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CULT BRAND: Chris Kneeland CEO of Cult Collective

Whose fault is it Marketing or HR?

Chris Kneeland Cult Brand creator and co-founder of The Gathering of Cult Brands joins the show to debate.

Marketing has all of the budget and HR touches millions of people every year. Who owns THE BRAND, moreover THE EXPERIENCE? And why don't big brand leaders recognize the existence of EMPLOYER BRAND?

This podcast made possible through the support of Smashfly. Let Smashfly help tell your story and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM.


Joel: This Chad and Cheese Cult Brand Podcast is supported by SmashFly. Recruiting technology built for the talent life cycle and big believers in building relationships with brands, not jobs. Let SmashFly help tell your story and keep relationships at the heart of your CRM. For more information, visit today.

Intro: Hide your kids, lock the doors. You're listening to HR's most dangerous podcast. Chad Sowash and Joel Cheesman are here to punch the recruiting industry right where it hurts, complete with breaking news, brash opinion and loads of snark. Buckle up boys and girls, it's time for the Chad and Cheese Podcast.

Chad: Boom. we're Joel Cheesman free today kids. Welcome to the Chad and Cheese, less Cheese podcast. Joel has taken a short sabbatical and we have today on the show Chris Kneeland and I'm not sure, are you coming on as a guest or you're going to start the co-hosting? What are we doing today Chris?

Chris: This is my audition tape and I'd like all the listeners to write in, to sort of out see the Cheeseman.

Chad: Okay. So, a quick overview, if you haven't listened to the Cult Brand Podcasts, I don't know why. What the hell? We have a whole series of them. Go to, click on cult brand, a lot of good shit there. But we are talking to Chris Kneeland, CEO co-founder. What's your actual title? You have so many... They have Cult Brand, The Gathering, Communo. What don't you do?

Chris: Yeah, that would be a shorter list. Now, it feels like we got our fingers in a lot of pies here. I like to use the word Czar, but not many people know how to spell it correctly. In this deck we're, CEO or co-founder most of the time, but I run a marketing services firm that provides advisory services for brands that are seeking to have hyper levels of audience engagement and those audiences are most often customers and staff. We host this event called the Gathering, which is really just a showcase of the world's most adored brands. And then my business partner fortunately, is here to help and carries a lot of the load and we have another company called Communo, which is a talent management platform really for the gig economy allowing people to have what we call radically agile workforces by having real time access to the talent they need in the creative digital marketing space.

Chad: Yeah. We call that a marketplace Chris, in the employment side. Yeah.

Chris: Thank you. Noted.

Chad: So last year, we met at the base of the Canadian Rockies. This sounds like a love story. In Banff during the gathering of cult brands and became fast friends, but I guess... What are you doing here on the Chad and Cheese Podcast? That's the big question.

Chris: Well, I think that we have a common enemy, which is the inappropriate or lackluster approach with which most brands are treating talent management, what we affectionately call talent mismanagement. And I think we just discovered that the journey that you had been on, I think by trying to whatever you say, hit the HR industry in the mouth or kick them in the balls or something.

Chad: Wherever it hurts.

Chris: So, you've been going at it from the HR angle and we've always been going at it from the marketing side and the redeployment of media dollars and creative dollars and using a lot of that talent and those resources inward and we call it cult brands inspired from within. And so I think we just realized, wow, we're cut from the same cloth, but we have different influence over different audiences. If we could put our powers together, that would be chocolate and peanut butter and that's pretty delicious.

Chad: Always. So, what exactly is a cult brand? Because we know there are big brands that are out there and you know and you hate that I do this, but I hate Amazon. Amazon is a huge organization and they're making money off of the people's backs and those people are having shitty experiences, which we actually hear in the press all the time. So, even though it's a big company, it's got a big brand, it's making a shit ton of cash. That to me is not a cult brand. So, what really signifies a cult brand?

Chris: Yeah. Cult brands are special because they're not measured by some of the other common KPIs that would indicate fastest growing, most successful, most profitable, even in some cases best places to work, although that is the category that we find the highest correlation. Cult brands are defined by two primary attributes, what we call brand attachment and advocacy. Brand attachment deals with the emotional connection that customers and staff have towards the brand. So, it's less about popularity or even like net promoter score or willingness to refer. It's that I'm bought into that brand beyond just the transactional value, beyond the delivery of their goods and services. I'm rooting for them, I'm hoping for their success, I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt. I don't just like them, I love them. They actually are a badge. They make me feel better about myself. So, you think of a Lululemon or Harley-Davidson or Rolex or GoPro. These types of brands that people just are kind of freakish about.

Chris: That's one of the reasons why we affectionately call them cults, because it seems like these people are more than just customers or like customers on steroids. And then the other thing is that they are brands that benefit above normal from their peers from an advocacy perspective. People talk about them. So on the customer side, that obviously manifests in what we a call non-commission sales force, but on the employment side, it manifests itself in likelihood to... They spend less on headhunters, they receive an irresponsible number of unsolicited job applications. I remember at one point Zappos was getting 20,000 applicants for 200 call center positions and they were more like audition tapes for American Idol. Many people were doing magic tricks, making up songs and doing field trips. They were auditioning for the opportunity to get a job at Zappos much like I'm auditioning to take out Joel on this show.

Chad: Well, I think you just made a point for me because we've been having this discussion around how marketing is really dropping the ball when it comes the employment side, because there are so many companies. I would say the bulk of companies out there, 95% plus of the companies don't realize that candidates who also could perspectively be buying their shit and be employees are having a really bad experience applying or going through the application process. Number one, going into a black hole possibly or something of that case and really beating down the overall brand, which is why HR and talent acquisition, they've had a fracture of their own brand create their employment brand around their experience to try to tell a story that the overall marketing brand isn't telling. So number one, there are a shit ton of leads in people that they should be making happy in marketing that are coming through this gateway, the career's gateway. Number two, they're dropping the ball by not partnering with HR and actually realizing the huge opportunity that's there. What the fuck's going on?

Chris: Well, I disagree with you. It's not 95% are dropping the ball, we've done the research. It's actually 93% are dropping the ball. If we're going to talk facts, let's use facts.

Chad: I appreciate you doing that for me.

Chris: It's three buckets actually. I know that we've talked in the past and that you're passionate about the pre-employment group and I agree with you that probably is the lowest hanging fruit, particularly in categories like retail or restaurants. We have a restaurant client that has 100% turnover with tens of thousands of frontline staff and their servers and then their waitstaff and then their back kitchen.

Chad: We could have a whole podcast discussion around that piece.

Chris: So when you think, if they're receiving and hiring tens of thousands of applicants a year, you almost have your store traffic numbers made up just by marketing to the people. Either they got the job or didn't get the job. Then there's obviously employees. I think marketers should be spending more time with employees because the data is very clear of the correlation, that a hyper engaged employee creates a hyper engaged customer. And that doesn't have to be necessarily even a frontline employee. It can be somebody that's in the product development team or the R&D team in the back office, but they're just so committed about what they're doing. They're bringing their best self to work every day and they're looking for excuses to have customer interactions in their personal lives. They're proud of where they work and what they're working on, but then also don't forget the alumni. There's a tremendous opportunity for marketers to go back to employees that are no longer with the company.

Chris: It's kind of like... I don't know. It's like I haven't been divorced knock on wood, but how do you maintain an effective relationship with your ex-wife so that it doesn't have to become toxic or bitter. In the same way when employees choose to leave or ask to leave a company, there's a tremendous opportunity for marketers to make sure that that relationship stays positive enough that they continue to, at a minimum don't start tarnishing the brand, but at a maximum they should remain advocates because they gave a good part of their life and their talent to that brand.

Chad: Yeah. You've been talking about the marketing aspect of this. So, why... And let's just turn toward The Gathering. It's coming up here in about three weeks in gorgeous, Banff Alberta, Canada. Why should talent acquisition and employment brand types of individuals? Why should they visit? Why should they make the pilgrimage? Why should they come?

Chris: Well, it's one of the things that we... It's been a pleasant surprise for us. The Gathering was created to both celebrate and learn from the most cult brands on the planet. And we didn't script it. We didn't tell what to say when they showed up. We just help them to share their experiences and brands like Red Bull or the Dallas Cowboys or Porsche or Marvel or Nintendo come and start talking and at least a third, probably more like 40% of the speeches from these either brand... We call them brand leaders. Sometimes just the CMO, sometimes just the CEO, talked a lot about their culture, talked a lot about their internal engagement, talked a lot about their hiring practices.

Chris: So much so that we're a little dense but we're not idiots. And at some point we start just connecting the dots to realize that one of the key differentiators between a great brand and a good brand is how much time the C-suite is spending on people issues, and beyond what would be traditional HR issues. I'm not talking about wages and benefits and pension plans and all that kind of stuff. We're talking about engagement strategies. They get people excited. And so it was an aha moment for us and so then we started opening up the invite list to more than just marketers or what would be... But I don't think many HR professionals would consider themselves a brand leader, would you?

Chad: I do. That's the problem that we're seeing now. I don't think it's a problem, but I think they should be embracing those things. They should be brand leaders, they should be embracing the brand. And one of the things that I heard from Tom Herbst last year onstage from North Face was be more fucking human. That is the basis in the central conversation that we're having around brand, being around first it has to center on employees because that has to come from the inside out. And if they are not taking that stance and they don't feel like they are brand leaders, I think we have a problem, don't you?

Chris: Well, I do think we have a problem, but I don't... If I was going to cold-call into a business and say, "Can I speak with your brand leader?" I don't think anybody's putting me into the HR department. So, I think that our brand leaders, I think they should step up and become more brand leaders, but I don't think that they use that language. Some of this is just semantics. I don't think the marketing team and the HR teams even use the same language about what they do and why they do it. And so I think there's certainly resources from the marketing side of the fence that should be deployed into the HR group. I think it's the HR group that needs to grab it and say, "We can do much more than risk mitigation." But the HR departments I know, operate more like the legal department. They're about compliance and enforcement as opposed to engagement and really rallying the troops.

Chad: Yeah. Well, most of the ones that we deal with are about technology, they are about experience and they are about messaging brand. This is why we're having that discussion. This is why we've come together because we're looking for that bridge. Right? And I feel like last year when we came to The Gathering in February, that Joel and I were able to walk across the bridge and have discussions with brand leaders, with CMOs, with the Douglas Adkins of the world. Right? The guys who have built holistic brands and understand them from the inside out community, from the inside out. That's one of the reasons why we really have been putting a huge push on our listeners and all of those individuals in marketing and brand on the HR side of the house to come to The Gathering or at least engage somehow. So, if they can't come to The Gathering, how else can they engage?

Chris: Oh, lots of ways. We continue... We meaning, wearing my cult hat published content daily about what we sometimes call the anatomy of a cult brand. How we've sort of looked at the cult brand genome, we've got all sorts of scientific on it, trying to help people understand these built-in characteristics of cult brands. We've written a book, we're actually going to be launching the newest edition, we wrote it initially five years ago. So, some of the case studies have gotten stale and some of the research needs to be updated. And the reality is, it has only gotten more compelling.

Chris: As the world gets increasingly commoditized, they must be honest. There's really very few things that any brands are providing that you can't get somewhere else. I'd still put maybe Tesla on a pedestal of selling something that's somewhat unique for their category. Apple's advantage has been surpassed, Nike's advantage, certainly GoPro, Starbucks. There's lots of places now that are selling the same things of some of our most beloved brands, but what's keeping them in that front and center in the hearts minds and on the lips of their cult followers, is their culture, is their ethos, is the lore and legend around the things that they do to remain special.

Chad: Well, and again going back to Tom Herbst at North Face, be more fucking human. That's the key behind it. Not focusing on the board room.

Chris: Tom is no longer the CMO of North Face. You know why? Because they moved to Boulder, Colorado. So North Face was a VF brand which was in San Francisco for a decade. And one of the things that they've decided to do to more fully live their brand is to go to where their brand enthusiasts are, which is in the footsteps of the Rocky Mountains. And so they moved the entire headquarters at tremendous expense. I think they lost, I don't know the number. I believe it may be up to half of the personnel didn't make the move. Tom being one of them, given his ties to San Fran, but think about the boldness of that decision. Part of it is an employee based decision that orders has a lower cost of living. So if you want to attract great talent, asking them to live in the Bay Area can be a hard sell, but part of it also, is if we want our people in the mountains on the weekend, because if you really want to work for North Face, you better love mountain climbing.

Chad: And those types of stories also like Airbnb, where they fly everybody into California for a week, for Airbnb one I think they call it. That's a lot of money that they're spending so that everybody's having the same experience. Those types of stories are pretty amazing. Another one, I almost asked you if this starts to qualify this brand, but Delta Airlines the sixth year in a row that they've pushed money back to their employees instead of their stock holders, $1.6 billion they pushed back to their employees. That to me is a strong signal that they understand what actually runs this organization. And that 1.6 billion was about two months pay. So, does that send a strong signal saying, hey, we should be having conversations with these guys? What do you guys look for?

Chris: Yeah. It's a really great question because it's fairly recent for us. We actually work with IBM Watson now to help us call through, you're responsible now to data to try to find the symptoms of cult brands that we can engage them in our evaluation to see who should be on the stage every year. And we've just historically not looked at that element of a business as a way of inciting buy-in. That's literal buy-in, that's equity ownership. And a couple of years ago, Chobani Yogurt got to the top of our list, because of all the media attention and some of the social listening things around them gifting a bunch of options to their factory workers.

Chris: And so it did make us start to look at it more... There's a Canadian airline called WestJet, which is sort of a Southwest airlines, but with a much more emotional attachment in a different more humane feeling to their cult brand status. And that was always one of their founding principles, is that owners care more. So all of our employees are owners as well. And then more recently we interviewed Bruce Linton. Have you had Bruce Linton on your show from Canopy?

Chad: No, not yet. Although, hopefully we will when we come to Banff or you guys will get him scheduled for us.

Chris: He became the CEO of the largest cannabis company in Canada, which makes it the largest cannabis company in the world, given Canada's progressive thinking and legislation around cannabis. But Bruce had a pretty strong opinion about equity and allowing all employees into either a profit share or a stock option pool and it created a lot of tension in the C-suite, particularly as they got bigger and bigger and went public and all those types of things. But he certainly was a big believer that if you want your employees to buy-in, then they should be buying-in the way that you expect your executives to buy-in, which is, have some skin in the game from an equity standpoint. So, we're kind of looking at it Chad, I don't think that we have a definitive answer, but it's certainly anecdotally seems to make a lot of sense that that's just the next level of enlightenment and a way of getting people to care more than most.

Chad: And you don't have to be a big name like Porsche or Marvel or Airbnb. We met with James Boettcher from Fiasco Gelato who probably blew us out of our socks more than anybody else we talked to. So, you don't have to be a huge brand, right?

Chris: Unfortunately, James remains an exception versus the rule. I wish he was the mold upon which all CEOs were cut, because I really think at the end of the day, I heard the same thing from Tony Shay at Zappos. It wasn't like Tony Shay was a freak about shoes and so he created a shoe company. I think Tony Shay was a freak about opportunity and building a company that he wanted to work at and it happened to be opportunistic to get into the shoe business. Same thing with James, I don't think James is a gelato master, he's become one. Goes to Italy and learns all the tricks of the trade.

Chris: I think what James really wanted to do, was to build the company of his dreams. And so his policies from day one and the way that he organized his staff, onboarded talent, treated his employees and they became a B Corp. So it had some social good and environmental goodness into it as well. I think people listen to James like, "Oh, I wish I cared about my job that much, or I wish I loved going to work that much." So, he just did it the right way for the right reasons.

Chad: He's a pretty cool cult. And again, if you haven't listened to these cult brand podcasts, go to, right below our ugly cartoon faces, it says cult brand, you can click on it and there is a bunch of knowledge that is dropped in those podcasts. So, on the way out, I just got to say, is this the second year in a row that The Gathering has been listed on Forbes top rated must attend business summits?

Chris: Yeah, we are quite honored about that. In fact, it just got the year two announced earlier this week and that's a real feather in our cult because when we built The Gathering, really the creative brief was most conferences suck and we did... Particularly, the more senior we get, the kind of, "I want to get to 35 or 40," and you no longer think it's fun to be out partying all night and using conferences as boondoggles. Most leaders opt out of conferences and so we said we have to create something that is different, which is why we didn't even call it a conference. We just called it a gathering. And you're somewhat sequestered in this 200 year old castle in the Canadian Rockies.

Chris: So, you're not going there because you want to hit a Vegas show afterwards, you want to go to Broadway or you want to go to a great restaurant. You're going there because you're desperate to find new ways of shifting your paradigms and new ways of shifting your practices so that you can reap some of the benefits. Not everybody's going to be a cult brand. The Gathering is not for aspiring cult brands, The Gathering is for people that want to improve their business performance to having more engaged customers and staff. And we simply use cult brands as our model or our muse of what good looks like to see what we can learn from that.

Chad: And if you didn't hear that, he did say a castle, this happens in a castle at the base of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Hopefully, snowy like it was last year. It is one of the most beautiful scenic events. Not to mention the actual experience that you have. And one of the reasons why I think you guys did this, the brilliance of taking it to Banff, is that pretty much everybody stays. So, usually we go to these events and then we have these very big speakers, they come in on stage, they do their thing, they do a book signing or whatever it is and boom, they're gone. Right? When we were there, we didn't see people leaving. They stayed. As a matter of fact, they made a weekend out of it because you're in Banff. So, I think what you did here was genius. One of the reasons why again, Forbes said it was a top rated must attend business summit.

Chad: It's happening February 19th through the 21st, you can go to, that's I already know that we a small contingent that might be larger than what I think that are already going to be there. Joel, myself, we're going to be on stage with some heavy hitters, but there are some others who are also attending. If you're not attending, you're in employer brand marketing, recruitment marketing. It's a must be show. So, get there. Anything... This is your audition Chris. So, what would you like to say on the way out?

Chris: Well, first of all, thank you for the strong endorsement. One of the highlights of my career is having the chance to curate the 52 pieces of content. I think this year is our best lineup ever. We got 51 of the most amazing speakers you can think of. And then somehow Chad and Joel made the 52nd spot there at the end. So, nobody's perfect, but we're about 99% and it will be an opportunity, I think regardless of industry and we're doing more and more in the B2B space, every year we're trying to get into businesses of all different sizes, startups, hyper growth companies, fortune 500 brands, because we think that there's inspiration to be gleaned from people that are facing a variety of different problems. And then just for your listeners, what I'm really grateful for is we need to get smarter. We meaning, the Cult team and The Gathering to understanding, are the barriers to some of this that we're not aware of? Are there challenges that the HR professionals are facing that are unique that we wouldn't be exposed to coming at this problem from the marketing side?

Chris: So, I'm really hoping this becomes a continuous two-way dialogue, where our intention is to give HR professionals more prestige, more power, more team members, more money, more creative power, more agencies support, all the things that I would imagine they would want. That's what we're advocating and we're using the best brands in the world as proof points that that's how they're doing.

Chad: And the only way you're going to get there, being in talent acquisition and HR, is to be able to engage at this level. Chris I really appreciate you taking your time today man. Great audition, we're going to have to see what the listeners say, but at the end of this we always say we out we.

Chris: We out.

Outro: This has been the Chad and Cheese Podcast. Subscribe on iTunes, Google play, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss a single show. And be sure to check out our sponsors because they make it all possible. For more, visit Oh, yeah. You're welcome.

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