Photo Rob and Julia Campbell |


From Habits to Rituals

In the quest to become indispensable to consumers more brands should consider how they can ritualize their brand experience

Reading Time: About 5 minutes

I celebrated my 48th birthday this week. I’m generally not one of those people who makes a big deal about laps around the sun. Too much fuss makes me feel more awkward than gratified. But ever since I marched past the midlife median I have become more reflective about the ritual we celebrate on the anniversary of our entrance onto the stage of life.

As marketers, we don’t spend enough time thinking about rituals. One of my marketing mentors, Dennis Rook, wrote a seminal piece on the power of consumer ritual. I was lucky enough to hear him lecture on this topic in person. I remember the class vividly because I wrote a note on the margin of the syllabus: “study this!” Rook’s piece explored the powerful and profitable connection to ritualized consumption experiences such as birthdays. He noted the prescribed behaviors such as giving gifts, eating cake, blowing out candles, singing songs, etc.

Ritual is not the same thing as habit. Brushing your teeth could be a ritual, but for most of us it’s a habit. The dividing line is a spiritual one. Rituals transport us to another dimension; they reframe our thinking and consciousness. In a ritual, we cross a threshold. We are more engaged, reflective, and open to persuasion. This is why more brands should spend time thinking about ways to ritualize their brand experience.

Growing up, my family went to church every Sunday. We actually weren’t very religious. We didn’t talk about God much and we barely remembered to say grace before meals. But we never missed church. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve the ritual of church. I loved three things about it.

First, true to my love of theatre, I relished church’s pageantry—the costumes, the music, the changes in liturgy and custom that followed the seasons.

Second, I loved the community. We saw the same families every week and we watched each other grow up. We congratulated our fellow parishioners on their promotions, new babies, birthdays and shiny new cars. We also consoled each other in tough times. We were a tight knit group of compatible souls who came together to navigate through life, usually over coffee, orange juice and assorted pastries.

But what I loved most about church was the storytelling. When I was an adolescent, it was Pastor Ken Dahlstrom spinning yarns about his cats, sometimes relating their adventures to the acts of the apostles. In later years it was Monsignor Clement Connolly, who could effortlessly connect the liturgy to his golf game. I joke but the truth is that their homilies were often powerfully reflective and their stories connected our faith to current events and the world around us. There was nearly always some degree of humor in them, and there was always an abundance of respect and love. I’m a sucker for a good story, and most of the clergy who shaped my memory could just as easily have delivered a TED talk.

These stories were embedded in a ritual. We stood. We knelt. We sang. We ate a wafer and drank some wine. We read passages aloud together. And in the midst of all this ritual behavior came a message—a few minutes of storytelling in which all of us could relate and reflect and quiet our minds and step out of the world that harassed us at every turn outside.

Imagine if more brands followed this example. Most brands assault, rather than provide refuge to their audiences. Rare is the brand that transports us to a place that is guided by community, driven by purpose and elevated by storytelling. Most brands seem more interested in making themselves a habitual part of our life. To achieve this, they rely on gimmicks, discounts and switching costs.

Discount. Promote. Repeat.

I don’t go to church on Sundays anymore, but I try never to miss Laura Crago’s Survivor ride at SoulCycle. It is everything that I loved about church as a child. First, there is pageantry. We enter a darkened studio. Candles burn. Music booms. People are dressed funny. We follow a celebrant (Laura), who leads us through a prescribed series of acts while perched atop a sacred platform. This is theatre!

Second, there is community. I see the same people every week. They started out as strangers but now they’re familiar to me. We chat outside before class. We ride next to each other. We learn tidbits about one another every time Laura shares some of our stories from the podium. This is a congregation.

And then, there is the storytelling. I adore Laura because of her liberal use of non sequitirs. Her stories are full of seemingly random insights, often punctuated by self-deprecating humor. But, like any good preacher, Laura links these observations to a theme. Today, it was the headstand. Early in the ride, Laura brought up the yogis who can do perfect headstands. Then, she reminded us that they didn’t start out doing those. And, in fact, our perception that headstands were only for the ideal yogis–the ones you see in perfectly posed photos–is misleading. There are people who look like you and me who can do headstands perfectly. It’s not a function of body type, or size, or age. It’s a function of practice and determination. Her theme started loosely. It wasn’t heavy-handed. In fact, it dissipated into the ride only to return here and there as a reminder of why we showed up.

I grant you that not every business can create a ritual the way that SoulCycle or Disney or Kimpton Hotels can. These are high-touch brands that enjoy a tangible, in-person opportunity to drive customers through a linear progression of experiences with an abundance of personal contact. But every brand can think more about ways to transform habits into rituals.

The switch from habit to ritual requires more thinking, planning and execution than conventional branding approaches, but there are three important focal points that can simplify the process.

One through the many.

Great rituals address the individual within the group. The best rituals resonate with the consumer at a personal, intimate level even though the connection happens in a group setting. SoulCycle riders feel like the instructor is speaking to them, and them alone.

Make them work.

Great rituals are not passive. They require your consumer to expend some effort. To many brands, this is the antithesis of good service. Yet, there is ample research to suggest that people feel a greater sense of satisfaction when they are required to contribute to the process. That’s not to say that you can build a great brand by inconveniencing your customer. Instead, give your customer meaningful tasks. SoulCycle riders sweat … a lot.

Direct the attention toward a higher purpose.

Joseph Campbell, the master of myth, was often very critical of the Catholic Church for Vatican II, when the church reformed the Mass to make it more colloquial. A lifelong Catholic himself, Campbell argued that the reforms

translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language with domestic associations. The Latin of the Mass was a language that threw you out of the field of domesticity. The altar was turned around so that the priest’s back was to you, and with him you addressed yourself outward. Now they have turned the altar around and it looks like Julia Child giving a cooking demonstration—all homey and cozy

Campbell believed that the reforms de-ritualized the mass and in so doing, robbed it of its magical powers. Central to this thinking was the idea that the ritual connects us to something that is bigger than you or me. Great brand rituals connect to value systems. A good SoulCycle ride isn’t about the instructor, and it isn’t about an individual rider. It’s about the shared belief that you can transform your life through hard work and great intentions. Some instructors actually discourage riders from worrying about calories or the weight of a scale. This “higher purpose” allows the brand to ritualize the experience and resonate with audiences. What is your brand’s fundamental belief? Is it the focus of all you do? This is a critical requirement for ritualizing your brand experience.


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