Social Media Week
Influencers Are The New Evangelists

Social Media Week is the type of place where you hear mentions of a porn star and religion in a panel about brands. But the panel discussion on Friday in New York wasn’t about all brands, it centered on cult brands. Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide CMO Lauren Crampsie hosted the engaging conversation with social media and marketing experts about cult brands, how brands can try to gain the most passionate following, and—if they have it—how they can maintain it.

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Crampsie kicked things off by touching on how, these days, it’s easier for a brand to reach cult-like status due to technology and social media. But just because its easier doesn’t mean it happens automatically. Ron Faris, Founder and CEO of Virgin Mega, noted that modern cult brands exhibit the behavior of the world’s oldest cult brands: religion. He references modern brands like SoulCycle and Warby Parker and said, “These brands don’t act like stores, they act more like churches and religions.”

Religion has always been about community, and brands want to foster that same sense of strong community. Spencer Rise, VP of Marketing for SoulCycle and Piera Gelardi, Executive Creative Director and Co-Founder of Refinery29, both agreed that community is at the heart of their brands, and should be for any brand that hopes to foster passionate relationships with its fans. All agreed that making an emotional connection is key.

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There are a few different areas that brands can focus on when trying to create a community of enthusiastic fans. Rice said for SoulCycle, it’s about an exceptional experience. Despite SoulCycle being a physical place, the experience doesn’t begin and end at a SoulCycle location. The brand ensures that consumers continue to feel that positive experience when booking their bike online and when they’re engaging with the brand on social channels.

For Refinery29, Gelardi said having a strong point of view is critical; without it, a brand can find difficulty standing out amongst the tremendous amount of noise in the digital and social worlds. Once a community is somewhat established, Faris believes that a key tactic to growing that community and generating passion is through member-to-member engagement.

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With Virgin Mega, Faris is hoping to harness the energy exuded by the fanatical communities of young folks who wait in long lines for concerts and new products and bring it into the digital world. In those communities, the members are bound not by the idea of “Friendship” as felt on a social platform, but by their strong common interest in a brand, product, or idea.

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Okay, so we’re not talking physics, but when there’s strong passion for a brand, there’s often an equally-strong opposite sentiment by some measure of the population. The scientific term is “haters”. Crampsie opened this up to the panel, asking how their brands deal with the dissenters.

SoulCycle see them as an opportunity, and Rice isn’t a believer in the adage “if you don’t have haters you’re not doing it right.” If a brand fosters negative reaction by doing something off color, what good does that do? Faris, on the other hand believes in cultivating the “haters you want” through measured “thoughtful controversy”. To Gelardi, haters represent an opportunity to have a conversation and engage. If you can’t win over your haters, you can at least gain their respect.


So, about that porn star. A way to cultivate passion for brands on social media is through influencers. That’s all well and good, but it’s crucial to find the influencer who is the right fit. For Refinery29, partnering with porn star Stoya has been a valuable relationship, as giving her a platform to blog about sexuality presents the strong, fresh point of view that Gelardi mentioned. SoulCycle has had success with David Beckham as a customer. Faris, ever the believer in the power of the small community, sees value in finding the influencer who might only have 10,000-20,000 followers. They may not be reaching the largest audience, but they’ll be reaching the right audience with an impactful voice.

In some way, influencers are the new evangelists; strong voices who spread a message and inspire others to do the same. Their reach can help grow an already-passionate community into an even more powerful entity. Every brand wants to be successful. they all want to draw people and turn them into fanatics who can’t get enough, who start bringing their friends along for the experience. But getting on your knees and praying won’t do it. You have to become your own place of worship.

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