Rituals of transformation enable individuals and organizations to make a clean break from their present identities, leaving them free to embrace new possibilities. Rituals of renewal, on the other hand, give breaks – in the sense of restful pauses – from the demands of the present identity.
The ability to cross borders between the emotional and the practical is what makes ritual such an excellent tool for those in the budding movement to rehumanize business.
At a recent gathering of marketers, I was struck when a speaker told the audience, “Behavioral change is the Holy Grail of market research.”
I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but the term fits what I’ve seen, years watching frustrated clients confronted by what seem like insurmountable barriers. No matter what they tried, they couldn’t convince their customers to change their basic decisions about how to live and what to buy. Despite all the innovation in marketing over the last century, the field has yet to devise a consistently effective method for getting consumers to change longstanding patterns of behavior. That’s because, by and large, marketers have accepted a static view of consumer identity. People are who they are, many marketers have concluded, and that’s not something anybody can change. Is it?
If behavioral change is the Holy Grail, perhaps it’s something we’re reluctant to obtain. What chance does anyone have of wielding its power in their day to day work? The whole point of the Holy Grail is that no one can really ever grasp it. The grail is always out of reach, something to yearn for, but never actually use. The Holy Grail creates a repository for what anthropologist Grant McCracken refers to as “displaced meaning”, a collection of ideals that, although beautiful in the abstract, are unrealistic in practice, and so are purposefully imagined to be just beyond reach.
Faced with this limitation, marketers have focused their efforts on working with market segmentation, increasingly powered by the tools of Big Data. They seek to categorize consumers into different types, and then craft methods to target the right type of consumers – people who are already engaging in the kind of behaviors that fit with their products and services.
As quantitative techniques for gathering Big Data are perfected, marketers have an unprecedented ability to identify and categorize consumers into target segments. Segmentation is static, however, in the sense that it categorizes consumers into types that are thought to drive their purchasing behavior, rather than considering the potential for these consumers to change their behavior over time. Segmentation is very useful in targeting efforts to appropriate audiences, but marketers also need an understanding of when, how and why consumers shift from one segment to another.
Applied anthropologist Kate Sieck points out that rituals have the potential to change consumer interactions with the products available to them in the marketplace. “Rituals are culturally salient experiences designed to transform a person, and thus their relationships to others and to material goods,” she explains.
Ritual brings together biological instinct, cultural insight, psychological need, and social power to create sustained changes in what people do by changing who people are. That’s something that simple persuasion, whether logical or emotional, cannot do.
The power of ritual to create shifts in brand loyalty comes in part from its unique ability to integrate multiple levels of human experience. Ritual literally moves people, providing them a means to grapple with psychological and social barriers through dance, procession, travel, gesture and other symbolic movements. As Connor Wood, scholar of religious studies, explains, “Ritual helps shift what the mind values by dictating what the body does.” The ritual process liberates people from the zeal of the logical mind, bringing people through a series of actions that begin in the body, rise up through the structures of emotional motivation, and receive a veneer of rational justification before being shared and reproduced in a social network that is strengthened by the shared ritual experience.
At its heart, ritual is the method that people use to give physical reality to their beliefs. Ritual transforms what people want into what they do. An understanding of ritual can therefore be useful to anyone who seeks to go beyond abstract discussions of consumer motivation, to influence the tangible reality of consumer behavior.
The practice of ritual moves people over the threshold that separates intention from action. Larry Neale, Richard Mizerski, and Alvin Lee from the University of Western Australia point out that ritual must be an activity, not just a way of thinking or feeling. “Rituals are laced with emotion, symbolism and even cognition, but rituals must be performed,” they write. This distinction is essential in marketing. It is the difference between purchases we intend to make and completed sales. It marks the boundary between profit and bankruptcy, which the rituals of commerce help us cross.
As an impatiens, jewelweed has explosive seed pods. They blow up at the touch of a passing deer, dog, or human hiker, sending seeds hurtling through the air.
Today is Prime Day, 7/15/2015 – a date, you may notice, that is not at all made up of prime numbers. So, what makes tomorrow, the 15th of July, 2015, prime?
It’s the day before the 20th anniversary of Amazon’s first day in business. It’s called Prime Day in commemoration of Amazon Prime – a premium level of Amazon membership that people can buy for the price of a hundred dollars per year.
CNBC reports, “Walmart can match Amazon in terms of warehouse delivery, can match or beat Amazon on most prices, and will charge half the fee that Amazon customers now pay for Prime service—$50 a year. That’s why Bezos has announced a massive online shopping event on July 15 exclusively for its Prime members, which the company claims will rival Black Friday. Specifically, Amazon claims that Prime Day has “more deals than Black Friday” – an assertion that may be strictly true within Amazon, but doesn’t take into account the Black Friday deals available elsewhere.
To try to make Prime Day more than just a sale, Amazon has invested in a few efforts toward communal involvement. Amazon has commissioned “local” artists create pieces of art showing what “Prime Living” – the experience of having membership in Amazon Prime, involves.
Amazon Prime members are encouraged to contribute artistically as well, by sharing photographs illustrating what being a Prime member – #PrimeLiving – is all about.
Commercial holidays can take on aspects of authentic ritual, and Amazon’s solicitation of artistic imagery is a nod in this direction – an opportunity for symbolic recombination of powerful cultural memes to create visual epiphanies for participants. However, the Prime Day #PrimeLiving campaign fails to gain such coherence. The artists’ paintings tend toward the literal, showing people having fun next to boxes of things from Amazon.
The photographs from Amazon Prime members likewise fail to create a larger symbolic narrative. One Prime member shared a photograph, seen below of a book ordered from Amazon, with its pages folded to make a heart-shape of paper, next to a glass of milk and a bush of flowering hydrangeas.
The book makes sense, as Amazon started out as a bookseller, but what’s with the glass of milk and flowering bush? The #PrimeLiving contributor doesn’t explain.
Another #PrimeLiving contributor shares a photograph of a trip to the Columbus Zoo.
Then, there’s a #PrimeLiving photograph with a cute kitten.
Kittens are cute. Zoos are fun. What’s the connection between these things, though? What concept do they share in common? They offer no vision of what it’s like to be an Amazon customer, much less any insight into the meaning of Amazon Prime membership.
Effective symbolic recombination requires actual mixing of symbols, not just the listing of them, one after another. It also requires a context of meaning in which new combinations of familiar symbols can make sense. The Amazon #PrimeLiving campaign lacks these structures of coherence. They’re like the Amazon brand itself, which stands for nothing specific, but offers a huge range of barely organized stuff, lots and lots of it.
What’s more, the #PrimeLiving contest doesn’t offer its participants a closer relationship with Amazon as a reward for their symbolic offerings. It merely offers $10,000 in gift cards – to just one participant in every eligible nation. That’s a slim chance at a payoff, not an inspiration.
Rafi Mohammed at the Harvard Business Review offers this basic explanation for Prime Day: It’s a way for Amazon to get lots of new customers signed up to its Prime service. Amazon wants more customers to use Prime because customers who are signed up on Prime tend to buy more things through Amazon than Amazon’s other customers do. So, Amazon is betting that new Prime customers will increase
What Mohammed does not argue is that Amazon will improve the relationship Prime customers have with Amazon. Although Prime customers may buy more from Amazon, they aren’t strongly attached to the service, or to Amazon as a brand. This keeps Amazon in the business of discount sales – a commodity business that it will dominate only so long as it can squeeze the best prices out of its suppliers.
This approach work for Amazon right now, but it doesn’t elicit a strong emotional attachment, even among its most habitual buyers, and that makes Amazon vulnerable in the long term. When I asked a group of my college’s alumni about Prime Day, one of them explained, “I buy a ton of crap on Amazon. I would love the crap I buy tomorrow to be cheaper than normal. I’m vaguely aware of Prime Day, but not enough to research how it works ahead of time. It [If] it’s easy to find good deals on stuff I already want, I’ll take advantage. If I have to dig deep, visit the site during certain hours, or can only get discounts on curated goods that I don’t care about, then meh.”
One of the vulnerabilities of a commodity business is that it’s a game of mutual exploitation. Marketers and consumers try to work the system to out-cheap each other. Neither side is willing to put in the work necessary to create a more satisfying experience, and so, it’s easy for big competitors to come in and steal customers away with comparable deals. There’s no genuine loyalty built up over time with customers, so the minute that they think they’ll get something more cheaply elsewhere, they’ll leave, with nothing more than a “meh” in parting.
So, we see that other big retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy are elbowing in on Prime Day, offering their own limited-time online discounts. As with Amazon, there is no sense of meaning behind the sales. They’re economic offers, not cultural events.
Prime Day, Mohammed notes, isn’t really a holiday. It’s a “a self-interested homage to rock bottom prices”. That makes Prime Day different from Black Friday.
Black Friday ostensibly involves the pursuit of deals, but there’s much more to it than that. Unlike Prime Day, Black Friday is open to anyone who chooses to participate, and it centers around unusual practices that occur in the physical world.
Black Friday shoppers who camp out in lines all night aren’t really getting a good return on the investment of their time and effort. The pursuit of savings is a justification that gives permission to participate in the holiday. Black Friday includes strong elements of ritual, such as disorientation in time, separation from the ordinary, and violation of normal codes of behavior, and tests of worthiness in exchange for significant rewards.
On Black Friday, the pursuit of deals is a mask for a deeper cultural phenomenon. On Prime Day, there’s nothing behind that mask.
Amazon = stuff for sale.
Amazon Prime = stuff for sale with cheap shipping.
Amazon Prime Day = stuff for sale with cheap shipping at a discount.
This is not the kind of material from which lasting relationships are made.
When a company says that it is seeking an ethnographer to work in an “incredibly collaborative and fast-paced” research environment, what it’s offering is not a job in ethnography.