Dunking an Oreo. Unboxing a new iPhone. Putting lime in your Corona. What do they all have in common? Here's how to find your brand rituals and use them to connect meaningfully with your audience.
When I was eleven, I was given a piece of clear crystal with a hole bored through the middle. I carried it in my pocket and invented small rituals like rolling it around my fingers every morning and placing it under my pillow for luck.
When the stone fell out of my pocket one day I felt deeply sad. And without the ceremony I'd come to rely on, I was restless.
Luckily, I'm in good company.
As a child, psychologist Carl Jung once 'carved a tiny mannequin into the end of a wooden ruler, which he kept together with a painted stone in a pencil case in his attic'. He often came back to the mannequin, bringing it scrolls inscribed in a secret language of his invention.
The adult Jung suggested that not only are repetitive, ritualistic behaviours normal, they're also necessary as a form of 'mental hygiene'. Rituals differ from habits because they are significant and symbolic, not routine. Their purpose is to put us back in touch with our subconscious selves, so that we aren't overwhelmed by everyday life.
The purpose of ritual is to facilitate moving the conscious mind to the back and bring the subconscious mind to the fore. The subconscious does not function with language, but with symbols.
– Kathryn Hughes, Examiner
This explains why individual or collective rituals can seem illogical or bizarre to outsiders – from the religious practices of remote communities to teenage girls cutting themselves to show their devotion to Justin Bieber.
When life is confusing, ritual helps us make sense of our experiences and reconnect with our identities. Which makes sense considering that ritual is most prevalent at times of great change in our lives – christenings, weddings and funerals to name just a few.
Ritual has also become an important factor in our relationships with the big brands. As stated by Douglas Van Praet in his book 'Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing':
Rituals are some of the most powerful ways to brand because they often involve multiple sensory experiences and repetitive acts, driving information into the mind.
Rituals can alleviate and reduce grief – even for people who don't believe in the efficacy of rituals. Which explains why every world culture conducts end-of-life ceremonies.
But they can do things like influence how much we enjoy the food we eat:
With grief, the ritual leads to a feeling of control. With consumption, rituals seem to work because they increase your involvement in the experience.
– Carmen Nobel, Harvard Business School blog
Branding expert Bernadette Jiwa touches on this when she recounts spending Sunday mornings queuing in line to buy croissants from the exclusive Lune bakery:
The unspoken truth is that without the twenty minute wait a Lune croissant loses its magic. That line is part of the story.
If Lune was open seven days, not just on weekends and if orders weren’t limited to six per customer [...] the story wouldn’t be what it is. The scarcity and the story make the product better. The team at Lune understand where the magic happens.
Somewhat counterintuitively, the act of queuing and anticipating the pastries makes your enjoyment of them all the keener. The customer receives not just a delicious croissant but the pleasure of knowing they've taken part in a cultural ceremony.
Cadbury's Oreo went a step further and promoted a whole new ritual centred on how you consume the cookies. As we all know, the only way to eat an Oreo is to twist, lick, dunk.
The genius of this ritual is that it's purely physical – simple enough for a child to learn and no need to overcome language barriers.
Finding a brand ritual is often as simple as observing a pre-existing ritual practised by your customer base, and promoting it:
Other research suggests that the power of rituals goes even further – increasing our perception of value as well.
If employees perform rituals as part of their jobs, they are likely to find their jobs more rewarding. And if consumers use a ritual to experience your product, they are likely to enjoy it more and be willing to pay more for it.
– Frank Cowell, Elevator Agency
No brand embodies this principle more thoroughly than Apple. Famous for its ceremonial product reveals, cult-like Genius staff and adoring worshippers, Apple even makes a ritual of unpacking its products.
Steve Jobs reportedly dedicated a whole room to opening boxes, and packaging designers went through hundreds of iterations before they arrived at the glossy, seamless experience we have now.
I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theatre, it can create a story.
– Jony Ive, Steve Jobs
When this ritual is disrupted, the horror is genuine:
Brands that harness ritual have staying power. Ritual can take the mundane task of eating a biscuit or opening a box and turn it into a familiar, emotionally charged and spiritually satisfying experience.
As a marketer, one of your jobs is to explore the elements of your brand that lend themselves to becoming ritualized. How might you make your product or service part of the daily lives of your customers?
Creating a ritual around your brand, whether it’s focused internally or externally, is [...] one of the key components necessary to building a successful cult brand.
– Frank Cowell, Elevator Agency
So what does it take to successfully ritualise a product or service?
- Be genuine. Identifying an existing ritual that you can integrate into is far simpler and more authentic than fabricating something new that your audience has to learn.
- Where, when, how? It's not just about what the ritual entails but also the setting, time and with whom you do it. The more specific you are, the more special it will feel.
- Not a habit. If an action is too mundane it becomes a habit rather than a ritual. It's the difference between just cracking open a beer and carefully placing a slice of lime into a bottle of Corona.
- Capture the imagination. Leave room for your audience to put their own stamp on the ritual. Rather than spelling it out, imply how the ritual might be beneficial so that your audience wants to try it for themselves.
- Them, not you. Forget about what you want to gain from the interaction – it's besides the point. Your ritual has to offer your customer an additional benefit, something extra.
- Public or private? Think about whether your ritual is suited to group or individual practice. Public rituals (like trying on your wedding dress) will get your brand more exposure, but private (like how you put your makeup on) might have more personal significance.
- Get hearts racing. It's not just about the ritual itself – anticipation plays a big role too. Think about what signals you can provide to start building excitement ahead of time.
- Rhythm and repetition. A ritual is not a ritual unless it is a repeated action. Repeating an action or a phrase, and keeping a rhythm throughout, will quickly establish neural pathways and help people to remember the process.
- Keep it simple. The more difficult a ritual is, the more exclusive it becomes. This might work for your brand further down the line, but initially it's best to keep things simple so that the ritual can be adopted easily.
- Be consistent. If you want to introduce a new product or service, make the look and feel consistent so that it doesn't disrupt expectations.
Ritualising your brand will help to engage your existing customers, and attract new ones too. If you can offer connection and belonging, or a stronger sense of self through ritual, your fans will begin to spread the word.
And more and more people will follow.
See also: What do you call a group of humans? How our herd instincts spread ideas