Cult branding: Developing a scarcity strategy

In a world dominated it seems by the push for scale and mass coverage, it’s easy to forget that sometimes the smartest thing you can do is the polar opposite: develop a deliberately limited edition brand that shuns the mainstream. I’ve written about this a number of times – here’s an example – and coined the phrase cultrepreneurs to describe those enterprising individuals who have chosen to create and market brands with cult status.

As this story about Julian Van Winkle and his Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery shows, there is nothing accidental about why his aged bourbon attracts a fervent following. I really liked the owner’s description of ‘a strategy of scarcity’.

Here are just some of the ways Van Winkle builds cult status:

  • The company deliberately stymies supply in order to raise cachet and lift returns. It’s one of the great ironies of cults that, beyond what you need to be viable, sometimes the less you produce, the more you make. As Van Winkle says he could unload two or three times what he makes. But keeping his inventory low minimises the chances of being stuck with spare stock and also means he can continue to raise prices.
  • The brand is not visible. You have to be in the know, and prepared to wait, in order to procure the product. So – scarcity of presence only adds to the mystique, and lack of readiness lifts the anticipation levels. Entirely the opposite dynamics of mainstream, scaled brands.
  • The brand gets covered by others. The article is a prime example of that. But Van Winkle also makes great use of word of mouth, through dinners and trade shows, to get connoisseurs talking and so raise authenticity, desirability and credibility.
  • The brand has deeply embedded values – in Van Winkle’s case, an unstinting focus on quality. And there’s a figurehead who embodies those values – Julian’s grandfather, Pappy Van Winkle – and who is known by consumers of the brand.
  • There’s a secret recipe – this one substitutes wheat for rye. Another component of making the brand exceptional.
  • Awards prove the value of the brand and its claims to quality – and once again, they do this objectively, rather than the brand itself having to make public claims.
  • Distribution is limited, and upmarket. A very big part of the joy of a cult brand lies in its discovery. Finding out about what most people don’t know about is a reward in itself. It also, ironically, invites the very kind of ‘sharing’ that galvinises the brand.

Perhaps the most powerful thing about the decision to build the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery into a cult brand is that scarcity absolutely fits with the specialness of the product. Everything about the brand is genuine. There is no ostentation. Van Winkle aged bourbons are rare because of what they are, not because they have chosen to self-consciously position themselves that way. There are any number of ‘upmarket’ brands that look to borrow from cult brand ideas – but many come with an inherent sense of self importance, which they call prestige, that compromises their desirability. As the CNN article points out, so much of the bourbon base product evaporates before it is mature. So scarcity is a precept built into the very nature of making aged bourbon. What Van Winkle has done is to accentuate that quality and celebrate it, rather than trying to compensate for it. That would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, if the product or its manufacturing was inherently more mainstream.

The temptation to be overt is all around us. Social media in particular has raised visibility to god-like status. But in the world of cult brands, even difficulty in finding the product is not necessarily an obstacle – in fact it can be very engaging, very sticky. By making what was already a rare product into something even harder to procure, Van Winkle has astutely and discreetly lifted desirability.


Stay Competitive

Stay up to date with the latest thinking in brand strategy. A great way to benchmark your brand. Plus exclusive content to give you a powerful, competitive edge.

I absolutely respect your privacy. Your details are safe.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *