Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Eve. Eid. Diwali. Hanukkah. Religion aside, they're all more or less rituals that we've inherited from our parents, or adopted during our lives. They are things that we do because they got under our skin, got embedded in our lives and now we're doing it almost instinctively.
But – pardon my curiousity - how many of our rituals are influenced or dictated by brands?
Well, Christmas might be one of them. After all, Santa as we know him today was partly created by Coca Cola. Then there's teeth brushing - introduced by Colgate. And how about Oreo's little trick - twist, split, dip in milk. Guinness's 125.27 seconds. It seems that we, as consumers, adopt rituals that brands dictate. They sing, we dance - over and over again, until it becomes a habit, until it becomes the norm, until we do it instinctively. Has New York Times taught us to read the newspaper every morning with our coffee? Or Facebook to update our status on the bus to work? Has Starbucks taught us to go to coffee shops to find inspiration? And let's not forget about the queuing up in front of Apple store, the morning after CEO’s keynote.
The reflection that I'm suggesting for this month is around the way brands are using rituals and the impact they have on consumer's lives. Is it about manipulation? About creating loyalty? Belonging? Unintentional repetition? How much of what we do is brand-driven rituals? And how much is just habits born out of feeling too comfortable? Can brands get to own moments of our existence?
So the PingPong question for December is:
What are brand rituals, how do they work and how do they affect our behaviour?
Very UK, ancient and chocolate-centric but Kit-Kat's famous ritualistic opening of the (then) foil wrapper with a finger nail and snapping the bar (have a break, have a Kit-Kat) fits this for me (If you're younger than 40 you'll probably need to look on YouTube). Similarly Cadbury's Cream Eggs had a popular and ritual-inspiring "how do you eat yours" campaign that simultaneously amused kids and appalled parents in the 80s.
We like rituals because they are reassuring. Rituals give us a sense of security, a sense that everything is in order and is in its proper place. Rituals help us to remember things. After we do this, then we need to do the next thing. And, in a world largely dictated by chance, rituals help to make us feel in control.
If we put it into a branding context, I don’t think the people who create brands necessarily feel that they are also creating rituals but, in a sense, some of them are. A woman makes up her face through a ritual involving brands. The brand guides the ritual. I suspect that I use my I-phone as part of a ritual. Starbucks reinvented the ritual of reading the newspaper while having a coffee on the way to work in the morning. It emerged first in Central Europe 150 years ago but Starbucks has somehow made it part of contemporary living.
I don’t think brands necessarily create rituals but a brand can become part of a ritual. Look at Nike, Adidas, Puma or any cycling brand. They are part of a ritual of becoming somebody else and people buy into those rituals because there’s a promise of obtaining a certain result. It’s the same with bottled water, part of the ritual for staying healthy.
Do brands create habits or rituals? No - but they certainly influence them.
Will modern technology brands lead to better habits in humans?
So on one hand we're growing taller stronger faster, on the other hand we're more sedentary and generally have bad posture sitting for hours on end looking at a screen be it TV, tablet or smartphone. We watch infants tackle with ease the now perhaps archaic mouse click and the intuitive click and tap, pinch and swipe, the all familiar electronic glow on the face of a teenage hunched over a device. What does this mean in evolutionary terms? Are these posture changes just a habit we are able to "grow out of" or will these become part of our DNA eventually like the development of opposable thumbs as in Wall-E. Of course not! - it took millennia for us to evolve but certainly the tech brands are changing our everyday habits.
Along with simple texting rather than calling, 140 character soundbites rather than context and meaningful interpretation brands are changing the way we interact. In many situations we choose to watch "a moment" through the lens in a detached way rather than experiencing the moment "live". Facebook has become a new daily habit to the point of obsession blurring the line between boasting and informing. This is however not a new phenomenon with the likes of Hoover changing how we clean and coke re-inventing Santa and Edwin Land the father of Polaroid too for making it possible to capture every moment on film. With the idea behind these habit-changing brands being to make our lives easier or more engaging and free up time, what new habits are we forming? Finally do we have time for that habitual trip to the gym or to make a habit of spending quality time visiting family or friends? Unlikely I suspect, it's more likely we'll simply spend longer in front of screens living a vicarious life.
Finally though, this year the first ball of the world cup in Rio will be kicked by a paralysed teen wearing a robotic exoskeleton seen by millions of people in 214 countries worldwide perhaps the maker of the exoskeleton will be the next habit-changing tech superbrand?
Cleansing, toning and moisturising is understood to be the ideal ritual to perfect one's skin. Though we have always cleansed our skin, and moisturised it in some way or another, we owe the concept of this three-step routine to Clinique.
Before Clinique codified our skincare ritual, we were devising our own and learning from those tips handed down from our grandmothers, with all the quirks of generations of family secrets. The ritual Clinique presented us with allowed the brand to define the idea of simple, quality skincare and it gave us all comfort that in three simple steps, we too could achieve perfect skin.
But this ritual is only about good skin. The three-step ritual allows Clinique to sell us three products as essential (in place of one or two: cleansing and moisturising), and through the comfort and consistency of ritual build deep loyalty to their products. Clinique shows us that rituals can care for your skin as well as to their bottom line.
To me, brand rituals are things we do to make us feel a certain way and that only specific brands fulfil. For example, the Starbucks case is a great one that I can identify with most times. If I simply want coffee I would not go there, but if I want to get the ‘coffee experience’ or chill-out coffee break or anything of the like, I would go to Starbucks because with their atmosphere, service and smell they give you that experience that you’re looking for.
So, how does a brand ritual work? I believe it's 100% in your head and it becomes a ritual when you expect a certain experience every time you interact with that brand, not just a one-time surprising experience.
Our behaviour is affected in that we suddenly don't want a certain experience in itself anymore, we might start thinking first about the brand we long for, before (or if we even do the second step!) we think about the specific experience (product or service) we long for. So brands have to a certain degree replaced the idea of a ritual by the mere idea of the brand itself that makes us automatically engage in that behaviour.