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 the 1990s sports luxe aesthetic.
The streetwear brand initially found fans in the 1990s US hip-hop scene among the likes P Diddy, 2Pac and Notorious BIG, whose influence has since filtered down into new urban fashion subcultures, explains Paul Siviter, marketing manager at the BB Group, Fila’s UK distributor.
“It was important for us to look back through our archives and instead of designing pieces that were trying to look like they were from a certain era, we took them straight out of that era and have brought them back.”
The current outdoor campaign ‘Back to Biella’ sees influencers dressed in Fila’s Heritage collection of revisited archive designs, photographed in the streets of Biella, the Italian textile town where the brand was born.
Siviter explains that the campaign “wasn’t just about taking photos”, but was focused on celebrating a new era for Fila.
“We have had a very strong reaction to the outdoor campaign. Not only has it reinforced what is happening with the brand in the market, but it seems to have helped communicate the direction and the Fila story in one campaign. The reach seems to have extended further than the UK,” Siviter adds.
To help protect the brand Fila has been “extremely targeted” in its approach to stockists, which include Topshop, Urban Outfitters and Selfridges, as well as the influencers it collaborates with such as Rihanna, rapper A$AP Rocky and Brooklyn Beckham.
Everyone who works with Fila has some history with the brand, which is essential when it comes to understanding the community of fans, says Siviter.
“I believe the only way to communicate with fans is if you are one of them. We have huge support from key media titles and websites like Hypebeast and Highsnobiety that speak to the people who want to buy Fila. When they see the most recent campaign on these sites it sends a message that we are on the same page as them,” he adds.
Powered by fans
Cult brands are often built with fans at the heart of the business. An example would be British folding bike pioneer Brompton, where all the employees are avid urban cyclists.
“We’re customers ourselves as my Brompton gives me a practical solution to my commute,” explains CMO Stephen Loftus. “We’re all living the bike and there’s a real obsession with continually looking to improve it, which has created this community.”
The purpose set out by Brompton founder Andrew Ritchie in 1975 remains the same, to create a high quality bike that genuinely improves people’s lives and is fun to ride. The simplicity of the mission has helped Brompton build a growing international fan base, selling 45,000 bikes worldwide. Some 11,000 are sold in the domestic market, 6,000 in London alone, with 75% of total sales coming from international customers.
Being a British manufacturer is not a marketing gimmick for Brompton, explains Loftus, as making in the UK helps ensure quality, which is the brand’s most important feature.
“The fact we make our bike in London means we’ve built up incredibly skilled manufacturing staff and we’ve got all of our design, marketing and commercial teams under one roof so we can continue to improve the product,” Loftus explains.
“[Manufacturing in London] has a benefit to our brand as it ties with our story, but it’s not a marketing led reason we’re sitting in Greenford [west London]. It goes back to the very beginning and our desire to change the way people live their lives.”
Similarly at footwear brand Grenson, the tight-knit team are all fans who work on an instinctive level. This is the reason why, when the company expanded into accessories in 2015, the aim was simply to create products the community would love.
“We didn’t overthink it. We did it because we thought it would be great and we think that’s relevant. If we weren’t happy with it we wouldn’t have launched it,” explains Little.
Standing for something and always having an opinion has helped cyclewear brand Rapha build a strong, loyal following of cyclists since it was established in 2004. A big part of the strategy is bringing the community together through shared experiences, explains CMO Sarah Clark.
“The important thing about having a loyal following is it not being contrived and because we’re so rooted in the sport that’s always made us about a community. We’ve worked very hard to bring likeminded cyclists together.”
Starting off as an ecommerce site sharing inspiring content, Rapha has opened a network of clubhouses which combine retail and cafe spaces, as well as serving as HQs for club members. The brand also stages challenge rides such as the Women’s 500 and Festive 500.
This year alone the brand is hosting 20 Rapha Rides races, a weekend of cycling in a different city worldwide from Copenhagen to Boulder, Colorado. The event is pitched as a weekend celebrating local bike culture.
Rapha is also planning to grow its network of 16 clubhouses worldwide. The addition of new locations in LA, Berlin and Melbourne will take the total number of clubhouses to 19 by the end of 2017. The aspiration is to reach 50-100 over the next 10 years.
“We’ve always put lots of energy into bringing together a community on and offline. It’s very genuine because it’s based on actual cycling and loving the sport,” Clark explains.
“For us the clubhouses bring the community together and allow people to get closer to the sport. We do screenings of races and invite people in to do talks. There are people who will pop into the clubhouse three times a week, they might do business meetings there or hang out with friends. That’s always the vibe we wanted – a home from home.”
Creating a lifestyle
Ultimately, becoming a lifestyle brand should be a natural process, says Grenson’s Tim Little. Social media has freed the brand up to discuss a variety of subjects it believes will inspire the Grenson community, from new designers and craftsman to profiling restaurants and hotels.
“If it was like the old days where to talk to anybody you’d have to do a double page spread in The Times, we’d have to do a double page spread about a shoe, but we wouldn’t be able to talk about things that are not immediately commercial,” Little acknowledges.
Alongside in-store talks, product launches and Grenson Social events, the footwear brand is launching Shoe School later this year, inviting fans to its Northamptonshire factory to see how the shoes are made.
“It’s about being accessible, opening it up and saying to people we’re really proud of what we do, come and have look,” Little adds. “I believe the brand isn’t our brand, the brand is the people who buy into it, love it and follow it.”