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The Gathering – Banff February 20, 2014 – 5 (ish) Questions with Chris Kneeland

We love "Big Ideas" at One Degree. When I heard about this event I wanted to know more, and wanted to share the details, the background and offer you, our readers, a chance to take in this great event. You will see a display ad to the right with an exclusive code to the One Degree readers for $200 off the conference ticket.

Here is the link and the code is GHT432.

Calgary-based engagement agency, Cult Collective, had a pretty bold idea: Create a secret circle of cult brands and invite them to a mountain hideaway to swap ideas and honour each other in ceremonious ritual.

That very idea has materialized as The Gathering.

This inaugural conference and gala taking place at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel in February will see brands like NHL, GoPro, Red Bull and Las Vegas pull back the curtain to share the secret marketing techniques they’ve used to win the allegiance of millions of consumers.

The event has attracted the attention and support of The Globe & Mail and marketing thought leaders like Chris Malone, author of The Human Brand. The growing list of brand leaders that will be on hand includes Brian Jennings, CMO of the National Hockey League, Arun Hozack, VP Marketing, Red Bull, Paul Crandell, VP Marketing, GoPro, and Gregg Sauter, VP, Marketing of 2013 Grey Cup champions Saskatchewan Roughriders.

To get the goods on The Gathering, I cornered Cult CEO, Chris Kneeland, for a brief interrogation.

Here’s what he had to say:  

OD:These are some huge brands you have gathered! I understand you invited 100. 60 responded and you narrowed it down to 8! That must have been a daunting task! Care to share some thoughts on that process?

CK: It was daunting! Over 100 of North America’s most coveted brands were nominated by various members of our Collective and invited to participate in an evaluation process. Accepting nominees had to agree to let us analyze and score them on a number of dimensions, such as their marketing activities, culture, customer advocacy and operational practices. We ranked all these factors against a set of 18 evaluative criteria. We then used that 'scorecard' to determine the most cult-like brands. The whole process took nearly 5 months and gave us tremendous insight into what makes cult brands so amazing. I personally conducted many of the evaluations and getting to know these brand leaders and understand their organizations was one of the highlights of my career.  

OD:Seeing a lot of buzz about this conference. You have certainly hit a nerve. Is the timing "just right" or has there been a pent up demand for something like this?

CK: Timing seems right. As traditional advertising has hit a point of diminishing returns for many companies, we're seeing radical shifts in the marketplace. As a result, marketing professionals are developing a healthy disdain for the status quo and envying those few brands that have won irrational customer loyalty and cult followings. They see them achieving remarkable return on engagement by doing out-of-the-box things, and aspire to emulate their behaviour and success. This conference is simply a forum for the courageous marketers behind those cult brands to congregate, share best practices and inspire each other with their unconventional marketing approaches.  

OD:People love their brands and we all have our own brands we experience as cults – what are your top personal cult brands?

CK:I have three sons. I marvel at how well both Hot Wheels and Lego have engaged consumers throughout the years. Not only are they still cool toys for kids, but both brands are doing things to extend their appeal to new generations, and even keep me engaged as an adult. For example, check out Hot Wheels YouTube channel to see incredible things they are doing with real life vehicles to inspire interest and excitement in their toy cars. My kids and I can't wait to see the new Lego movie coming out early February. 

OD:I love reading about an "inaugural" event! Does this mean we are going to see this annually? Semi annually? Weekly? Is it going to be a reality show? (JK)

CK:The Gathering will continue to be an annual event in terms of this exclusive assembly of cult brand leaders flying in from all over North America. We also love TED Talks and envision evolving The Gathering in a similar direction: Intimate conversations with courageous brand leaders that can be enjoyed more frequently in smaller venues as well as online. 

OD:I love the idea of rewarding the real heroes. What started you on that line of thinking?

CK:I've attended dozens of advertising and marketing award shows, most of which celebrate ad agencies’ clever campaigns or short term results. I found most to be very superficial, and was disappointed no one seemed to be recognizing and rewarding the brand stewards who have achieved what I consider to be the most important accomplishment for a brand: A raving following of hyper-loyal fans. Brands that have succeeded in not just getting consumers to buy, but to buy in to something bigger than what they sell. I found myself questioning, “Who are the people behind these brands? How should we, as marketers, put them on a pedestal and recognize that they have achieved something truly special?” So, we thought the best way might be to invite them all to a secret society-like event of their very own where they could honour each other. That was the impetus for The Gathering.

OD:Banff in Feb! I take it there are a lot of skiers and zero golfers? Seriously why Banff and not Palm Springs? No, seriously! <Pushing for the golf lobby!>

CK:The Gathering is a really unique event, so we wanted it to be in a really unique setting. Most North American marketing leaders have been to LA, Chicago, Las Vegas, Orlando, etc. So, instead of revisiting the usual destinations, we chose a place that is as desirable, yet as exclusive, as our event. Hugh Forrest, Director of the SXSW Interactive Festival, has been helping us plans and steer The Gathering. I admire the relationship his organization has built with Austin, Texas, where SXSW takes place annually. I hope that The Gathering and Banff will someday become similarly linked and viewed as the must-attend marketing event of the year for cult brands and those that admire them. 

OD:Any surprises in store for the conference? We don't want you to let the cat out of the bag … but maybe a hint?

CK:While The Gathering will be honouring eight brands for having attained cult status, we’ll be singling out one of them as the Ultimate Cult Brand of 2013. It’s a privileged designation that will be decided not by us, but through crowdsourced voting happening during the event itself. Las Vegas Convention & Visitor Authority will be donating an amazing Las Vegas experience package to the winning brand to enjoy. Should be fun!

A little about me:

I graduated with Master’s degree in marketing communications from Northwestern University and worked client-side at John Deere and The Home Depot prior to selling my soul to join an ad agency (Rapp) in Dallas, Texas. In 2010, I moved to Calgary to run Watermark Advertising Design. Then, in September 2012, I resigned to join a Cult. 

About Cult Collective Ltd.:

Cult is a leading engagement agency for companies seeking brand affinity as their competitive advantage. Cult works with retail and restaurant chains, tourist destinations, educational and financial services clients to help them dominate their markets by winning fanatical loyalty and word-of-mouth advocacy for their brands.

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