March 3, 2020
4 Mins to Read

The Gathering: How cult-like brands get their loyal followers

The Gathering: How cult-like brands get their loyal followers

There are countless tech and marketing conferences to choose from, and often, it’s difficult to decide which to attend. We look out for events that bring value to our business and partners — with takeaways that are both insightful and actionable. Last week we were fortunate enough to attend The Gathering in Banff, Alberta which surpassed our expectations and was an incredible experience.

The Gathering, is a unique summit that brings in leaders from the most “cult-like” brands around the world to share their experiences around branding, marketing, and successfully connecting with consumers on a deep level. This year’s speakers included Doritos, Skittles, A&W, Under Armour, Coca Cola, and Spotify. We’ve outlined some of our key highlights from the event, including recurring themes that were addressed.

Tina and Tamara at The Gathering summit


Empathy, authenticity, and listening

One thing that cult-like brands do well is listen to and engage with their audiences. They focus on making real connections with their advocates and providing value, as opposed to being product-centric.

Geoff Cottrill, SVP of Strategic Marketing at Coca-Cola, compared a brand’s communication to a guest at a dinner party. You don’t want to be disruptive by standing up, interrupting others, and boasting. Instead, you want to listen and learn from those around you — otherwise, you’ll likely get kicked out.

Some prime examples concerning empathy and listening included:

  • The power of storytelling and listening to your advocates by Sarah Mueller, SVP, Marketing & Development at A&W USA. When the brand decided to cut costs by moving away from their freshly made rootbeer to rootbeer provided by soda dispensers, it led to an unexpected and detrimental impact. A&W lost the credibility of their loyal Boomer audience who were previously sharing nostalgic stories around their signature root beer. They learned from their mistakes and in 2015 converted all US restaurants back to freshly made root beer served in frosted mugs. Stories and engagement then quickly spiraled in from their passionate fans —  a group of unleashed influencers and die-hard advocates.
  • The importance of leveraging your internal team, as shared by Tim Simmons, VP Operations Transformation at Sam’s Club. By listening to their store associates, Sam’s Club was able to improve their business efficiencies. They discovered that employees needed administrative and technological friction to be reduced to better serve their customers.

This discovery led to the adoption of:

    • A digital Membership Express system which cut down wait times from 10-30 mins to 43 seconds.
    • Sam’s Garage which improved wait time for tire orders from 30 mins to 2.2 mins.
    • The Ask Sam’s App which allows employees to instantly answer key customer questions including inventory requests in a matter of seconds.
  • Make sure to gain insights into your fans’ core values and interests by looking beyond demographic data, noted Rachel Ferdinando (SVP & CMO at Doritos). When sales became stagnant, Doritos knew they needed to better connect with their Gen Z audience. Research showed that gaming and music mattered most to these individuals. They tapped into their passions through out-of-the-box executions such as the Post Limon Grammy’s launch, the Cool Ranch ads featuring Lil Nas X and Sam Elliot, and the Doritos Bowl live event at TwitchCon. This all resulted in Doritos now being ranked #2 in Gen Z’s favorite 100 brands in the USA.


  • Alex Bodman, VP, Global Executive Creative Director at Spotify, focused on the power of data to personalize conversations. Similar to the dinner party analogy, he stressed that talking about yourself is boring. Instead, brands need to talk about the people around them, while using their own tone and leveraging data. Spotify does this incredibly well in the most creative way. An example being the “For the Ride” campaign, which was inspired by the statistic that 70% of people stay in their cars to let a song finish. This data point was used to help promote Spotify usage in cars in a humorous and creative way.


Community and belonging

With The Gathering being a summit that revolves around “cult-like” brand influencers, it was no surprise that another theme that appeared was around community and a sense of belonging.

  • Laura Nestler, Head of Community at Duolingo, spoke about the importance of building communities to fuel business growth. In a search for authenticity, Laura noted that consumers are looking for micro-communities, which are characterized as niche and highly independent. Duolingo, a language learning app, thrives on community. All courses are created by volunteers with feedback provided by their users. This co-creation of content promotes engagement and a passionate group of followers. The company also hosts over 500 events each week across over 100 countries to continuously build their community.
  • Another direct example came from Douglas Atkin, Former Global Head of Community at Airbnb, who has studied the social phenomena of cults. He noted that cults are the engine of change in culture. Contrary to popular belief, cults are joined by stable, intelligent and idealistic people that come from stable families. The great cult paradox is that contrary to common perceptions, people don’t join cults to conform but to be more individual. They join for a sense of belonging and being in a safe space, where they became more themselves when joining. It’s this sense of “we’re different, you’re different in the same way” that brands can leverage amongst their own followers. Steve Jobs did this well with the 1984 campaign where Apple users were portrayed as being a group different from the rest of the crowd.

a speaker on stage at The Gathering


Not taking yourself seriously

Lastly, several presenters stressed the importance of taking risks and tying in brand-specific references with humor to connect with fans.

  • Duolingo did this with a playful April Fool’s campaign, based on their app’s push notifications that are well known to their users. When users are not practicing their language lessons, they receive persistent reminders by the notorious Duolingo owl to get back into the habit of using the app. The inside joke among users is that there is no escape from the owl (there are even several online forums and memes that poke fun at the pesky reminders). Duolingo got in on the conversation with a series of ominous tweets leading up to the clever Duolingo Push video on April Fool’s Day.


  • Coca Cola also recently had an opportunity to poke fun at themselves with their New Coke campaign. The launch of New Coke in 1985 has been dubbed one of the biggest marketing mistakes of all time. Coca Cola took one of the most massive disasters and turned it into a pop culture phenomenon. They reskinned their site with the look and feel of the year 1985, advertised in an old school 1985 way, and released 100,000 exclusive cans of New Coke (which sold out in less than five minutes and crashed their site). Partnering with Netflix, they also found a witty way to incorporate New Coke into a hilarious scene in the show Stranger Things (taking place in the year 1985). The campaign resulted in over 4 billion media impressions that day. The main lesson was facing fears and moving on by using humor.


There is no one-size-fits-all approach in marketing, and all the inspiring speakers touched on this at The Gathering summit. However, the principles above will help you to find a ‘key’ to your brand advocates and direct you closer to creating a cult-like brand.

So, remember to:

  • Listen to your customers carefully and truly hear what they’re saying.
  • Create a community around your products or services.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously and have some fun.

Not only did we learn from some of the greatest leaders in the industry, but it was a chance to connect with other attendees from around the world who shared their own insightful perspectives.

Tina Star, Group Director of Media

Where there is data smoke, there is business fire.

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