Ritual, Symbolism, and Building A Brand

In marketing and design, the tendency for most people given the task of figuring out how to engage more customers is to focus on the individual and his/her reaction and behavior at a fixed point in time. We gauge reactions to advertising via testing, track eye movement for a website, count impressions, and record how many people stop at a display. Rarely do we take the time to understand how a product, service or brand fit into the larger picture of shared human behavior and meaning. Unfortunately, that means we overlook elements in the consumer’s life that have the potential for moving interactions with a brand from a transactional moment to something much more profound and long lasting. One element that is overlooked to our detriment is the nature of ritual and how it can be used to understand the customer. And consequently grow the bottom line.20081107082447

A ritual is a set of actions, performed mainly for their symbolic value. The term usually refers to actions which are stylized, excluding actions which are arbitrarily chosen by the performers. It may be prescribed by the traditions of a community, be it the larger culture or a subset of it.  Regardless of how profound or mundane the act is (from prayer to the brushing of teeth), a ritual activity is something of great importance when we think about when, how, and where to reach people.

From a researcher’s standpoint, ritual behavior can be thought of in a binary way (of course, this is only one way of breaking it down, but being an out-of-the-closet Structuralist my inclination is to construct models this way). On the one hand, ritual is an outsider’s or “etic” category for a set activity or series of actions which to the outsider seems irrational or illogical. On the other hand, the term can be used also by the insider or “emic” performer as an acknowledgement that this activity can be seen as such by the uninitiated onlooker. Understanding both positions, however, is pivotal in uncovering why people do what they do.

A ritual may be performed on specific occasions, or at the discretion of individuals or communities. It may be performed by a single individual, by a group, or by the entire community. It might be performed in arbitrary places, or in places especially reserved for it. It may be public or private. A ritual may be restricted to a certain subset of the community, and may enable or underscore the passage between social states. The purposes of rituals are varied. They are used to strengthen social bonds, provide social and moral education, demonstrate respect or submission, state one’s affiliation, or to obtain social acceptance or approval.  Rituals are used to ensure that certain “necessary” actions take place to keep us safe and happy. Sometimes rituals are performed just for the pleasure of the ritual itself (I’m thinking of my own after-work cocktail).

Alongside the personal dimensions, rituals can have a more basic social function in expressing, fixing and reinforcing the shared values and beliefs of a society or a group.  Rituals aid in creating a sense of group identity. For example, nearly all sports teams have rituals incorporated into their structure, from simple initiation rites when a team is established, to the formalized structure of pre-game pep talks.

At this point I can practically hear someone saying, “Yes, yes, that’s all very interesting but why does it matter to me?” Fair enough. The reason it matters is because rituals are constant – they are acts we perform whether we think about their deeper significances or not. Rituals are actions, they are not something we tend to ponder in great detail. From a marketing or design perspective, that means understanding ritual behavior leads to creating materials that become part of the fixed, long-term pattern of a  person’s life. If done right, your brand or your product becomes part of the ritual, making it that much harder to set aside when a new product or brand comes along.

Add to that the very simple fact that human being are symbolic creatures and ritual, being a symbolic act, applies deeper meaning to a brand because it adds deeper meaning. Language, thought and actions are all part of the larger symbolic landscape through which we interpret the world. The instance an object or activity, not to mention a brand, gain symbolic value the more likely they are to become integral to how we interact with the world and become necessary to our lives. The Apple sticker on the back of a person’s car says a great deal about the person – it’s worth noting that we rarely (if ever) see a Microsoft sticker. The brand has gained a symbolic relevance and is as much an element of identity as the clothes we wear for a night on the town.

Finally, understanding ritual allows you to uncover new, analogous areas for growth. A seemingly unrelated ritual or set of ritual behaviors may, in essence, be transferable to a different brand or product category. For example, if you want to understand how hydrating before and after a game can be ritualized, it makes sense to understand how “pre-gaming” takes place when groups of young men drink when tailgating. There are parallels related to shared ideals, social bonding and the act of conquest. That means new ways of messaging and promotion.

Rituals are at the heart of what it means to be human. They include not only the various forms of religious experience or rites of passage, but also modes of shopping, identifying people “like us”, and content consumption on a website, etc. Many activities that are ostensibly performed for concrete purposes, such as the Black Friday rush to the mall and hitting the car lots the last day of the month, are loaded with purely symbolic actions prescribed by tradition, and thus ritualistic in nature. If you come to understand that, you come to understand new triggers and can develop a long-term relationship with your customer.