Putting the Cult in Brand Culture

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When you read or hear the word “cult,” what images or thoughts come to mind? Perhaps, it’s the negative connotations of religious leaders who have led their followers to commit horrendous acts. Instead, let’s focus on the positive side of building a cult—that is to say, employees and guests who are powerful advocates—for your brand.

When we dig down into the origin of the word “cult” we find that it has some elements we can leverage to build a stronger brand.

There’s a great foundation to the Latin word “colere.” Look deep and you’ll see it’s related to the words “cultivate” and “worship.” Those are the keys to putting the cult into your restaurant’s culture. They’re also the genesis for breaking free from the mediocrity grip that holds so many operators and brands hostage.


When you read or hear this word you most likely associate it with gardening or farming. It’s critical in agriculture to be focused on cultivating your crops; you don’t just plant some seeds, kick back and wait for the bounty of harvest to roll in. No, you have to cultivate your fields or garden daily to avoid a terrible harvest. If a farmer failed to tend to his crops he would be characterized as being lazy. The same applies to your restaurant or bar.

Lazy farmers don’t get paid. Neither do lazy restaurants. Your culture is the foundation of your brand, whether you know it or not. It’s what separates the good from the great from the outstanding. I would even go as far as saying that the quality of your culture is a direct reflection of your bottom line. Don’t think so? Look at the restaurant brands that are well known for incredible cultures:

  • Chick-fil-A
  • Shake Shack
  • In-N-Out Burger

Beyond restaurants, you can see strong brand cultures reflected in companies like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Zappos. Yes, my friend, culture impacts profits. Make sure you’re actively cultivating your culture. Otherwise, you risk losing some of your bottom line.

Read this: Does Your Brand Have a Culture of Can or Can't?

So, what are your beginner culture cultivation tools? Start with two basics that many forget as the foundation of culture creation:

  1. Core Values: This would seem like a no-brainer. If you don’t know what you stand for and believe in, why on Earth would anyone want to follow you? Solid brands have solid core values. You must know them and then let the world know as well.
  2. Standards: This is also obvious, yet many operators fail to use this culture-creating tool. You have to develop standards for what is acceptable within your brand. The biggest issue with struggling restaurants and bars is always traceable to poor or zero standards.

If you fail to create and cultivate your culture, you’ll end up with a culture—one you don’t want—by default. That’s the equivalent of having a garden full of weeds and wild grass growing out of control. If that sounds pleasant then please, let the weeds take over.


To worship is to honor. It’s respect. Inside your culture, that starts with self-worship. You have to respect yourself before you can respect others. It’s a simple premise that we tend to dismiss or forget. We want others to respect us yet often we fail to give that same courtesy to ourselves.

To put the cult in your culture you must become a true leader. Sure, you can walk around demanding respect because your title says you’re the boss. Just remember that managers demand respect while leaders command respect. Becoming the leader means that you’re the first to believe in your brand and the culture of your brand. Not to overuse a cult metaphor but you’ll need to drink the Kool-Aid first.

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How? Well, start with being the example that you want your culture to emulate! If you agree that culture is cultivated, then culture is born from you as the leader. You can’t get around this. You can’t skip it. You can’t fake it. Your brand’s culture is a reflection of you!

Toxic Leadership = Toxic Culture

If you allow gossip, if you permit your team to do whatever they want at work (lack of standards), you have a toxic culture. Your restaurant is exactly what you’re willing to tolerate.

If you don’t like your profits, if the amount of hours you say you “have” to work because you don’t trust anyone to do their jobs correctly, or if you feel a knot in your stomach on your commute to your bar or restaurant because you’re thinking about all the crap that’s going to wreak havoc on your day...why do you tolerate it?

Because you’re afraid.

Fear is the killer of great culture and it slowly kills restaurants, too. Fear just turns everyone against each other and drives a wedge between your brand and your guests. People sense fear and lack of confidence a mile away. When your leadership emits the stench of fear into the air, the negative energy vampires (NEVs) in your culture will come out to feed on it. That’s the only thing they have to work with: fear. NEVs don’t have skills, they have fear, and their job is to spread it around your culture until it’s infected with toxicity. Then they leave to infect the next restaurant. Then the next. Then the next…

Read this: This New Marketing Strategy Will Pack Your Bar with Little Effort or Money

What do NEVs hate? Strong cultures where people are held accountable. Cultures that care about the team over profits. Cultures that allow people to grow and contribute. Cultures that appreciate their teams, their guests, and their communities. Cultures that know their core values and live them daily. You could have a culture like that. You just need to drink the Kool-Aid first and become the leader they need.

Want more from Donald Burns? Download the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show mobile app and add both of his sessions—Competition is for Suckers: How to Become a Blue Ocean Operator and How to Herd Cats: 7 Secrets to Get the Restaurant/Bar You Want—to your schedule today! Burns will also be available during this year’s Nightclub & Bar Show for Coaching Chalk Talks, one-on-one, 15-minute expert-level consults. Don’t forget to pick up your copy of Your Restaurant Sucks! by Donald Burns, the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Industry Book & Author of the Year Award winner.

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