Seeking the human meaning in consumer behavior

The Rituals of Commerce

The Rituals of Commerce

My most powerful and practical work examines the rituals that maintain client organizations and support enduring relationships with the people that they serve. People often assume that commercializations has stripped our culture of its rituals. To the contrary, because of the social complexity that commercial interactions require, we live in the most thoroughly ritualized society ever to exist. Ritual is all around us, but we move through it so intimately and intuitively that it is invisible to us.

Understanding Ritual

Ritual is an ancient set of behavioral techniques used to create community identity and to manage the individual identities of members within communities. Ritual techniques work by building emotional engagement and channeling it into culturally constructive purposes.

Rituals consist of interacting cycles of symbolic behavior that provoke participants to leave behind their current social identities in order to adopt new identities. Rituals accomplish this transformation through the creation of threshold experiences set apart from the ordinary rules by which people structure their lives. By transcending ordinary rules for behavior, ritual participants also become capable of transcending the psychological structures that prevent them from making changes in their social identities.

The difference between a ritual and a mundane routine is the significance that people choose to invest in the activity in question. Any mundane activity can become ritualized if its higher purpose is recognized and given proper attention. Ritual transforms work into sacrifice. It elevates education beyond the level of mere knowledge into an experience of transformation. It moves professionals to surrender financial gain in the pursuit of a larger sense of accomplishment, and re-frames setbacks as a tests of character on the path toward greater success.

Weddings provide an obvious example of the transformational power of ritual. In our society, people can become legally married simply by filling out paperwork at a government office. However, most people choose to spend a great deal of effort and money putting together wedding ceremonies. It’s the ritual process of the wedding, rather than the legal paperwork that couples fill out to accompany the ceremony, that enables couples to actually feel married. It’s the ritual that brides and grooms share with their families and larger communities that earns them the social recognition and support they will need to sustain their marriages after the wedding day is over.

In our commercial culture, rituals drive the economies of life-changing events, but also move people through the small transformations of everyday life. Acts of buying and selling themselves are highly ritualized experiences of exchange that transcend mere economic and functional objectives. The products and services that we consume also take on ritual significance as they help us to define our roles at work and home, and to move between the many social identities that contribute to our overall sense of self.

The Elements of Ritual

Whether large or small, no effective ritual is a simple event. Just as chemical compounds are created by the bonding of distinct elements to create a new substance with its own unique qualities, rituals are created through the combination of seven distinct behavioral elements. As they come together, these elements provoke an emergent experience that is more complex and more culturally powerful than the sum of its parts.

1. Effective rituals begin with acts of physical and conceptual separation to distinguish the ritual from ordinary experience.
2. They provoke feelings of disorientation in time and space that allow participants to focus on the here and now of the ritual, rather than on their attachment to what they have left behind.
3. Rituals set up alternative systems of taboos and transgressions.
4. At the height of the ritual experience, participants experience symbolic recombination of core cultural concepts through encounters with unexpected artistic presentations.
5. Ritual participants receive guidance in the interpretation of these symbolic displays.
6. Ordeals of trial and reward test their worthiness of ritual participants.
7. Finally, successful rituals close with acts of reorientation that integrate participants back into the framework of ordinary social structures.

All of these elements of ritual work together to create an integrated experience that shifts abstract motivation into tangible behavioral change, altering what people do by transforming who they are.

In order to determine the strength and opportunities of clients’ commercial practices, I conduct ritual diagnostics to assess the condition of each of these elements. The outcome is an identification of concrete and specific actions that can be taken to enhance the experience for client and consumer alike.

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