Building Brands On Ritual And Sacred Consumption

Emmanuel ProbstDecember 26, 20174 min

Scott Galloway contends that Google is not a search engine, but rather an atheist God where we search, ask questions and hope for divine intervention.

Beyond the searches we type in Google, we sacralize many of the things we consume by treating these products and services with some degree of respect and awe. Social influencers often talk about that new makeup that’s to die for or being completely psyched about the Museum of Ice Cream. Some stores like Starbucks have become places of pilgrimage: where we are willing to wait in line with 10 people in front of us even when the coffee shop next door is empty.

Sacred consumption has mixed with consumer experience. Marketers and consumers fill places, people and events with sanctity as a way to achieve a transcendent experience.

Forward thinking marketers harness ritual and sacred consumption to foster consumer loyalty, accentuate the uniqueness of their brand and command a price premium.

How does this all come together? Let’s look at the processes by which consumers sacralize and desacralize dimensions of their experience.

Ritual Consumption

Carol Kaufman-Scarborough defines rituals as patterns of behavior tied to events that we deem as important in our lives. These events often come from our culture, religious background and traditions. They often have some special symbolic meaning and are repeated regularly.

She describes ritual consumption as the consumption of goods and services tied to specific rituals. Artifacts are the items we use in a ritual.

For brands, ritual consumption is the holy grail of loyalty. If we consume a product regularly, we end up using a lot more of it and re-purchasing the product without thinking twice about it. That’s why advertising tells us to use that daily cleanser everyday, drink our morning cup of Joe and take melatonin as part of our bedtime routine.

But telling people what to do is not enough. In fact, it will likely turn your Gen X,Y and Z consumers off. One way to succeed is to establish your product as an artifact that is used as part of existing rituals. For example, establish your store as the destination for our morning jolt. That’s how Dunkin Donuts has earned #1 ranking in the coffee category by positioning itself as an all-day, everyday, stop for coffee and baked goods.

Another example is our travel routine. When boarding a plane for a long flight, we might grab some eye shades, a comfy sweater and maybe a scarf to feel warm and not get sick. Emergen-C and Airborne did not invent vitamins and I challenge you to articulate the benefits of all 13 vitamins, minerals and herbs (why not 12? Or 17?). Instead, they positioned their product to become part of our traveling ritual, along with our sweater, scarf and the hand sanitizer we carry everywhere (another product we consume ritually).

Sacred And Profane Consumption

Sacred consumption is related to special events that are out of the ordinary. These events could be holidays, rites of passage and religious events. This contrasts with profane consumption, which is related to events that are a part of everyday life. We sacralize objects, places and people when transforming them from profane to sacred. Conversely, desacralization refers to the loss of sacred status.

Las Vegas has built its success on becoming a pilgrimage destination for consumers from all over the world. Its casinos, restaurants and night clubs are sacred as they are places where rituals continually take place. These rituals continually evolve through new shows and experiences that are meaningful to participants. In his book Consumer Behavior: Buying, Having and Being Michael Solomon points out that establishing these rituals normalizes the activity of spending money and contributes to making places such as Las Vegas sacred. In other words, the more consumers visit Las Vegas, the more acceptable and normal it becomes for them to spend money there.

Realistically, very few brands succeed at creating new rituals or (even harder) becoming sacred. I believe the key to achieving such success is in establishing a meaningful emotional connection with your audience. Solving a functional need is not enough. Yes, most of us need caffeine in the morning to get our day started (or at least we believe so). But dozens of coffee brands and products can deliver that jolt to us, from instant coffee and caffeine capsules, to a nitro cold brew.

Dunkin exemplifies the successful evolution from delivering a functional benefit (coffee for busy Americans on the go) to establishing an emotional bond with its customers. Its latest campaign ‘Keep On’ focuses on giving its customers positive energy by positioning itself as our buddy in our daily struggle. I now challenge you to reconsider the functional attributes of your brand and evolve these attributes into emotional benefits. And start your journey from commodity to ritual artifact to sacred brand.

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Emmanuel Probst

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