The Ultimate Marketing Utopia; Irrational Brand Loyalists

Happy Businessman in the Nature

As a marketer, I admire brands that attract irrational followers; it’s every marketers deepest fantasy. Two examples that come to mind of companies that have bizarrely loyal fans are Apple and Harley-Davidson.

Let’s start with Apple, but before I go on, in the interests of transparency, you should know that I am an Apple loyalist myself (but not an extreme one). The hardcore Apple followers are called “Mac Heads”, there’s even a documentary about them. They are the ones that have stuck with Apple during it’s darkest years, and for them Apple is almost a religion.

Apple fans wait in line for hours for a new product, and dump it as soon as a newer version is out. And boy are they irrational! The other day I had a conversation with a friend, during which I shared some of my concerns about Apple’s lack of innovation, and his reply surprised me. He was completely incapable of having an objective conversation about the subject!

He wouldn’t acknowledge any of the other smart phones advances, and kept putting Android down. It was slightly surreal. As an iPhone user and fan, I don’t ever see myself switching to an Android phone (or heaven forbid a Windows phone!) but I can, to some degree, put my emotions aside and reluctantly acknowledge the advances of other phones. But there are some loyalists who’d sooner get into a fist fight than acknowledge that other phones are even in the same league as the iPhone. Tim Cook must be proud!


You know, I used to be a HOG member. And in case you didn’t know, HOG stands for Harley Owners Group. If ever there was a group that take themselves very seriously, it’s those guys!

It never occurred to be, back in 1995, when I was sitting in the back of the London cab being driven to the Harley shop, to buy a motorcycle. When I told the cab driver to take me to the Harley shop on Kings Road he assumed I wanted to buy a motorcycle, but what I really had in mind was to buy a HD leather jacket.

He kept talking about how beautiful the Harley bikes were, and how much I would enjoy riding them. Hmm, I thought to myself, why don’t I buy a Harley? By the time we arrived at the showroom I was convinced! I enjoyed looking at the shiny machines in the showroom, and was trying to decide which one I could afford. A few months later – preceded by several riding lessons and a new license – I was the proud owner of a brand new Harley-Davidson Sportster 883.

This included a membership in the HOG, and was enthusiastically followed by the purchase of more Harley gear, and all kinds of kit upgrades to my bike. I must have spent an extra £2,000 adding stuff to my Sportster.

A few years later I sold my bike and left the Harley world, preferring a Ducati 916. But I learnt how serious Harley lovers are. HOG members worldwide meet at different rallies that are held in different parts of the world, and they sure love showing off their bikes and other gear.

I guess owning Harleys makes them feel bad-ass, even though they are far from it. A Harley executive famously said “What we sell is the ability for a 43-year-old accountant to dress in black leather, ride through small towns and have people be afraid of him.”

I remember seeing a big shot CEO of a bank dressed head to toe in Harley gear. I guess that was the closest he ever came to being a rebel, and why not?

An analysis; what do H-D and Apple have in common?

Here’s what I think they have in common, and what turns their buyers into raving fans:

1) They are 100% lifestyle products:

Having owned a Harley, Ducati and BMW motorcycle, I can tell you that the Harley is the least practical motorcycle I’ve owned. However, it turned more heads by far. I remember sitting at a cafe in London while by bike was parked by the curb. I saw a group of tourists stop at my bike and taking photos of it. I felt very proud.

When people wear their white earphones while listening to music on their iPod, they’re really saying “look at me, I have an iPod, I’m unique”, even though iPods have become ubiquitous.

So you want raving fans? Don’t just sell products or services, sell a lifestyle. That of course is not easy, and that’s why few people have irrational brand loyalists.

2) A deep sense of history:

Mac Heads love the romantic story of how the two Steve’s started Apple in their garage. And they love the story of how revolutionary the Macintosh was when it first came on the market. And they salivate when they think of how Steve Jobs returned triumphantly to Apple to turn the company around. Apple was revolutionary in so many ways, and they are so proud of that.

Harley-Davidson have their strong history too, dating back to 1903 when William S. Harley and childhood friend Arthur Davidson built their first motorcycle in – as you can probably guess – a small shed. Harley-Davidson make a point of showing iconic photos of Elvis and other celebrities riding their bikes.

Buyers of the motorcycles feel that they are part of this history. They feel that they are part of a unique heritage.

3) They provide a sense of belonging:

In one of his audio programmes, Anthony Robbins talks about the six basic human needs, one of which is the “need to belong.” Apple and Harley-Davidson are perfect examples of providing a place where users can feel that they are part of a unique community. Whenever HOG members meet they are instant friends, and they compare notes on motorcycle upgrades and rally adventures.

Mac Heads go to conventions and love connecting with others like them. They feel like they are part of an extended family.

4) Solid products with great designs:

I know I said that my Harley was not very practical, but it was a reliable, sturdy motorcycle. But more importantly, it had that sexy, classic design that people just love. And then there is the distinct Harley sound! It can give you goose bumps!

Remember when the iMac first came out? The design was insane! And ever since then Apple have come up with super-sexy designs of their products. The importance of design was emphasised by Sir James Dyson, who said “Good businesses, revolutionary businesses, are founded on the basis of good science, technology and design.”

Apple’s design influence was so profound that it spawned hundreds of copy cats. Everyone has changed the way they design products, and I think it’s mainly due to Apple.

To summarise, in order for you to get raving, irrational fans, all you have to do is create a lifestyle product, that has a deep sense of history, that provides a sense of belonging and that looks great! Good luck!

2 Responses to The Ultimate Marketing Utopia; Irrational Brand Loyalists

  1. Siraf72 25 November 2013 at 1:37 pm #

    I’m someone who is a brand fanatic and have come across probably thousands of them in the course of my life (.. and I’ll let the comment about the iPhone slide :0 ) . I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what makes us the way we are. Over the years i’ve met fanatics that use various ‘brands’ ( I use the term loosely): Linux, BSD, BeOS, MicroSoft, Apple, Every-single-football-club-ever, Leica/Nikon/Canon, Harley-davidson, Porsche.

    All of these have a hard core userbase that borders on zealotry.

    the list starts with ‘brands’ that have never in their history had any marketing (no budget, no branding, no advertising, nada zip). The end of the list has companies that manage their image very carefully. Some are intangible (software) while others are as you say “solid”. What do they have in common?

    I think the key to fanatic loyalty is primarily down to two things:

    1) Community
    2) Personal investment

    1) On Community consider the following:

    in the 80s , if you had a computer you probably either hand an Apple, IBM, Amiga, or Atari. In order to expand your software catalogue (and knowledge!) you had to trade with those that used the same platform. Pretty soon you have a community. The community massively increases the utility value you derive from your choice of platform in both a very real sense ( you get more software and you learn stuff) and an indirect way – your membership to the community.

    In the early days of the internet, linux was a hobby project that sought to bring the power and stability of Unix into an open source license by reverse engineering it and sharing every single part of that code. A community developed. The product became excellent, that caused the community to grow, etc,etc.

    If you’re a photographer, you have to make a choice. For most people that choice is Nikon or Canon. Once you make that choice you’re fairly stuck (assuming your financial resources arent’ infinite). In order to get the most out of your purchase you need to use the right lenses. So, what do you do ? you seek out your fellow Nikon/Canon users, you discuss lenses, you trade, you buy and sell. In short, you join a community.

    Just like a football club, these communities provide a support structure, entertainment, friendship, security, and most crucially knowledge. Basically all the evolutionary benefits of not being on your own. The group develops a set of fanatics the defines itself by what it thinks it represents and what it’s against (often completely independently of any marketing effort by the company that spawned the product!) . The zealotry can bring with it, no small degree of belligerence. From my own experience 🙂 :

    Amiga/BeoS Fanatics: We’re using software that’s lightyears ahead of yours. You’re all idiots.
    Apple Fanatics: (during the 80s 90s): We are rebels, the underdogs, and we demand perfection. You’re all sheep (…oh the irony).
    Linux: We are the true geeks, we believe in openness, we believe in freedom. You’re all literally idiots.
    Nikon/Canon: We’re better than the other guy. Every great photographer uses us.
    Leica: Perfection through purity. You guys don’t get it.

    2) Personal Investment

    Financial investment: this ones easy, the more you spend, the more you have to justify to your brain that you did the right thing. You quite literally convince yourself to love your purchase. The more expensive the product ( eg. Apple, Leica, Harley-Davidson, Porsche) the more you go into auto-brainwash-bring-on-the-love mode.

    Time invested: This one is rather crucial. We spend hours in front of our computers every single day. The fanatics even more so. The fanatics develop domain expertise that takes years or even decades to accumulate. You spend more time with that product, you become an expert at that product, and alas, your brain develops an emotional attachment. In the same way a researchers can become emotionally invested in a particular theory because they’ve staked their career on it (This basically true for anything we spend a lot of time and money on).

    A somewhat perverse example is that of Leica. Leica users enjoy the fact that their cameras are *more difficult to use* than other cameras. An utterly ridiculous thing to enjoy in a product, but an affirmation of the time spent in learning a particular skill.

    I should stress i’m referring to true fanatics here. They play a crucial role in defining the brand because they understand the brand value far better than any marketing department. These only exist where there is a vibrant active community. I’m NOT talking about the types of fans who prefer Apple over Android because it’s shinier or Pepsi over Coke because it’s cooler. .. which it is.

    • Suhail Algosaibi 25 November 2013 at 1:44 pm #

      Wow! Very insightful Bu Salman. Thank you.

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