On Creators and Cults

Franco Varriano
March 11, 2021
 min read
"If you study ecommerce, you'll understand the future of all that interacts with it".

-Web Smith, Founder and Author, 2pm

When you distil it down, it turns out a lot of things interact with commerce in some form or another.

Celebrities, influencers, creators, and entrepreneurs all rely on commerce to keep going and growing. This includes the collaborators, fans, and superfans who participate in the communities they build.  

Commerce is a fundamental driving force in our society and economy, and it's constantly changing.

Now, there's urgent need and unparalleled opportunity for brands and entrepreneurs alike to build new audiences, engineer status symbols, and empower collaborative cults.

The tiers of fandom (and cults)

Let’s travel back to the early 2000s when social media was emerging and adding a layer of social data to the world. You may remember a popular theory called the six degrees of separation.

A similar theory exists today with the emergence of creators and their following. It’s Li Jin’s 100 True Fans idea, an updated take on Wired editor and co-founder Kevin Kelly's 2008 article, 1,000 True Fans.

The basic premise is that, thanks to the internet, creators can monetize their skills directly through an audience of fans (aka the Creator/Passion Economy).

Jin pushes this thesis further. She says that creators who embody this mindset are, in fact, a new breed of small business.

They've successfully adopted tactics and methodologies used previously by some of the most successful traditional brands. Audience segmentation is one of them.

A community or audience, Jin argues, is made up of multiple tiers of fans (the Pyramid of Fandom illustrated below).Each tier has varying degrees of connection to a creator and can thus be monetized differently.


With the recent popularization of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), Jin updated the pyramid with two new tiers of fans: speculators/investors and Cult Fans.

Cult fans, however, aren't new and they certainly are not a result of NFTs.

In May 2020, SignalFire Principal Investor and Head of Content Josh Constine wrote a piece about the emergence of creator cults on TikTok who were driving their audience to mobilize.

Cults have always been part of the brand landscape. From Apple to Nike to Supreme, each of these traditional brands has created an intangible feeling of belonging and a certain status that enables them to charge a premium.

Douglas Atkin, Global Head of Community at Airbnb and author of The Culting of Brands took a deep look at how cults are structured and operate—and the parallels we can draw from them to apply to brands.

He writes:

"Few stronger emotions exist than the need to belong and make meaning. And brands are poised to exploit that need [...] they are [cults] the most extreme manifestation of community, and I wanted to understand how devoted communities can be formed around brands."

As the Creator Economy transitions from an emerging trend into a professionalized industry with standards and best case practices, expect more of these personality-led companies to not only apply the cult creation playbook used by the world's best brands, but to also push for a modern re-invention.

We're already starting to witness this within some modern luxury brands who understand the mechanics of the business of aspiration. Read on!

Engineering new status symbols

Ana Andjelic is a veteran chief marketing officer. She has a doctorate in sociology and is also a prolific writer, author of an incredibly insightful newsletter called The Sociology of Business, and the book The Business of Aspiration.

Andjelic is best known for her unique lens which converts her expertise in sociology and psychology into insights and tactics on how brands can engineer elements like social currencies, new luxury mindsets, and aspirational ideals into their business.

She connects real world, corporate business objectives with societal psychology and behaviors. Both creators and cults are part of that landscape.

In her book, she writes that:

"Most successful brands today are fan-made, created by imagined communities of fans that do not necessarily know each other but share tastes, aesthetics, and interests."

It’s interesting to note the similarities and overlap between these communities and the cult playbook Douglas Atkin explored. While many followers don't know each other, they share at least two things in common: the creator(s) and a passion or topic of interest.

This passion leads them down a winding path and can evolve into niche knowledge and/or exclusive access to the creator or experiences that align with their passions. This is what the Aspirational Economy is all about.

These interconnected elements are the new status symbol and social flex. Some examples:

The paradox of modern luxury marketing is at the heart of these experiences: increased accessibility (awareness generated by technology) but made limited or restricted (sometimes in appearance only) by artificial scarcity or other mechanisms like drops.

Here’s another great example from Sam Yam, Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Patreon:

"I think people even through merchandise are just looking for a way to represent that they have this belonging in this interest for themselves as are presentation of what they care about. So as an example if you look at the DJCascade and you're going to one of his exclusive concerts, and then you get that merch, that T shirt or that hat or whatever, that's just tied to that particular event. Then when you're out in the real world wearing this, you're effectively signalling that you're part of this community and you're such a zealot about being a Cascade fan, that you went to this exclusive concert. And so I guess that's what I mean when I'm talking about engagement, whether creators are able to foster that sort of excitement around wanting to get a depth of knowledge in either their interest area or the community's passion and interest."

In our increasingly noisy world, people crave connection and a sense of belonging.

They will continue to seek out unique, limited and immersive experiences that signal their status within the respective communities that form their identity and interests. Creators and brands can take advantage of this.


Empowering collaborative cults

Creators, brands, and businesses who place audiences first are well positioned to lean into and build virtually irreplicable brands around these tactics.

They can take the cult-building playbooks of Apple or Supreme and further modernize (and ultimately monetize) them.

There are a lot of platforms and tools out there focused on helping creators monetize, including Patreon. But we haven't yet reached the point where more creators can develop the skills and tactics accessible to and used by larger brands.

As the internet and social platforms evolve in a direction that enables everyone to create and monetize, fans will want to bring their own ideas and skills to the table. This will irrefutably involve the use of superpower apps.

These cult fans will want to be recognized for their contributions and have ownership in the platform they help create. We're already seeing the early days of this with NFTs and platforms like NBA Top Shot.

The creators and brands who embrace this cult-like participation and who design platforms that reward and empower others to join and build will be incredibly valuable and virtually invincible.

Ana Andjelic hit the nail on the head when she wrote:

"It turns consumption into creativity, and blurs the boundary between buying things and making things."

What’s next for collaborative cults?

To recap:

  • Creators are building communities around niche passions.
  • There are pockets or tiers of fans within those communities who want more.
  • Creators are building limited edition products, exclusive access events, knowledge, and experiences directly for and between these top-level fans. They’ve started to monetize these creations.

However, it’s still difficult for the average creator or entrepreneur.

In order to truly separate themselves from the rise in competition and build a sustainable business, creators and entrepreneurs need to:

  • Diversify their product offerings (The Multi-SKU Creator) with varied and emerging formats, such as NFTs and new revenue models.
  • Empower the different tiers of their audience (but especially cult-like fans) to engage, interact, and co-create as Glossier has done. To achieve this, they will need new tools and platforms.

That's where Creative Layer comes in.

We’re working hard to enable the fast creation of unique products and the ability to empower your fans to collaborate in new and immersive ways.

We're building a new breed of superpower app, one that will drive the next generation of creators, entrepreneurs, and personalized product experiences.

See how truly personalized products can boost your business—sign up for early access to Creative Layer and follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn.