It's not often that a company of any kind is accused of inspiring cultlike devotion. But that's certainly the case with at least one tech giant: Apple is widely considered to have a cultlike following among its customers. How else can you explain the fact that the release of the white iPhone 4 was such important news? Especially when the white iPhone 4's distinguishing attribute is its being…white.
But Apple isn't the only tech company out there with a seemingly cultlike following. Android and BlackBerry (CrackBerry?) fanboys abound, ravaging the internet with their similarly irrational, mindless chants about their respective platforms' advantages.
But can any of these followings really be called "cultlike"? After all, there is a difference between "intense brand loyalty" and "cult membership"--right?
Let's take a look at the three loyalty-inspiring phone brands--Android, Apple, and BlackBerry--and see how they compare with real cults.
What is a Cult?
People often think that cults are all the same: manipulative, mind-controlling, and evil. But this isn't the case--there are many different kinds of cults, and not all are dangerous.
According to leading cult expert, former cult member, and founder of The Freedom of Mind Center, Steve Hassan, cults exist on a continuum ranging from benign to destructive. In fact, Hassan says many cults are not considered dangerous, because they don't use destructive tactics such as mind control, coercion, or deception. Rather, they're benign cults that inspire people's loyalty through the simple--and ethical--use of psychology.
Because no two cults are the same, it's hard to define exactly what makes a cult. Hassan identifies destructive cults as having four basic components (sometimes known as the BITE Model): Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control. According to Hassan, "destructive mind control" can be determined when all four of these components come together and promote dependency and obedience to a certain leader or cause.
Now, most of these components are not found in the "cults" we're talking about here. After all, Steve Jobs doesn't ask Apple users to cut their hair a certain way, and the cute green Android robot doesn't encourage you to spy on other Android users to make sure they're not using Apple products.
Douglas Atkin's book, The Culting of Brands , defines cultlike traits that many brands exhibit (or can exhibit in order to inspire loyalty in their users). Many of Atkin's cult characteristics can apply to nondestructive cults as well as destructive ones, including the emphasis and promotion of difference or exclusivity, emphasis on symbolism, shared experiences, and strict adherence to a doctrine or belief system.
Let’s take a look at some of the classic traits of cults and the behavior of the people leading them and participating in them, then compare them to the traits we see in tech movements and their devotees.
Cult Trait #1: A Charismatic Leader
When people think of cults, they often think of the leaders--the crazy, power-hungry people who prey on the innocent minds (and pockets) of their followers. People think of leaders like James Warren "Jim" Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple cult, who orchestrated a mass suicide (by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid) of 900 of his cult's members.
Many cults have a charming, charismatic leader who is able to inspire intense devotion and sometimes even worship from his or her followers. However, Atkin says that the most successful cults have "quickly distributed power and responsibility beyond the founder or one central figure." In other words, while cults are often led by a single person, they can also be led by the community.
Android doesn't have a charismatic leader. Google fathered Android, but Larry and Sergey aren’t exactly what you’d call charismatic and charming. Besides that, Android is an open-source platform that lives outside Google products and has many different variations. So Android is not like a cult from the “charismatic leader” perspective.
Apple does have a charismatic leader. Steve Jobs has a way of unveiling products, calling them "magical" and then selling them faster than Apple can produce them. And we know it's not just the products that are selling themselves--Jobs is so popular with Apple fanboys that his personal life--from medical issues to an announced biography--is news fodder. Apple definitely gets a point for being cultlike in this way.
BlackBerry doesn't have a charismatic leader, either, but it does have a passionate "community" that acts like a collective leader, if you will. After all, BlackBerry phones continue to dominate the enterprise market, especially among large businesses. According to market research firm TNS, BlackBerry has 81 percent of the market when it comes to businesses with more than 1000 employees. We'll assume that the businesses are supplying their staffers with BlackBerrys, and so the businesses themselves are, arguably, the "cult leaders" in this case.
Cult Trait #2: Symbolism
Symbolism is an important feature of cults. Obviously, not everything with a symbol or some form of symbolism is a cult (in fact, most things are not), but most cults have some sort of symbol--whether it's a logo, a way of dressing, or a lifestyle--to help their members distinguish themselves as a members. According to The Culting of Brands, "symbols literally make meaning possible; they allow a given worldview to come alive in any and in every community."
Android, Apple, and BlackBerry all have distinctive branding and logos that people are more than happy to exhibit on their person. In fact, certain behaviors--such as tattooing said logos on one's body--are so extreme that they can even be considered a form of behavior control.
Android has that adorable little Android robot. Even though it doesn't have a name, it's everywhere. It's on t-shirts (intact, deconstructed, or taking a chunk out of Apple), stickers, and even tattoos. You can also buy the little guy as a plushie--if you feel so inclined. That little robot brings Android to mind every time we see it.
Apple's logo is pretty iconic. Not only does Apple ship white Apple decals with all of its products, you can also find the logo on everything from lapel pins to license plate frames to people's skin and in their hair. And that logo means something: innovation, the coolness factor, good taste, forward thinking.
BlackBerry's logo isn't as prevalent as Android's robot or Apple's apple, but that doesn't mean BlackBerry fanboys aren't willing to waive their geek flag high. If you look hard enough you can find BlackBerry t-shirts and other BlackBerry logo gear, and at least one guy has a tattoo of a BlackBerry Storm on his shin (with the words 'iPhone Sucks' below). Generally speaking, though, BlackBerry users are more interested in buying accessories for their phones than in promoting their devotion in symbols, banners, flags.
Cult Trait #3: Promoting Difference, Not Diversity
Cults appeal to people not by beating them over the head with inane religious rants, but by focusing on--and exploiting--people's insecurities and feelings of being different. According to Atkin, cults don't only emphasize difference--they celebrate and promote it. They say to people, "You're different, we're different too."
That said, cults do not promote diversity. You may be different, but you're the same kind of different as is everyone else in the cult--and that kind of “different sameness” is encouraged and enculturated in the cult. This "shared experience" allows people to feel a sense of unity and community with other "different" members of society. And those other people over in that other tribe, well, they're just wrong.
Android doesn’t encourage its user base to be homogeneous. It promotes diversity--not “sameness,” as cults do. After all, its users are able to choose a variety of handsets that run the Android operating system on a variety of mobile providers. In fact, you can find a number of different versions of the OS itself out in the wild. The Android experience can only loosely be considered a "shared" one. Third-party developers can tweak just about every aspect of the Android interface, and individual users are able to customize their phones.
Apple's slogan is "Think Different." If that's not enough for you, let's not forget Apple's famous 1984 ad inspired by George Orwell's 1984, and Steve Jobs' corresponding introduction:
And yes, Apple is "different," not "diverse." That's why the AT&T iPhone 4 is exactly the same (in terms of UI) as the Verizon iPhone 4.
BlackBerry smartphones are, as we know, a staple of large enterprises. Large enterprises aren't exactly known for their "difference" or their "diversity." (At least, not in the sense we're talking about.) Because BlackBerrys dominate the enterprise world, their users are likely to be conforming to one standard already--that of the business for which they work. This makes conforming to the BlackBerry "cult" even easier--after all, they "have to do it" for their job. Sure, in this case BlackBerry is piggybacking on the enterprises' established devotion, but they're still giving users a shared experience and a sense of unity.
Cult Trait #4: Indoctrination
Cults are usually based on a doctrine, a belief system, or a "truth" that is to be internalized by their members. Usually these systems are explicit, but they don't have to be.
While Google, Apple, and RIM may not have concrete lists of truths that they expect their users to subscribe to, there's no denying that Android, Apple, and BlackBerry users see themselves as part of very specific culture, perhaps even a religion.
Android users may not subscribe to the same beliefs as do Apple users, but they can be just as fanatic about them. Android users generally believe they are tech-savvy, smart, and practical. After all, they didn't fall prey to Apple's smoke-and-mirrors marketing techniques. Android users often cite the openness of the Android platform, and its hackability, as reasons for their devotion, implying they subscribe to Google's well-known philosophy of openness.
Apple users believe they are creative, artistic, and aesthetically discerning. In The Cult of Mac , Leander Kahney says that Apple users believe they are "creative technophiles," "independent thinkers," and "free spirits." In a recent unscientific survey by the Hunch Website, self-proclaimed Mac users tended to be more liberal, urban, and educated than self-proclaimed PC users. They also tended to be vegetarian.
BlackBerry users believe they are responsible, hard-working, and powerful. They are less into technology than other phone users--which means they (think they) are less geeky and more worldly. They're financially stable, and perhaps a little boring. The old joke goes, "I want to date an iPhone user, but marry a BlackBerry user."
Cult Trait #5: Deception and Information Control
Information control is one of Hassan's four components that make up destructive cults. According to Hassan, information control includes deliberately holding back information, distorting information to make it acceptable, and outright lying. It can also include "outsider" vs. "insider" doctrines, spying on other members, and extensive use of propaganda.
Android is an extremely open platform. Not only is the software open source, but the Android Market has few restrictions on apps, especially compared with Apple's App Store. In fact, Android is so open that it recently made headlines thanks to an Android Market malware invasion.
Apple has recently been in the news thanks to its iPhone tracking debacle. While this was not necessarily new information or even unique to Apple iPhones, Apple's long silence on the matter troubled many people. But there are more forthright examples of Apple's desire for information control: Apple's rigid App Store policy, its stance against jailbreaking, its battle against pornography, and its anti-Flash sentiments.
BlackBerry is the only platform that hasn't been in the news recently for being either too open or too secretive. Sure, BlackBerry has occasionally been the target of lawsuits regarding privacy (and potential boss-spying), but that's about it. Apparently, RIM is even able to make a BlackBerry secure enough for the leader of the free world.
Tallying It Up
The final score for cultlike behavior is: Android, 2; Apple, 5; and BlackBerry, 3. Now, these are only some traits exhibited by cults--and not all of them are traits exhibited by destructive cults.
That said, I think it's pretty fair to say that Apple definitely has a cultlike following to go along with its cultlike demeanor, and that Android and BlackBerry are not quite there…yet.