What if Ritual was the future of brands?
Christophe Rolland is a freelance senior brand strategist and lecturer at the IED Istituto Europeo di Design in Milan, Italy and ISCOM Paris, France. He argues consumers still desire the sacred in their lives, and that brands hold the key to utilising this urge through the adoption of ritualisation.
Brands tirelessly seek to convince us of their uniqueness in order to attract and retain us. In other words, they create difference to create preference. Paradoxically, in marketing the consideration given to the brand ritual is still quite random.
On the one hand, the Brand Ritual is admired, cited as an example, a tangible contribution to the value of the brand. Starbucks, with the customer's first name written on the cup, is now a classic case study in business schools.
But when it comes to strategic thinking, the ritual is still underestimated, considered as incidental, a kind of superfluous coquetry. However, if a brand marks itself as unique, any interaction with it should be too. A strategic reflection on its rituals is therefore essential.
Like all brand manifestations, the ritual should be designed as an extension of the strategy. It is an emanation, a deduction of the strategy, and not a simple decorative element. To give a concrete example, if a brand defends values of conviviality, its testing ritual will certainly be based on sharing, like all the instruments created for this ritual. Conversely, if the brand cultivates secrecy and exclusivity, the trial ritual will be designed as a privilege reserved for the happy few – a quasi-initiation ritual.
"A rite is what makes one day different from other days,
an hour from other hours”
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
So what's a ritual?
It designates regulated practices of a sacred or symbolic nature. Or even a set of prescriptions, gestures, which regulate the liturgy of a religion. Although the ritual is also profane, the religious dimension is omnipresent.
For several decades, brands have extended their field of action, from a simple product to the one of ideology. They have metamorphosed into highly prescriptive devices of values of all kinds: ethical, aesthetic, hedonistic or even values of truth. Logically, some of them end up being compared to religions, sometimes arousing the same fervor and their shops becoming real places of worship (cf. Apple and Apple store). At this stage it is legitimate that they also have their own liturgy: the Brand Ritual.
For a brand, the ritual is above all the repetition of a habit, a codified and singular way of proceeding. The ritual is both a habit and something special.
A Brand Ritual brings together actions governed by a scenario with ad hoc instruments to accomplish it. The ritual also implies a transmission, it is explained or learned, it is in this that it enriches the cultural capital of the brand.
To be legitimate, it will have answer two essential questions: why it exists and how it is performed.
A ritual also summons distinction, Bourdieu's concept . Take the example of Cire Trudon. The brand of scented candles has invented a test ritual with a glass bell as instrument to accomplish it, used to protect the precious scented candles from dust, of course, but above all to show how to smell them.
Indeed, the error would consist in smelling by putting the nose directly on the candle (sacrilege). On the contrary, it is about delicately lifting the bell, turning it towards oneself to smell inside. It is by watching what others do that one acquires this know-how which is transformed into distinction, that of being among those who know how to do things. In short, insiders.
Extension of the domain of the ritual
The ritual should not be limited to the only external practices of the brand, and only to its customers. Its internal and external use are two sides of the same coin. In both cases, the ritual makes it possible to federate by reinforcing the feeling of belonging, whether it is that of employees or customers.
Corporate ritualization invents particular ways of recruiting, of welcoming a new employee, of meeting for a convention, of innovating together and even of celebrating victories. Unlike the external ritual, it cannot be imposed. It must be co-created with the employees of the company so that they appropriate it. Under no circumstances it should be experienced as a constraint of an artificial nature.
External ritualization, for its part, can intervene at each stage of the custumer experience, from trial to packaging, to purchase, including delivery and all of the brand's cultural and promotional events. Rituals can also be invented by the customers themselves, in their particular use of the product which gradually crystallizes, or even co-created with them.
Brand Ritual proves to be a new surface of mediation between the brand and its various activations, giving the opportunity to strengthen differentiation and brand culture in a transversal way.
Is the ritual a social necessity?
How to explain this irresistible attraction for rituals? Brands that have taken it seriously by integrating it into their strategic thinking are reaping the rewards in terms of influence and loyalty. Perhaps this is because the ritual re-enchants their daily lives by bringing a dimension of surprise and poetry, emancipating them from the predictable reflexes of marketing.
What if the reason for its success was deeper, inherent in the very function of the ritual? We live in a so-called secularized society. Since the Age of Enlightenment, faith has been gradually replaced by reason and the community by the individual. Our postmodern societies are subject to injunctions to happiness, entertainment and "being oneself", the latter seeming paradoxical.
However, we still need the Sacred and a symbolism of transcendence. Rituals, like their transmission, represent an anthropomorphic constant. They constitute a cement of our societies and found the community and the feeling of belonging.
So, isn't the Brand Ritual a modest echo of the Sacred, in a society that has actually lost it?
 Bourdieu P., Distinction - A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Harvard University Press, 1987.