… and why they’re worth billions to businesses.
In a recent blog post on HBR.org, I suggested that many of today’s successful brands are behaving like organized religions because they have adopted the same core principles that major organized religions have developed and refined over millennia to gain influence over people’s thoughts and actions.
These brands provide customers with a set of core beliefs and values to live their lives—“Just Do It,” “Love the skin you’re in,” etc. Many of them have their own divine personages and creation myths—consider the story of Apple’s founding, or think about how readily we see Elon Musk of Tesla or Jeff Bezos of Amazon as saviors. They have robust fan communities that provide social support well beyond the product’s boundaries, virtually replacing the physical, geography-based communities of the past. All of these things used to be provided by religions for millennia. Perhaps this is why today’s brand-loyal customers are called followers, congregants, or even evangelists.
In this post, I want to consider the power of another core aspect of organized religion that many successful brands have co-opted with great success—the cultivation and use of brand-specific rituals.
What Role Do Rituals Play in Religious Practice?
Rituals are behaviors that a person performs regularly, every day (brewing coffee), once a year (Thanksgiving dinner), or somewhere in between. Rituals follow a specific script, and possess symbolic and personal meaning. This is what makes them so powerful. They sometimes, but not always, involve participation by others. Over centuries, people have developed religious rituals to mark rites of passage in life such as birth, the transition to adulthood (like Quinceañera), marriage, and death. People also perform rituals to mark certain times of each year like the end of the harvest season; to please or praise divine powers; or to ward off misfortunes (specific Vedic ceremonies in Hinduism). Sociologists have argued that rituals are important to every culture because they provide order and structure to our lives, and assure us of our place in the bigger scheme of things.
In marketing, there are numerous examples of brands explicitly, and successfully, encouraging consumers to engage in rituals specifically involving their products:
- The Oreo Twist, Lick, Dunk. The distinctive twist, lick, dunk (in milk) routine many use to eat an Oreo cookie is perhaps one of the most successful and long-lived rituals marketers have created. It enjoys consistent advertisement and gleeful embrace by consumers around the world. In a highly competitive market with fickle consumers, many credit this routine for propelling the Oreo cookie brand to annual sales that top $3 billion.
- The Corona Beer Lime Wedge. A chilled bottle of Corona beer comes with a wedge of lime in its rim. While the origins of this ritual are unclear―speculations for the lime’s purpose range from wiping away rust from metal caps to keeping flies away―it is clear that the company encouragespresent-day customers to embrace the ritual.
- The Jeep Wave. Part of owning a Jeep is the obligation to wave enthusiastically to another Jeep driver on a trail, in country lanes, and in parking lots. (Waving is not required on freeways, at night, etc.). While owners of some other vehicle brands like the VW Beetle and the Mazda Miata have tried to adopt this ritual, Jeep customers retain credit for originating this ritual and remain its most fervent practitioners and propagators.
- The Apple iPhone Launch Queue. About twice a year for the past several years, when a new iPhone is launched, consumers around the world line up outside Apple stores, sometimes for days, to be the first to purchase the smartphones. So far, Apple has encouraged this ritual by making the first buyers of its products feel special and limiting initial supply to create a sense of scarcity and urgency.
These are just some well-known examples, but many smaller brands are also able to use rituals successfully with their customer base. This begs the question: Is a ritual the cause or the symptom of a successful brand? I want to make the case that regardless of how well-known or powerful a brand is, creating compelling rituals provides it with significant benefits. Here’s why:
1. Rituals encourage habitual product consumption
In her influential book on rituals, religious studies professor Catherine Bell says:
“One of the most common characteristics of ritual-like behavior is the quality of invariance, usually seen in a disciplined set of actions marked by precise repetition…The emphasis may be on the careful choreography of actions…or the rhythm of repetition in which the orchestrated activity is the most recent in an exact series that unites past and future.”
Consider how much of our own consumption follows this pattern of regular and predictable actions. From brewing Starbucks coffee in precisely the same way every morning to stocking up on specific brands of cereal, spaghetti sauce, or laundry detergent periodically, many of our ritualistic buying behaviors are “invariant.” And the longer they remain so, the more likely they are to turn into entrenched habits as we use environmental cuesto perform certain actions—e.g., as soon as I get out of bed, I make coffee. We may still enjoy the symbolic and meaningful aspects of the ritual, but perform them habitually, making it easy for us to keep buying the brand.
2. Rituals lock customers into the brand’s customer community
Whether it is carrying out the Jeep Wave, going on a weekend ride with a Harley Owner’s Group or socializing new gamers in an XBOX User forum, many brand-specific rituals are based on social interactions between customers.
Customers tend to enjoy such brand-specific ritualistic activities that involve participation by others. What’s more, such rituals don’t have to involve physical proximity—they work just as well online even when the participants are far-flung strangers.
Social brand-specific rituals draw consumers into a community of like-minded brand enthusiasts. They provide a substantial value beyond the functional and esthetic aspects of the product. Over time, such communities can become very important, taking the place of close friends, and even family members. And they ensure that the customer will stay committed to the brand for the long haul for the sake of continuing membership in the community.
3. Rituals give customers a compelling reason to choose the brand in a crowded marketplace
Consider this: Without the twist, lick, dunk ritual, the Oreo is just another sandwich cookie, indistinguishable from dozens of others on the market. With the ritual, however, the Oreo is unique. The ritual is part of what the brand stands for and what it means to us. Both the ritual and the brand are part of pleasant childhood memories for many consumers. If a competitor brand or some private label sandwich cookie tried to get us to imitate this ritual, or to claim it for itself, it just wouldn’t work.
What is the big takeaway from this discussion?
Well-designed and popular brand-specific rituals are virtually impossible for competitors to imitate, no matter how similar or even superior their own products may be. The twist, lick, dunk ritual belongs to Oreo and Oreo alone. For the foreseeable future, it can keep socializing new generations of children to practice this ritual—and become loyal and life-long consumers of its cookies.
Utpal M. Dholakia, Ph.D., is the George R. Brown Professor of Marketing at Rice University.