“Give customers ownership in your brand! That is key to building a lasting and profitable relationship.”

I recently read this, and was struck by the simplicity and truth of the statement. It is very similar to things I have written in my articles, in my thesis and repeated in speeches.

Yet sometimes something is said so well, so succinctly, it reaches out and grabs you. These two sentences did that for me.

Problem is, many brands don't do this. They may say they do, or they are working towards it, or make similar promises, but in the final analysis many just don't give the customers the ability to feel they “own” the brand--not the product or service, but the brand.

And in an increasingly automated society, brands that create an emotional relationship with customers stand to gain a great deal: loyalty, profits, brand ambassadors, and even growth.

A few articles ago I wrote about the idea of friendship branding, which essentially suggests companies should think of their brands in a human way, because these are the brands that build up loyalty and trust over time, and create valuable relationships with customers.

Having a human element to the brand is important, and goes beyond having a human face for a brand logo or personality. An example that springs to mind is Rowan Yarn.

Rowan Yarn is an English yarn company that specializes in higher-end yarn and patterns. I am a big knitter; I absolutely love it. It is incredibly stress-reducing and creatively satisfying for me.

However, how can one person have a relationship with yarn? (And, frankly, you would be surprised, but we'll save that for another article!)

Rowan has created an annual club, Rowan International. In this program, members join for a small fee and thereby are sent the 2 magazines Rowan publishes a year, get a free annual gift (a pattern and yarn), and access to the online forum, the "Knitting Circle." And in this Circle lies the path to Rowan having their customers feel they "own" the brand.

The Circle is an online forum where knitters around the world get together and talk mostly about knitting, but about other topics as well, and it is run in a bulletin board format. It is a masterful marketing tool (and one with a lot more potential, if properly worked) that gives a human face to the Rowan brand, and makes some of their most loyal customers brand ambassadors, engenders greater loyalty, and even creates a focus group of sorts.

The people on this forum (who have dubbed themselves, me included, "Rowanettes") truly feel they own the brand. They send Rowan suggestions, gripes, refer more members, and so on.

And in return Rowan has taken something that many see as a solitary activity--knitting, and a non-dimensional idea--yarn, and made it come alive.

Rowan doesn't track their customers from the Circle in terms of annual spend, but my guess is that the Rowanettes spend more money on Rowan yarn and patterns than the average knitter, and that they are much more likely to encourage others to try Rowan than the average knitter.

By creating a sense of community they have given life to their brand and ownership to their customers, and turned their customers into brand ambassadors, even brand evangelists, willing to sing out the brand's benefits from the rooftops.

In their new book The Power of Cult Branding, Matthew W. Ragas and Bolivar J. Bueno look at how brands create not only customer bases, but bases of fans. As examples they cite Apple and Harley Davidson. (It has been said that more people have Harley-Davidson tattooed on their body than anything else in the world. (If that isn't a brand loyal customer base, I don't know what is.)

They state that brands that are successful do so by giving customers a stake in the company--a sense of ownership--and create dialogue. Chat rooms, bulletin boards (such as Rowan's), and content that is personalized help create this stake in the customers minds by creating an interactive brand.

As Ragas states, “"Harley-Davidson is a phenomenal example of this," Ragas says. “They have spent a lot of time building up the community areas of their sites. They help members communicate, keep them updated on events. It doesn't cost them a lot of money, but in terms of keeping the Harley nation active and vibrant and excited about things, it does that in spades. It's why Harley-Davidson doesn't have to spend boatloads of money on advertising."

“Cult brands” is a hyped and in some ways overly used term, but really what it is shorthand for is customer involved brands, ones where the customers have relationships with the brand, and feel like they have ownership in the brand in some way, shape, or form.

Brands that go above and beyond, and create a bond that is virtually unassailable in this capricious marketplace. Brands that take customers and make them partners, and align the interests of both so that they are symbiotic and mutually beneficial. That is what cult brands are about, and why they are successful.

So if you want your brand to last and be profitable, share the brand! Make your customers partners, your brand will thank you.

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Kristine Kirby Webster is Principal of The Canterbury Group, a direct-marketing consultancy specializing in branding and relationship marketing. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Direct Marketing at Mercy College in NY. She can be reached at Kristine@canterburygroup.net.