27th January 2021
I’m a cult member… and so are you
Actually, at last count, I was a member of three cults: The Aesop Cult, the Dresden Cult and the Blackwing Cult (sounds evil doesn’t it?). Previously, I have been a member of the Fred Perry Cult and the Edwin Cult. I am a lapsed member of the Apple Cult and the Bianchi Cycling Cult. It all sounds a bit extreme but I bet you’re thinking about the brands you’re a devotee of… and why. It highlights the power of brands and what it takes to build a brand so strong and relevant that even cynical people like myself buy into them (literally) and want to be a part of them.
Why are these brands/cults so strong?
My thinking is that these brands are successful and have longevity because they know exactly who they are and what they stand for. Unashamedly. For the purposes of this piece I’ll focus on my current cult status as a fully fledged member of Aesop, Dresden and Blackwing. Each of these three organisations have a clear and authentic personality that has been fiercely protected and defended. It is this almost defiant attitude that makes them even more appealing. If they believe so strongly in what they do and how they do it, it must be a great product or service right? Yes, that’s important, but we all know we’re not just buying the ‘thing’ they’re selling. We want to tap into the experience and the attitude. For me, these three brands give me what I want in both product and purpose.
The Aesop fable
You wouldn’t think a middle-aged straight guy would be that interested in a skin care brand. Oooh, but I am. I’m addicted to their deodorants, scents and face creams. But above that, I’m addicted to the fact that the staff are forbidden to make inane small talk with customers about the weather etc. I love the fact that the Aesop name was specifically chosen to subtly mock the big cosmetics brands and their often outrageous claims. What else? Aesop’s typographical choices – they use black Helvetica and Optima Medium fonts on pharmaceutical-style brown bottles. The bottles themselves have become iconic. Here’s a brand that knows exactly who they are. They also know who they’re not for and that helps you stay fiercely focused.
The Dresden spectacle
You’d imagine the founder of an international prescription glasses brand to have a degree in optometry or some kind of industrial design background. Bruce Jeffreys has exactly zero qualifications in the field. He was a qualified unhappy glasses wearer who couldn’t understand why glasses were often so poorly designed and expensive. It didn’t help when he discovered that one company, Luxxotica Essilor, controls around 40% of the world glasses market and is worth €50 billion in Europe alone. They own brands including Ray Ban, Oakley, OPSM and Armani.
Jeffreys recruited some colleagues to aid in his plan to disrupt the market and shatter the idea that you should pay $500 for frames that cost $25 to make, unless you loved the brand that much. Which is fine. It wasn’t just the price. Jeffreys wanted to make the glasses buying and wearing experience more fun, colourful, playful and functional. The end result was the Dresden range, made from upcycled plastic or recyclable nylon. The frames are all exactly the same shape (which keeps the price down) but come in lots of bright colours. The arms are replaceable, so you can mix and match your frames and arms. And the best bit, they’re so cheap you can afford at least three pairs. So, unlike your $500 Ray Ban frames, it doesn’t really matter so much if you lose them. If you break them, it doesn’t matter either, because they come with a lifetime warranty.
I discovered Dresden on funky King Street, Newtown, in Sydney’s inner west. Newtown has a real community vibe and Dresden became part of the community, using recycled plastic from local businesses to make their magical glasses. Well, magical to those who buy into their brand story, like me. A clever, committed, fun-loving rebellious recycling brand that loves to stick it to the big boys. What’s not to like?
The Blackwing writes itself into pop culture
The third cult I’m so proud to be a member of – and that I’m constantly recruiting members to – is the Blackwing pencil cult. The legendary Blackwing pencil, the Blackwing 602 to be exact, was the preferred writing and drawing weapon of people like American author John Steinbeck, illustrator Chuck Jones (who created Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner etc) and super-producer Quincy Jones. The Blackwing is a beautiful thing and many people will not ply their craft with any other implement.
From 1934-1998, the Blackwing was manufactured by the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company which was then acquired by Faber-Castell in 1988. The Blackwing enjoyed more than 60 years of scrawling and scribbling success, literally writing itself into pop culture history. Around the mid-90s, sales dropped, probably due to the rise of computer technology. When the machine that makes the Blackwing’s unique eraser system broke, the decision was made to cease production. Love for the Blackwing never died and they were later selling on eBay for $40 each. Yep, $40 for a pencil. In 2008, California Cedar Products Company acquired the Blackwing name and began manufacturing the imitation Blackwing 602. Because they didn’t have the original graphite formula it’s only an imitation of the original. But it’s a very good imitation and I can only dream about how good the original must have been. As a salute to the legends who have gripped this little beauty, a portion of the profits go to the Blackwing Foundation, which was established to support music and art education in schools.
I have used more than 100 Blackwings over the past years and I love them so much I can’t bear to throw them out. The more I find out about the Blackwing story, the better it feels to write with, which of course is bullshit and all in the mind, but that’s the power of the brand and why they become cults.
My collection of Blackwing pencil stubs that I can’t bear to throw out.
Even a cynical old ad guy like me can overlook the marketing gobbledygook and buy into a great brand story like Aesop, Dresden and Blackwing. What my cults have in common is that the product does what it says ‘on the tin’. First and foremost, a successful brand has to be built on a truth. After that, when they build a personality and can tell their story well, they become almost mythical. That’s when we join the cult because we personally connect with their charisma and confidence. A personal connection can be made for a variety of reasons, whether it be the brand’s uncompromising quality, commitment to the planet, defiant attitude or respect for tradition. Then consider if you love the brand colours, typeface or logo – it all adds up to a magical brew.
With Aesop, Dresden and Blackwing, they know what they stand for as a brand and deliver. So, what cults do you belong to? Whether it be Apple, Scotch & Soda, BMW, Nike, Grange Penfolds or Bundaberg Ginger Beer, I reckon we all sneak off to a secret cult meeting occasionally purely because our favourite brand gives us a deep and spiritual buzz.
Cult Member, Jeff Smith