What sets a company apart from others? Commonly, the most immediate point of distinction for consumers is branding. For Chanel, its double “C” logo conveys a quilted leather bag’s origin, and with that, an instant essence of Parisian high fashion allure. Hermès has its all-powerful “H” symbol, usually in a gleaming gold hue, as well as the instantly identifiable design of its carefully stitched and perfectly structured Birkin bag, both of which serve as identifiers of the time-tested luxury stalwart that is Hermès. In the lifestyle realm, the word Goop brings to mind the uber-expensive “cutting-edge wellness” hub curated by Gwyneth Paltrow, while La Mer embodies a go-to for luxury skincare. For Nxivm, branding plays a central role, as well.

Operating firmly outside of the realm of the traditional luxury brand, Nxivm, pronounced “Nexium,” is, however, not so far removed from the aforementioned consumer-facing brands in at least one way: It has long-relied on carefully crafted branding to attract an upper-crust following.

The Wikipedia page for Nxivm describes the Albany County, New York-based group, which was founded in 1998 by Brooklyn, New York-born salesman Keith Raniere, as “a multi-level marketing organization that offers personal and professional development seminars.”

Nxivm’s roots date back to  the late 1990’s when Raniere, then age 37, met a nurse named Nancy Salzman, a hypnosis and neurolinguistics specialist. After he rebranded himself from pyramid scheme mastermind (his first venture Consumers’ Buyline toppled following some 25 separate investigations by state attorneys general) to a self-help guru for deep-pocketed business executives, Raniere teamed up with Salzman to launch Executive Success Programs, Inc. an Upstate New York-based training program aimed at high-profile figures.

Doing business as Nxivm, Executive Success Programs, Inc. was something of an instant success. According to the New York Times, “Since the late 1990’s, an estimated 16,000 people have enrolled in the pricey courses offered by Nxivm, which it says are designed to bring about greater self-fulfillment by eliminating psychological and emotional barriers.”

Not surprisingly, each participant is required to sign a non-disclosure agreement seemingly aimed at protecting the group’s valuable course materials, i.e., its trade secrets. “Everyone signed it,” ex-member, actress Sarah Edmondson told ABC News late last year. (In August 2003, Raniere sued a woman for, the suit claimed, divulging information in violation of her confidentiality agreement. The court held that “NXIVM’s claims and litigation tactics were disproportionate and largely lacking in merit,” and dismissed nearly all of the claims).

The group’s message of self-improvement, which came with strong ties to ethics, attracted the likes of English business magnate Richard Branson, Black Entertainment Television co-founder Sheila Johnson, former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello, and Seagram heiresses Sara and Clare Bronfman, the latter of whom quickly rose through the ranks of the organization

The Bronfman sisters – the youngest children of late Canadian billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., and and half-sisters of Edgar Jr., the chairman of Warner Music Group – convinced their father to enroll in Nxivm’s $10,000 “VIP” course. He attended, but it did not take long for him to distance himself from the group, and became estranged from his daughters, after growing “troubled over the long hours and emotional and financial investment they have been devoting to Raniere’s group,” per Forbes.

While Sara, 42, ultimately moved abroad after marrying Libyan businessman, Basit Igtet, younger sister Clare Bronfman, now 39, has reportedly remained in Raniere’s inner circle, acting as a board member. Together, though, the sisters are said to have contributed as much as $150 million to finance Nxivm, a 2010 Vanity Fair article revealed.

“Much of [that money] was spent, according to court filings,” Vanity Fair’s Suzanna Andrews, who was sued by Raniere after the article’s publication, stated in her article. However, since “Sara and Clare Bronfman allegedly worked to conceal the extent of their spending from their 81-year-old father and the Bronfman-family trustees,” it is not entirely clear where, exactly, those funds went.

Citing “legal filings and public documents,” Andrews asserts that the money – as much as $150 million over a period of six years – came directly from Bronfman “family trust funds” and was used to “cover Raniere’s failed bets in the commodities market, $30 million to buy real estate in Los Angeles and around Albany, $11 million for a 22-seat, two-engine Canadair CL-600 jet, and millions more to support a barrage of lawsuits across the country against nxivm’s enemies.”

Recent lawsuits, however, raise “darker questions about how the Bronfmans’ money was being used,” Andrews writes. “There are serious allegations being lobbed—not just of possible blackmail and perjury but also of other ‘potentially illegal’ activities, including theft and ‘a conspiracy to forge documents.'”

“I think it’s a cult,” Bronfman Sr., told Forbes in connection with a profile on Raniere before his death in 2013.

But the list of well-heeled individuals to fall into Nxivm’s scheme does not stop there. Political consultant and lobbyist Roger Stone, former State Majority Leader Joe Bruno, writer-producer Mark Vicente, acting chief executive of Enron Stephen Cooper, and Ana Cristina Fox, daughter of the Mexican president, were among the many “prompted by a potent word-of-mouth network” to take part in Nxivm’s seminars, which cost somewhere in the ballpark of $10,000 for a weekend, wrote Times Union.

How exactly did such a company lure the wildly rich and famous into its web? In the exact same way as any other company does so: With a carefully curated story and compelling branding.

For Nxivm  which has maintained a federal trademark registration for its name in the U.S. since 2003 for use in connection with “educational services, namely, conducting programs in the field of human potential development; entertainment services, namely, providing seminars and videos in the field of human potential development”  that company ethos centers on self-betterment and humanitarianism.

It also encompasses “universal appeals of improving yourself, becoming more effective as a communicator, more effective as a human being, having better relationships, and making the world a better place,” Steven Hassan of the research organization Freedom of Mind told VICE. “They’re things virtually everybody would sign up for.”

As for the face of the group, or “Vanguard,” as he is called by members, Raniere was positioned as a highly marketable guru. The Nxivm founder has long claimed to have been a child prodigy – speaking in full sentences by one years old, reading by two and playing concert-level piano by 12. He has since “devoted his life to studying the complex issues that face our modern world, and to developing tools to enhance the human experience through community, social action, science, technology and education,” as his bio on the Nxivm website reads.

Implicit in the group’s powerful brand messaging is an emphasis on women’s empowerment. According to a 22-page lawsuit filed by the United States of America against Raniere in a New York federal court in February 2018 – which resulted in his arrest in March on federal charges of sex trafficking – the group “targeted women,” particularly those “who were experiencing difficulties in their lives.” These women were presented with an “opportunity to join an organization that would change [their] lives.”

One of the most salacious and headline-grabbing elements of the entity that is Nxivm lies in Dominus Obsequious Sororium – or “DOS” – the all-female secret society whose members were unknowingly recruited under the guise of sorority and female empowerment for the purpose of serving as Raniere’s sex slaves.

It is this sub-sect of Nxivm that reportedly brands its members with a two-inch-square symbol that is said to consist of Raniere’s initials. If reports are true, the group records the “branding ceremonies” for which the members are forced to strip nude and then are held down to be scarred, one by one, for 45 minutes with a cauterizing pen sans any form of anesthesia.

In addition to the branding, in order to gain entrance to the inner circle that is DOS, women, were forced to give and consistently keep updating a stash of “collateral.” Raniere needed assurance that DOS’s members would not speak out about their experience, and to prove their allegiance, members were forced to turn over naked photos, a video confession of a crime, and deeds to homes. According to FBI documents, actress Allison Mack turned over paperwork promising that, in the event that she left the group, Raniere would be deemed the title holder of her home and the legal guardian of any future children she had.

On another occasion, she gave him a letter claiming that she had abused her nephews, which he would turn over to authorities should Mack defect from DOS.

But there is a lot more to Nxivm’s small, more exclusive group than the indelible stamp that the female members of its secret circle bear on their lower torso and the troves of damning documentation that they were forced to produce.

Mack, who was arrested last week for sex-trafficking charges in connection with Nxivm, promoted DOS on her personal website as “a beautiful opportunity [for women] to build and deepen their relationships with themselves and others through the guidance of a profound educational curriculum run by small groups of women who meet weekly to share and explore questions and concepts.”

The former Smallville actress, who was tasked with recruiting women to the “female mentorship group,” called it a “collective inspiring a community of strong, authentically empowered women to own themselves in a way that has never been seen or understood before.”

The pitch that 35-year old Mack, who has been repeatedly described by potential recruits as “a very sweet girl,” would use to tempt new members, including young female Hollywood stars, was vague, actress Samia Shoaib has said since speaking out about being courted by Mack to join DOS. There was no talk of cults, of starvation diets, or of being physically branded, of course. Instead, Mack would describe the group as a handful of women’s retreats and other events. “It’s a bunch of women. We go on a retreat upstate, and we share our experiences and support each other,” Shoaib said, recalling Mack’s attempts to enlist her.

Additional get-togethers included Broadway shows and dinners at the Gershwin Theater in New York, and gatherings that centered on networking amongst women, complete with guest speakers.

The reality of the group is far more sinister than the supportive, feminist-leaning depiction put out into the world by Mack and the group’s other pretty, young recruiters, which reportedly also included Mack’s Smallville co-star Kristin Kreuk.

According to court documents, DOS is actually a manipulative “master/slave” system in which its members were required to “adhere to extremely low-calorie diets” in order to achieve the physique that Reniere preferred, “have sex with Raniere,” and “engage in acts of self-denial or acts that would cause them discomfort, including taking ice cold showers or several minutes, standing for an hour at 4:00am, and performing plank [exercises].”

Additionally, the USA’s complaint sheds light on “disturbing stories of alleged manipulation and sexual abuse at the hands of Raniere” and the group’s practice of collecting “collateral” from its members, such as nude photos and letters that would destroy the character of members’ parents, which would be released if they spoke out against the group.

But none of Nxivm’s members knew the underlying nature of DOS when they signed up for the Nxivm’s humanitarian-centric workshops or when they were recruited by any of DOS’s existing members. To be fair, with an public-facing message of female empowerment; actresses, heiress, politicans, and socialites as members; a scenic ranch in upstate New York; trips to Richard Brandon’s private Caribbean island; a private jet, and even a fleeting affiliation with the Dalai Lama, who spoke at one of Nxivm’s events in May 2009, how would they?

In reality, it might be difficult to distinguish the outlaw “sex cult” – on its face – from a buzzy modern-day female-centric lifestyle brand.