The Culting of Brands, Dylan and Modern Celebritydom

“Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” — Bob Dylan

In 2005 Douglas Atkin, a New York ad man , wrote a book titled The Culting of Brands. It was a marketing book showing the similarity between great business brands and cults. The notion is initially creepy as when we think cult we think of Jonestown and the downside of “drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Atkin creates a profile of the kinds of people who join cults, and then demonstrates how these characteristics are precisely what draw people to strong brands.

His profile of people who join cults goes like this:
1. Feel different from the world around them, alienated.
2. Open to or searching for a more compatible environment.
3. Looking to feel a sense of security and safety in a place where being different is perceived as a virtue.
4. Presents opportunity for self-actualization within the new, like-minded group.

Atkin’s premise is that some companies appeal to people with this profile, which thus creates extremely loyal customers. Harley-Davidson is one example. Apple/MacIntosh is another. NFL football teams like the Green Bay Packers have likewise become brands.

Over the years I have thought a lot about how modern celebritydom is a form of brand building. In our modern celebrity culture people themselves become brands.

The term “brand” originates with the branding of livestock, as in an identifying mark seared on cattle with a hot iron. The term has come to mean “a type of product manufactured by a particular company under a particular name.”

It’s a strange notion to think of celebs as products, but in a sense this is precisely what they’ve become. Chuck Norris comes to mind here. He’s a symbol. Yes, the guy is a real person but we only encounter the image that has been crafted, which may be altogether different from the man. Or it may not be, I wouldn’t know. What we see is the branded product, not the person.

I have never combined this idea (celebrities as brands) with the notion of cults before, so this blog entry is an off-the-cuff exploration of that idea.

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David Kinney’s The Dylanologists was the first book that I know of to make an in-depth study of the various kinds of Dylan fans. I’m not sure if there’s ever been a similar book written about any other modern celeb’s fans and followers. Much has been written about the paparazzi who mediate fandom to the wider public, but I know of no such book that analyzes Brad Pitt’s, Madonna’s or the Rolling Stones’ fans.

Let’s break it down based on Atkin’s proposition. Do Dylan fans share a sense of alienation from the world around them? It’s possible there’s something in this. I was experiencing a measure of existential angst as a youth when Dylan’s music first caught me like flypaper. That’s just anecdotal. That’s also just the nature of youth, isn’t it? Do MacIntosh fanatics share a sense of alienation? It’s a stretch, though I did know a few die-hard Mac users who saw Big Blue as the enemy and mainstream computer companies as the herd to be avoided. Carrying this to Dylan diehards like Glenn Hertzler, who has attended 100 Dylan concerts or more, most are probably self-aware enough to know they are different from the mainstream. Does this give them a sense of alienation? I doubt it, though alienation may have been an initial driver to his fandom.

As for Atkin’s second point… Does being around other Dylan fans make one feel they are in a more comfortable, compatible environment? Again, the cult comparison feels extreme because I don’t think the Dylan fans I know are incompatible with other interests and groups, but it’s true we enjoy being around people who share our interest in all things Dylan. This would seem to apply to people groups who share an interest in avant garde art, Latin American literature, traveling abroad, duck hunting or blogging on Medium.

Are we looking to feel a sense of security and safety in a place where being different is perceived as a virtue? I don’t know. I can see how cults wear a badge that says “being different” is a virtue. When I carry this notion over to Harley-Davidson owners, who spend gobs of money customizing their bikes and attire to make a statement about their identity, it’s possible this can have a cult-like flavor to outsiders.

Maybe it’s all part of humankind’s search for meaning. We like the feeling of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. But is this really why people become fans of brands, and in this instance celebrity brands? When I listen to the stories others tell, including David Kinney’s and my own, Dylan’s music resonated with us and initially it had nothing to do with a larger body of followers whom we discovered only later, though it’s true that later we did indeed become aware of our not being alone with our passions.

The last point regarding self-actualization, hmmm. Google says self-actualization is “the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone.” It is the peak of Maslov’s hierarchy of needs. Is this really the driving force in our untiring interest in Dylan’s music and other accomplishments? I have a hard time connecting all those dots.

According to about education, Maslov defined self-actualization this way: “What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization… It refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, namely, to the tendency for him to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

Is this what keeps us coming back to the well? I vaguely remember an article around forty or more years ago predicting that there would be a future religion around Bob Dylan. This is exactly the kind of thing Dylan found repugnant. Being head of any movement was not his thing. He was not aiming to be anyone’s spokesperson. Yet despite these disclaimers his career has been one of continuous crafting and re-configuring of the brand he’s become. And there’s something akin to religious fervor taking place with each new release of archived recordings and new discoveries regarding every facet of this man’s creative output. It’s actually somewhat amazing. And for the faithful, that Nobel Prize was only a certification of something we believed all along.

Originally published at
Top of page Saturday Evening Post, property of and photo by the author.
Mid-page Dylan photo submitted by Jose Enrique of Spain. Used with permission.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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