract followers can challenge assumptions about customer acquisition and make us think differently when planning our next marketing assault.

Cults recognise our appetite to belong, and build their institutions around satisfying it. They understand the irresistible appeal of the embrace of a community, and the key to their success lies in understanding the mechanics of how to create communities with a strong gravitational field.

Rule one is to set boundaries. You're either in or you're out, and the more clearly defined and visible the out group, the deeper the sense of belonging for those inside. In business, where customer acquisition is a virtuous pursuit, it may jar to suggest that keeping a segment of the market out is as important to your top line as welcoming others in. Take the Tiffany Bean necklace: once the secret handshake of the Chelsea sorority, it is now about as exclusive as a tin of baked beans and has lost most of its appeal.

Cults strengthen this sense of community by creating a vocabulary or set of rituals understood only by the initiated. Tics and mysteries that perplex outsiders bind insiders together. The quirky buying procedure of eBay is the initiation rite that distinguishes members from the laity. So don't assume that making your product easier to buy is necessarily the best way to boost sales.

Scientology guru L Ron Hubbard once said: 'The best way to make a million is to start your own religion.' If anything is proof of the power of his methods, it's his ability to survive a remark like that.

Jenny Harris is Young Businesswoman of the Year and director of JRBH Strategy & Management

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