Leverage Self-Selection Using Brand Ritual

The best-loved brands are enablers; they help their devotees to live better, more meaningful lives. These brands make life richer because they don’t focus on selling products and services or features and benefits; they satisfy the deepest emotional yearnings that people have.

Cult brands help us to belong; they provide self-fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, values that appeal to our higher natures and more. Transcendent brands are really spiritual, going beyond even appealing to the emotional nature of human beings. That’s why they inspire an almost religious fervor. Using this analogy, we understand the power of the world’s most successful brands to inspire. Just as with any religion – specific language, symbolism and ritual create what I refer to as “exclusive inclusion”; the sense that its fans are all part of an exclusive group; meaningful, important and treasured members of their tribe.

Cabela’s, IKEA, Lululemon, Starbucks, and Tiffany’s expert deployment of these 21st Century brand principles, demonstrate their power in action. They employ vivid brand language that is both visual and verbal. Tiffany’s is best represented by its robin egg blue box with white satin ribbon; Starbucks by its ethereal, seductive siren and more recent, hipster-than-thou design language, Cabela’s tagline as “world’s foremost outfitter” of hunting, fishing and outdoor gear are all symbolic to their fans. Not only because they recognize the brand language specific to them, but because to their followers, they truly stand for something that no other brands can supplant.

Ritual ? Routine.

Ritual is behavior embedded with meaning, purpose and belonging. Ritual is not the same as habit or routine. Routines become habits. Rituals, when they are vitally enacted by the community, become a way of life. Rituals are the glue bonding together memory, identity, community, and daily living.

There are three elements that differentiate a ritual from a simple routine.

  1. It must be done outwardly, socially, in public so that the community can sanction and reinforce the action.
  2. There must be symbols that can be seen or touched, similar to a diploma or wedding dress.
  3. A ritual must be regular and predictable. It happens at certain times of the year, or when someone reaches a certain age.

Brand rituals occur when a person ingrains a product or service (and their associated behavior) into her daily actions. This forms a kind of intimate relationship. One that goes beyond habitual consumerism and moves into mindful and purposeful use of the brand and its offering as a vitally important part of daily existence. When done well, ritualized brand behavior aligns the experiential and emotional.

“When done well, ritualized brand behavior aligns the experiential and emotional.”

This kind of ritual becomes a tradition that is passed from one user to the other – transforming otherwise similar offerings into differentiated brand behavior.

Ritualized brand behavior permeates popular culture.

Here are some quick examples of ritualized brand behavior in daily life:

Corona. Squeezing lime into your corona has become synonymous with the brand– nobody serves Corona without lime.

Guinness: Built, not poured. You must wait several minutes for it to settle before you can drink it.

iPhone’s sliding to accept a call, close an app, launch a game.

Kit Kat: Breaking the chocolate cookie apart.

The Olympics: The opening ceremony, carrying the torch and the lighting of the flame.

Toblerone: Whacking the Chocolate Orange to separate the slices.

Popsicle: Breaking the double stick into two, single popsicles.

Tootsie Pop: How many licks does it take to get to the center?

By translating actions into brand-specific meaning, rituals can help build lifelong bonds between brands and consumers. Rituals are rights of passage, rites of enhancement, integration and renewal. Symbolism and ritual have been around for as long as humankind has populated the Earth. The very act of performing the ritual gives the consumer ownership.

Think of IKEA. The shopping experience where everything is reimagined for you in small format, brightly colored plastics and reasonably disposable modernist light-wood. A walk through IKEA is similar to a ride at Disneyland. They entertain, inspire and make you desire (through self-identification) while they carefully guide you through a thorough step-by-step brand experience –from the warehouse floor to your floor at home where you build the dresser in 46 steps (or stations of the cross).

Brand ritual is sticky.

Recent research by The Association for Psychological Science divulged that most adults continue to twist their Oreo cookies apart and either lick the filling before eating the cookies or dunk them in milk just as they did as kids. Ongoing advertising depicts parents and grandparents sharing this ritual with youngsters reinforcing the joy of eating Oreos and so the ritual is passed down from generation to generation. Oreo remains the #1 cookie brand at the age of 100. This often-cited example, which demonstrates that the power of rituals goes even further – they can increase our perception of value, too. In other words, if people perform rituals as part of their participation or consumption of your brand, then they are more likely to see it as having no alternative.

Harley Davidson management recognized that the brand had developed as a community-based phenomenon. The “brotherhood” of riders, united by a shared ethos, offered Harley the basis for a strategic repositioning as the one motorcycle manufacturer that understood bikers on their own terms. The Harley Owners Group is a riding club for Harley Davidson owners. HOG membership brings global brand fans together with special events and benefits “bound by the passion to ride”. What’s cool here is that the brand which symbolizes rugged individualism brings the “brotherhood of riders” together but allows each member to define and experience the brand in their own way, even as they observe time-honored HD rituals on the road. For motorcycle enthusiasts, there isn’t any other brand like HD; they’re part of a very special group and lifestyle choice. Yet HOG site reaches out to would-be HD fans, too, with pages that invite them to try a bike, customize and trick one out and blog about their experiences and passion for the brand with other members of the cult. There’s a dedicated magazine and an online shop to buy HD gear. So become one of us but do it your own way.

Further research by the Harvard Business Review demonstrates that the power of rituals goes even further – they can increase our perception of value, too. In other words, 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, be willing to pay more for it and are much more likely to brag about it to others.

What are your brand’s rituals? What could you enhance about your offering by viewing the tactical aspects as cultural building blocks? To find the answers, look at ways to integrate a set of beliefs and a sense of belonging to drive unconscious reinforcement with the ultimate goal of passionate brand worship.

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Founder, President, & Chief Strategist
David was two decades into a design career with a wall full of shiny awards and a portfolio of clients including Nordstrom, Starbucks, Nintendo, and REI. His rocket trajectory veered when his oldest child faced a health challenge of indeterminate origin. Hundreds of research hours later, David identified food allergy as the issue and convinced skeptical medical professionals caring for his child. Since that experience, David and Retail Voodoo have been on a mission to create a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable food system for all.

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