The Art of Cult Branding

The Persuaders

PBS Frontline (2005)

Film Review

Unlike The Century of the Self, The Persuaders focuses more on contemporary public relations techniques. This PBS documentary begins by examining growing industry concerns that consumers are becoming “immune” to the unconscious messaging Edward Bernays perfected.

Pseudo-spiritual and Cult Branding

Pseudo-spiritual and cult branding are two of the latest mass marketing techniques. Pseudo-spiritual marketing is designed to convince consumers that brand loyalty will provide identity and meaning in their lives. The stellar success of Starbucks and Nike are given as examples. Starbucks (allegedly) creates meaning in peoples’ lives by offering them a “third place” (not home or work). While Nike offers consumers “transcendence”* through sport.

Inspired by Starbucks’ and Nike’s phenomenal “branding” success, marketing analysts went out and interviewed cult leaders to understand how they won the loyalty of their followers.

Volkswagen, Mac, Harley Davidson, Linux and Saturn are the leading examples of cult brands. By offering a sense of belonging and community, they successfully pitch their brands to consumers longing for the community values which have been lost in contemporary society.

I find this incredibly ironic. First the corporate public relations industry connives to systematically dismantle labor unions and other community groups and institutions. Then they cynically package and market luxury consumer goods to satisfy our unmet needs for civic engagement.

Aiming for “Visceral Appeal”

One of the marketing gurus the film profiles is Frank Luntz, a political consultant renowned for his expertise in using language to promote the “visceral appeal” of political campaigns. His goal is to hit voters at an emotional level that motivates them to act.

Luntz’s credits include helping Newt Gingrich devise the Contract with America to help the Republicans win control of Congress in 1994. Luntz is also responsible for helping Republicans win points on specific issues by reframing them, e.g. by changing “tax cuts” to “tax relief,” “estate tax” to “death tax” and “global warming” to “climate change.”

The Technique of Narrow Casing

The Persuaders concludes by examining “narrow casing,” a campaign technique first developed by John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Narrow casing is largely credited for Obama’s victory in 2008. It involves data mining the vast amount of information corporations collect on our purchases (mainly via loyalty and credit card records). This data is used to categorize people into demographic groups based on specific issues (health, education, immigration, gun control) that are most likely to appeal to them. This allows campaign teams to beam issue-related advertising to specific groups (via email, direct mail and doorbelling), rather than relying on the more general messaging of mass marketing.

Republican political consultant Karl Rove has been highly successful in using narrow casing around issues such as gun control, immigration and the confederate flag to persuade blue collar white males to vote Republican.

*Transcendence is defined as existence or experience beyond the normal or physical level, as in spiritual transcendence.

 

 

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