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November 18, 2004

The Tivo Cult and the Tivangelical

I recently viewed a broadcast on PBS from Frontline called The Persuaders which focused on consumer marketing and branding. The whole show is worth watching if you are into that kind of thing and it is available online here. As a side note, I learned that I never want to participate in one of Clotaire Rapaille's zany regression focus groups to figure out the root cause of why I use Crest toothpaste.

One particular segment got me thinking, though. Here's the transcript:

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: If Atkin could find what pushed a person from mere fan to devoted disciple, perhaps he could market that knowledge.

WRESTLING FAN: Most of the people I discuss the WWF with know that it's not a sport, you know, it's a masculine ballet.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: So he compared dozens of groups he considered cults with so called "cult brands," from Hare Krishna to Harley Davidson–

VW BEETLE OWNER: If you're smart and kind of individual, that's what you drive.

DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF: –from Falun Gong to Mac.

MACINTOSH USER: I think there's something about Mac users. Like, they get it.

DEADHEAD: We just had discovered something.

LINUX USER: They realized there are other people like them, and they cooperate on certain projects, and it's part of belonging to the tribe.

DOUGLAS ATKIN: And the conclusion was this, is that people, whether they're joining a cult or joining a brand, do so for exactly the same reasons. They need to belong, and they want to make meaning. We need to figure out what the world is all about, and we need the company of others. It's simply that.

At various times in my life I've been a Mac advocate, a Deadhead, and a Linux user, so from my perspective, I think there is an element of truth to the description. I think the word "cult" is a bit much, but there are some products that transcend the value they bring and become a sort of hobby to people and in the processs fosters a community. I think the same can be said of many things including activities and sports like golf and sailing, where over time one can turn from simply "playing golf" to being a "golfer". Being a fan of a particular sports team is also a classic example (unless of course you're a Dodger fan; that's just plain a sickness).

Many companies try to foster that kind of devotion to their brands and products, and while most fail miserably, a few succeed to make it worth the effort to try. Whether Tivo became a "cult" product through dumb luck or perseverance, Tivo is one those products that has a devoted following. I call them "Tivangelicals", spreading the good word of Tivo throughout the land, and quite frankly, I'm among their ranks.

My own pet theory is that there is also a "negative tipping point" to that kind of devotion. With enough negative stimuli, the cuts and bruises start to accumulate. As the negative reservoir grows, it just takes a small incident to turn a strong emotional devotion into bitter disgust. From an objective observer's viewpoint, a negative tipping point looks like an over reaction and the person or company that caused the response often is left wondering why there was such a visceral reaction. A fan becomes an anti-fan.

Yesterday, I posted my own comments on Tivo's decision to put banner ads during fast forwarding, and it was mostly fell in the "it's an over-reaction" category. However, it seems clear in the light of a new day, that for some users yesterday was a negative tipping point moment. I think today's PVRBlog post is going to provide more stimuli to push some others over the line.

Today, PVRBlog had a chance to look at some of the screenshots of the ads, and despite the fact that it appears that Tivo was doing some damage control by letting him view them, it looks like another bad day for the Tivo PR department. Here is Matt Haughey's quote:

"Suffice to say that I was expecting something really subtle in the tivo UI but they looked very beta and looked like someone slapped a giant jpg of an ad poster over a quarter of the screen. They're also showing up in different spots, so you won't be able to tune them out by ignoring one section. But again, that's just in the early beta."

The Frontline documentary illustrates the number of companies trying to achieve a "cult" following for their products and the value it can have to making a business successful. Tivo has the luxury of having that kind of devotion, but it's unclear whether it will be enough to sustain them. One thing is clear; without that kind of devotion Tivo has no chance of success.

Posted on November 18, 2004

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