Picture this: It’s a blustery Thursday afternoon, and you’re listening to a man explain the pros and cons of working in the same office as his wife. Is it therapy? Maybe a comedy show? No, it’s a meeting — and an unusual one at that. The man onstage is Eric Petersen, vice president of community at Lululemon, and he’s sharing the story of how he helped the yoga-and-sportswear company build its brand by cultivating loyalty among its core customer base. Hire your friends, he tells the audience, and create a community centered around passion.
Lululemon was just one of the iconic brands represented at The Gathering, which took place at the Fairmont Banff Springs in Alberta, Canada, on Feb. 3–5. The annual cult-brand conference, which is produced by Calgary-based marketing-engagement agency Cult Collective Ltd., has been held in Banff since its founding in 2013. Convene participated this year courtesy of Travel Alberta, and, along with about 900 other attendees, got an inside view of the marketing strategies of not just Lululemon but other prominent brands such as Airbnb, Carhartt, Molson Canadian, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Zappos. These “cult” brands eschew traditional print and TV ads in favor of more grassroots tactics.
Scott Cooper, Molson Canadian’s chief commercial officer, built his talk around his company’s brand strategy: celebrating Canada and all things Canadian. He used the example of Molson’s 2013 initiative to build its beer into a cult brand for hockey. Cooper shared the ups and downs of an extensive social-media campaign built around the hashtag #anythingforhockey as well as strategies to target the most passionate consumers of a brand. “Even big brands have to be cult brands to succeed,” he told the audience. “Target the most passionate consumers of your brand.”
THE HILLS ARE ALIVE
Since its inception, The Gathering has made being different a first principle. “The Gathering was the brainchild of a handful of marketing professionals who were sitting around bemoaning the pitiful state of affairs the advertising industry was dealing with,” Ryan Gill, co-founder and president of Cult Collective, and chairman of The Gathering, said in an interview with Convene after this year’s conference. “We were upset that the craft and profession we hold so dear was being diluted by only focusing on which agency or company did the funniest Super Bowl commercial, or who was buying the most media, or who had a particularly successful short-term promotion or campaign. We believe ‘real’ marketing means creating irrational loyalty amongst your customer base, and involves creating advocates, not ads.”
The Gathering’s enviable home base — the cloistered mountain hamlet of Banff — creates an inspiring backdrop for its two days of innovative programming. “Just as SXSW helped put Austin, Texas, on the map, or the Sundance Film Festival helped make Park City famous, The Gathering has a special relationship with Banff,” Gill said. “It’s a venue with unrivaled beauty and provides a very unique level of intimacy. While there, attendees experience a very special vibe and level of openness and friendliness.”
When I talked to Jonathan Mildenhall, Airbnb’s chief marketing officer, after his rousing talk, he enthused about the mountain air and uplifting views from the Fairmont — and admitted that the lure of the Canadian Rockies was part of why he agreed to speak at the conference. “The views are inspiring and spiritual,” he said. “Mankind has built a spectacular building, and the destination adds great energy to the Cult Gathering experience.”
But a jaw-dropping setting is only the first step in creating an iconic meeting experience. “It’s a lot of work — like 10 times harder and more stressful than you think it will be,” Gill said. “Unless you’re fully committed, don’t start. You can’t dabble in event marketing and expect things to go well. We went all in, and it paid off for us. Perhaps the biggest secret to our success has been paying meticulous detail to the moments between moments. We try to anticipate the entire guest experience — from learning about the event, to buying tickets, to traveling there, to registration, to sessions, to snacks, to leaving, and then we try to find ways to make each of those moments remarkable.”
BUILDING A BRAND-NAME MEETING
“The leadership team at Cult Collective decided to lead the charge and create an event that honored the real brand heroes that were doing the right kinds of marketing for the right reasons,” Gill told Convene. “We wanted to shine a spotlight on the amazing marketing success stories that are too often overlooked by industry award shows because of their lack of dependence upon traditional advertising.”
The Gathering’s selection committee begins the nomination process by conducting phone surveys to more than 36,000 North American households, asking questions regarding brand engagement. After winnowing the raw data down to around 250 to 300 brands, the committee further narrows the field. Around 100 brands receive personalized invitations to participate in a follow-up interview with a Gathering staffer. Part of the appeal of The Gathering for attendees is the opportunity to rub shoulders with marketers from top companies. “Many of the audience members are personally invited because we believe they can either benefit from, or contribute to, the overall content or experience of the event,” Gill said. “We also have enjoyed various partners and sponsors — like Fast Company, The Globe and Mail, the Canadian Marketing Association, Air Canada, SAP, Rogers, etc., who help us spread the word.”
A little glitz and glamour don’t hurt either. The Cult Brand of the Year awards are given out after the second day of programming during a seated, black-tie reception. At this year’s awards ceremony, funnyman Gerry Dee kicked off the evening with a too-dirty-to-print anecdote about the birth of his first child. Then the 2016 honorees took the stage.
“When Jonathan Mildenhall won the 2016 Pinnacle Award — essentially the People’s Choice Award — for Airbnb, he went onstage to accept the award with sincere enthusiasm and emotion,” Gill said. “The moment was electric, because he was so genuinely excited. It was a nice reminder that these brand leaders work so hard, and rarely get the accolades they deserve. It felt great to be able to recognize him for his amazing efforts.”
‘A GREAT EXPERIENCE’
Given its innovative format and out-of-this-world add-ons, it’s not hard to understand why The Gathering sold out this year. “We actually don’t do a lot to market The Gathering. We spend less than $5,000 on advertising. One day I would like that number to be zero,” Gill said. “I believe our event is so remarkable that we won’t have to do traditional marketing, … much like the brands we honor.”
Many 2016 attendees stayed an extra day to ski, snowboard, or snowshoe at Sunshine Village, a 3,300-acre ski resort 15 minutes from downtown Banff, and also to attend Gathering Music, a daylong festival held for the first time this year. Nine musical acts performed at two venues — Banff’s Rose and Crown brewpub, and HooDoo Lounge — while Scott Goldman, vice president of the Grammy Foundation, and producer and composer Mitch Lee shared insights on marketing in the music business in one of several afternoon talks held at the Rose and Crown before the live performances. “The inaugural event was incredible,” Gill said. “Nearly 800 people attended, which was perfect for the size of the two small venues we selected, but next year we’re planning for several thousand attendees, although the vision is still to keep the acts in small venues. Music is such a powerful way to connect with audiences and instill emotion into products, services, and brands, so we’re excited to figure out ways for brands and bands to work more closely together to produce incredible music and events for fans.”
For Gill and his team, Gathering Music seemed like the logical next step for The Gathering as a brand and an additional way to lure attendees to its hometown. “The Gathering’s evolution has been constant.” Gill said. “We’ve always attracted iconic brands — Harley Davidson and Red Bull come to mind for year one; Disney and the Ultimate Fighting Championship, including a keynote address from their president, Dana White, in year two; and Converse and Airbnb in year three.
“The show will remain in Banff, and the conference will always pride itself on providing some ‘surprise and delight,’ create buzz, and make attendees eager to return,” Gill said. “Last year, one of those big surprises was an amazing after-party hosted by Las Vegas Tourism. They completely transformed one of Fairmont’s giant conference rooms into a Vegas nightclub, and we went through more than 100 bottles of Patron.”