You’ve probably heard the expression “a cult of personality” before, but have you ever heard of “a cult of company?” Joe Durren of United Capital explained the difference to Michael Kitces and the answer is really useful in understanding how different types of organizations scale, market and grow.
A cult of personality is based on a sole leader’s persona. Think of the quintessential one-man business. This is the target of every “I’ve got a guy” referral. In a cult of personality, an individual is the draw and their personality is the differentiator.
A cult of company is based on the mission of the collective – not any one individual. Think of how Amazon’s desire to be the “most customer-centric company” keeps the website in focus, not Jeff Bezos. The front line engagements with customers can include any number of employees (or landing pages), all of which are guided by the same unifying mission. Instead of “I’ve got a guy,” people say, “you have to try this company.” A cult of company sees the brand as the draw, and delivering the mission as the differentiator.
Where the real difference shows up is when we study how each company scales, markets and grows. As Duran points out, a cult of personality can only scale to the limits of the leader’s capacity. Once enough people “know a guy,” he isn’t going to have much time left for new people. He will either have to start to build a cult of company, or optimize the use of his available time. Choosing not to scale is usually the right strategy here, because scaling without pivoting toward building a brand will only lead to burnout. Successful cult of personality businesses market their scarcity in order to grow their profits.
A cult of company scales by making sure the customers build their relationship with the brand and not any one individual. By having a clear mission that everyone from the leaders down to the lowest level employees understand, they and their best customers evangelize the abundance of their mission and services to grow. When Zappos says they are “delivering happiness,” they are building a very specific client service attitude that everyone is expected to uphold. When customers buy their shoes from them, they feel the benefit of that sentiment. For all of the cheesiness corporate mission statements usually offer, seeing a company actually deliver at the scale of Zappos is validation for how a cult of company should work.
Knowing the purpose behind the process for a cult of personality vs. a cult of company matters. In order to scale, market and grow, each take a different attitude towards telling their story to the world. They can both succeed, but they’ll do so on separate terms.