Marketing messages are all focused on promotional deals and markdowns these days, and it all just sounds like so much noise. Let's face it: In advertising, attention without action is only for vanity.

After years of consulting with companies ranging from micro-businesses to multibillion-dollar empires, I've found that most leaders, though well-intentioned, are addicted to bad behaviors when it comes creating advertising messages and consumer engagement. Message reach and consumer attention are part of the growth strategy, but what businesses really want are actions that lead to loyalty.

I recently gave the keynote at the Cult Gathering in Banff, Canada, where I met co-founder Chris Kneeland. He leads Cult Ideas, where he works with big companies focusing on customer advocacy to create brands that people adore.

Kneeland also co-authored Fix: Break the Addictions That Are Killing Brands, a book about really smart people doing really dumb things. It is a look at the reckless use of markdowns and promotions -- when what you really want is a cult-like following.

He talks about how some companies with cult-like followings today, like Lego and Southwest Airlines, weren't quite so popular when they first got started. They took the leap of faith from meandering advertising to out-of-the-box strategies.

Here's what they did, and how you can do the same.

Southwest delivered exactly what customers expected.

Southwest Airlines started out early in 1987 with a focus on enhancing customer service with frequent flyers -- something most airlines were not doing. Southwest's leaders knew that competing in a crowded market meant they had to do a few things exceptionally well, rather than trying to do everything well.

They focused on being the low-cost airline with high levels of service -- yes, an oxymoron to those unwilling to challenge the status quo. They stripped away the unnecessary frills of food and complex loyalty plans to deliver what was most important to customers -- low prices and a loyalty program that earned free flights without blackout dates.

Southwest achieved its 45th year of consecutive profitability in 2017, according to a company press release. The out-of-the-box strategies worked, and today Southwest continues to operate on their own plan rather than follow the path of other airlines. For example, many airlines now charge for checked bags. Southwest still does not charge for the first two bags checked under 50 pounds. And while it is rumored that airlines will soon be charging for all carry-on bags, Southwest does not plan to charge for these either.

Lego delivered something completely unexpected.

Many toy manufacturers have relied on the production of 30- and 60-second commercials geared toward kids. At the surface, that makes sense, because kids are the end-users of the products.

But what happens when you start to think about doing it differently to challenge the status quo of your industry? The brand leaders at Lego had these conversations, and in one meeting, someone mentioned doing a movie. Too crazy to work, everybody probably thought.

Instead of doing another short-form commercial for kids or a coupon to spur sales, Lego decided to do a 90-minute movie with Warner Bros. The film was released on February 2014 and became a critical and commercial success, grossing $469 million worldwide against a $60 million budget.

Lego is based in Denmark, and its net profits rose 12 percent to 2.7 billion Danish krone (roughly $335 million) after Lego Movie kits exceeded expectations. It's all because Lego took a widely different approach than other toy makers to engage consumers.

Follow this four-step process to achieve those results.

Kneeland says his years of work with brand leaders confirms "that improving internal and external engagement metrics boosts sales and profitability better than just about any other activity." It all starts with a profound understanding of the consumer's expectation in your category.

The keys to improving a brand's engagement require four steps:

  1. Know specific expectations, by category and importance. This is about a fundamental understanding of what your prospects expect of you.

  2. Know what your brand can do most effectively to deliver those expectations. In other words, what is the most powerful way you connect with your prospects on the expectations in step one?

  3. Understand competitive brand perceptions by category and how your brand can better deliver against their strengths and weaknesses. Research others in your market to see how they are addressing the expectations from step one.

  4. Reallocate corporate resources away from suboptimal activities. This may be hard if you're used to paid advertising and promotional markdowns, but putting money normally spent on these activities into areas that can create more engagement and produce a cult-like following is better overall for the brand.

Creating a cult-following will take massive courage and a keen understanding of customer expectations. It'll also be worth it.