Cults and the Consumer

Harshit Sharma

03-09-2018

‘Wild Wild Country’, a documentary on Netflix recently became an instant hit. The series is about an  Indian spiritual guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, popularly known as Osho and the rise of his cult. With Netflix becoming a strong cultural force in today’s times, it was only natural that Osho’s story became a
major talking point in pop-culture.

When Osho’s growing fan-following started taking the form of a cult, it started pricking the Indian Government and it was then when Ma Anand Sheela, Osho’s right hand, took charge of relocating the headquarters to a ranch in Antelope, Oregon- a small, quiet town in the US. The year was around 1981. The ranch soon turned into a full-fledged, fully-equipped city of Rajneeshpuram where its followers lived, wearing orange-colored clothes and following a ‘liberal’ lifestyle inspired from Osho’s teachings. This did not go well with Antelope’s local residents who were a reserved, conservative community. Eventually, things snowballed- leading to a spate of allegations against the cult for crimes including mass poisoning and immigration fraud.

The cultural landscape of India is quite diverse. It has seen the rise and fall of many cults. While cults like that of Osho come across as alternatives to the existing religious options, there are cults that openly ascribe to existing religious beliefs and political groups (think Baba Ramdev and Radhe Ma).

Cults could be defined as organized belief systems. We subscribe to a variety of believes in our everyday lives but what quintessentially makes a cult are the following features- its bizarre rituals, excessive devotion and the threat it represents to what is accepted as mainstream norms of living a life.

As human beings, we all seek validation from social groups- we become a part of communities to satisfy what Maslow described as our ‘belonging needs’.

It is interesting to note that with time, the manifestation of this need has evolved- cults exist, not necessarily as tangible places but virtually. Let’s talk about Facebook, which also describes itself as a ‘community’. Examining Facebook, it does have the three attributes mentioned above that makes it quite like a cult: rituals- it took the concept of friendship and created a ritual out of it in the virtual world (think sending friend requests, poking, ‘likes’), devotion- The Facebook population comprises of 2.23 billion active users and potential threats- for India, Facebook’s growing domination became a reason of concern with its Free Basics proposal that posed a threat to net neutrality. Much smaller in size and scale are myriad communities of book readers, movie buffs- name a hobby and you have it, flourishing seamlessly across virtual and real spaces.

Brands also become cults overtime. Daniel Pink, a famous culture critic and author has said it rather aptly, “…When the brand is something that an individual takes home, the brand becomes something different. The brand becomes a form of affiliation, or a form of identification—a form of status. I tend to look at it as a form of affiliation. If I open up my laptop and it has the Apple logo on it, that might make me feel marginally more associated with a group of cool, interesting people than if the computer had another logo on it. … It’s deeply tribal.”

LEGO has an obsessively devoted community; the building bricks toys have moved beyond just recreation- from the most extravagant and complex models built to the uses of LEGO in therapy, teambuilding, and prototyping to curious factoids about the LEGO universe. Apple’s loyal fan base swears by its products. Apple hosts User Groups where users participate in workshops and conversations about Apple’s latest products. It showers all attendees with free logo merchandise, as well as employee discounts at the company store. Not only does Apple come away with invaluable feedback from a great group of customers, it also re-fuels its faithful. Similarly, Harley Davidson has an
almost religious following with its Harley Owner Group (HOG) chapters around the world. Harley has made itself omnipresent with its stores not selling just bikes but merchandises like t-shirts, shoes, wallets and so on. Closer home, Patanjali became one of the fastest growing FMCG brands. A major factor contributing towards Patanjali’s success was the brand equity of yoga guru Baba Ramdev. Ramdev’s cult of followers across the country became the early adopters of Patanjali products and spread a good word-of-mouth, making it a household name.

 

 

It is very interesting to note that when we talk about cults, one often finds the lines blurring between people and brands. Cults can be seen as a big set comprising of two subsets; the first sub-set is of people as brands and the second is of brands as people, with their almost human-like sense of belonging and omnipresence. In today’s inter-connected world, there are countless touch-points for all sorts of narratives and stories to reach us; it is important that all of us understand where the boundaries of our involvement and sense of belonging lie. As every brand in the market aim to achieve high loyalty, we, as consumers need to re-evaluate what ‘being loyal’ means to us and become more conscious of their consumption behavior. It might be the right time to start upholding our disbelief rather than ‘willingly suspending’ it! What do you think, consumer?

 

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