When Brand Communities Become Cults
Image Credit: Instant Pot introductory video, minute 2:50
It’s become practically common sense within many marketing circles that companies that develop tightly knit communities around their brands always do better than competitors that don’t. When passionate consumers not only swear by a product or brand but also engage with each other in communities organized around the lifestyle, activities, and attitude of the brand, the brand will do better—or so the thinking goes. As Susan Fournier and Lara Lee summed up the benefits in HBR, “a strong brand community increases customer loyalty, lowers marketing costs, authenticates brand meanings, and yields an influx of ideas to grow the business.”
Building effective brand communities, however, requires significant effort from both your marketing and business teams and bold moves like creating your own platform—at least, that’s what all the great past examples have shown us, and it’s just an accepted fact. Except that Canadian appliance maker Instant Pot is quietly upending that whole philosophy as we speak.
Instant Pot—a brand that many people have never even heard of—has produced a line of electric multi-cookers that have become some of the top-ranked kitchen appliances on the market. The Instant Pot-Duo 7-in-1 model—which features pressure-cooker, slow-cooker, rice-cooker, steamer, sauté-pan, yogurt-maker, and keep-warm functions—has an impressive average rating of 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with 84% of the more than 14,000 people who’ve reviewed it giving it five stars. So it’s no surprise that it was also the best-selling product overall on Amazon’s Prime Day back in July, with over 215,000 units sold, beating out sales of all brands of headphones combined.
Perhaps even more impressively, though, Instant Pot CEO Robert Wang admitted in an interview recently, “we haven’t had to do any marketing. Retailers come to us. We expect in the next year to more than double or triple sales.”
That’s mostly because of how quickly Instant Pot’s reputation has spread by word-of-mouth. In May 2015, Instant Pot created a support group for its customers and potential customers on Facebook, the Instant Pot Community, which has ballooned to 290,000 members (with 65,000 of those joining in just the past two weeks). The group is a pretty minimal effort on Instant Pot’s part—there are a few admins (who appear to be Instant Pot employees using their personal Facebook profiles, including Wang) that have set the rules and respond to some of the posts—but mostly it’s just a daily love-fest among passionate Instant Pot users. They eagerly answer each other’s questions, post their cooking successes, share recipes, and gush about how much easier their Instant Pots have made their lives.
The group has even inspired splinter groups that have more specific focuses, the most popular being the Instant Pot for Indian Cooking group, which now boasts more than 60,000 members and was started by three Indian-American women in November 2015 completely independently from Instant Pot employees.
To get some insight into how Instant Pot has been so successful in fostering the growth of this community and its various offshoots, I spoke with Purnima Thakre, COO of refine+focus, an experienced digital strategist and design thinker, an amateur chef and food blogger, and an Instant Pot owner and a member of both the main Facebook group and the Indian Cooking subgroup herself. Thakre’s own experience with the brand illustrates its organic success to date.
Thakre says she initially joined Instant Pot for Indian Cooking before joining the main group because, as a member of other groups devoted to Indian cuisine already, the group popped up in her Facebook suggestions. She says she merely joined out of curiosity and was adamant that she didn’t need and wasn’t going to buy an Instant Pot—but soon she succumbed to the excitement surrounding the brand.
“I just got so hooked on it only from the discussions. It’s like a cult,” Thakre said. “People in the group talk about their Instant Pots as if it’s their lover, and how it has changed their life.”
When the 7-in-1 model went on sale on Amazon for nearly 50% off on Cyber Monday, she snagged one (“my first” she calls it, noting how many users inevitably end up buying multiple models). Within two weeks of buying her Instant Pot, Thakre was already raving about it to a friend and fellow foodie who lives in her building. Soon, that friend decided to buy her own—“it’s almost like I sold it to her,” Thakre admits.
Thakre’s story is a common one among the community, which explains why Wang hasn’t had to do any marketing and shows just how valuable these groups have been to Instant Pot’s growth.
So where does this cult-like feel come from, and how can the excitement surrounding a kitchen appliance be so intoxicating? As opposed to many brands known for their cult followings like CrossFit and SoulCycle, Instant Pot’s following is more of an organic community. “CrossFit and Soul Cycle are intentional communities, that’s how the business model was supposed to be: you don’t promote a brand, you promote a movement,” Thakre explains. But she was hard-pressed to name a single intentional marketing or business action that Instant Pot took that would explain the size and dedication of its following: “I don’t really have an answer. Maybe it just happened.”
Image Credit: screenshot from the Instant Pot Community Facebook group
Instant Pot, it seems, didn’t do much more than create an appliance—one that’s unique and serves a lot of the needs of working families. It allows all those aspiring chefs out there to easily make fresh meals for their families daily and try all those bold new recipes that they were to afraid to make before, and then they can share their progress and success online and feel fulfilled.
But Instant Pot also reaped a variety of benefits from circumstantial advantages beyond their control and that they likely didn’t foresee. With so many buttons and settings, and being a pressure cooker carrying the ever-present specter of explosion, the Instant Pot can be intimidating. So when users are able to get past that fear and succeed, they experience a “multiplied sense of achievement,” as Thakre puts it, and they’re driven to share that success and then want to help “newbie” owners by answering their questions and offering encouragement.
Instant Pot also benefitted from the already established networks of Indian foodies in growing the Instant Pot for Indian Cooking group. According to Thakre, the Indian ex-pat community in the U.S. is already relatively tightly connected online. Many Indian women are well-educated, but when they immigrate with their husbands they often can’t get work permits. As stay-at-home wives, many of them seek fulfillment through cooking, as well as friends, daily interactions, and a sense of community, which they often find online in groups like Euphoric Delights, a five-year old Facebook group of about 90,000 members dedicated mostly to food and cooking with a membership comprised almost entirely of Indian-Americans. And with pressure cookers being critical tools in Indian cooking, the Instant Pot quickly became popular within this community and the word-of-mouth effect was even more pronounced. So Instant Pot was able to draw a new base of passionate clients and tap into a niche community to augment its mass market appeal.
Instant Pot executives have defied the traditional thinking that developing strong brand communities requires significant effort and investment and have proven that you can inspire hundreds of thousands of passionate followers by just creating a great product and making a Facebook group. Instant Pot didn’t even need to do a great job of marketing itself, because what started as just a line of kitchen appliances turned into a movement that converted hundreds of thousands of customers and their friends and families into enthusiastic brand ambassadors.
Of course, other brands may still find success by moving beyond Facebook and creating their own platforms for fans to interact with each other. But it’s worth it for marketers to look at how Instant Pot users gathered together on Facebook and even organized themselves in the case of the Indian Cooking group to show their passion and share their experiences—it may give us a glimpse of what we can expect from 2017.