Seeking the human meaning in consumer behavior

Why Work With Ritual?

Why Work With Ritual?

Ritual practice is a human universal. Thinking about ritual isn’t.

Marketers may wonder why they should bother to learn to integrate ritual into their work. Certainly, marketers can get by without understanding the principles of ritual. However, marketers who want to do better than just getting by need an edge. For those who are looking for an advantage that can enable them to achieve beyond typical expectations, ritual marketing offers distinct benefits that cannot be consistently delivered by either traditional marketing techniques or new data-based systems of marketing automation.

Ritual is a part of normal human experience

Although rituals place participants in out-of-the-ordinary states of mind, they do so through practices that cultural insiders regard as perfectly normal. In fact, rituals help maintain overall social cohesion and stability even as they enable individuals to go through dramatic transformations. Rituals aren’t dangerous, or difficult to control. On the contrary, they offer contained opportunities for temporary liberation that are easily managed. Though they suspend the ordinary rules, rituals establish their own alternative systems of rules, designed to keep participants’ more dangerous impulses in check.

In our commercial culture, we all use some elements of ritual to manage everyday problems, but we usually don’t consciously realize that’s what we’re doing. In order to design effective ritually-based strategies, marketers need to learn to how to recognize the aspects of ritual that are already present the products and experiences that they sell, and how to develop the beginnings of ritual where it does not yet exist.

Ritual improves product quality and value

The results of a series of experiments by a team from the Carlson School of Management and the Harvard Business School suggest that there is a great deal more to consumers’ assessment of quality and value than any objective measurement could reveal. In these experiments, researchers Kathleen Vohs, Yajin Wang, Francesca Gino and Michael Norton measured two groups of participants’ perceptions as they engaged in the simple act of eating a chocolate bar – but with an extra step added to the process. Members of the experimental group performed a short ritual before eating their chocolate bars, while the control group merely waited a short amount of time before eating their chocolate.

The chocolate bars eaten by the two groups were exactly the same. However, people in the group that performed the short ritual before the eating the chocolate bar behaved differently than the people in the control group. They lingered over the chocolate, taking an average of almost ten seconds longer to eat their bars than the people in the control group did.

Perceptions were also changed by the ritual experience. People in the experimental group described their chocolate bars as more enjoyable than people in the control group did, even though the chocolate bars given to the two groups were exactly the same. What’s more, when research participants were asked to assign a fair price for the chocolate bars they had eaten, members of the experimental group said that they would be willing to pay over 70 percent more for their bars, on average, than members of the control group.

This experiment shows that the introduction of ritual into the context of consumption can dramatically improve consumers’ perceptions of the quality of a product, and lead to a willingness to pay higher prices without changes in the product itself. If marketers can harness the power of ritual, they can increase profitability dramatically. Commercial ritualization brings much more than just an abstract sense of engagement. Ritual marketing has the potential to bring remarkable ROI.

Ritual transforms suffering into sacrifice

Functional approaches to marketing presume that consumers are primarily motivated by factors such as convenience and low cost. However, the results of a recent series experiments on the impact of ritual experience contradict this common presumption. In these experiments, a team of researchers led by Ronald Fischer and Dimitris Xygalatas found that, in the context of ritual, satisfaction can come as the result of extreme suffering and sacrifice.

The researchers compared the physiological and emotional states of participants in and observers of different ritual activities occurring as part of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam in the island nation of Mauritius. During the festival, people can choose between forms ritual that involve a relatively low level of ordeal (such as prayer and singing) and forms of ritual that involve a high level of ordeal (such as walking on hot coals or sword blades, piercing the face and body, and dragging carts by cords attached to hooks embedded in the skin).

One might expect that the people who watched the extreme suffering involved in the ritual were happy not to be participating themselves, but actually, the opposite was true. At the end of the rituals, the people who went through these ordeals actually reported feelings of greater happiness than those who merely watched the rituals take place.

Furthermore, the greater the ordeal people at the Thaipusam festival faced, the less physically fatigued they were in the end. Simply walking in procession resulted in more intense feelings of exhaustion than what was experienced by those who walked in procession with metal skewers pushed through their cheeks.

Of course, it would be culturally inappropriate for marketers to ask consumers to pierce their cheeks, walk on hot coals, or go through rites of body modification to demonstrate their brand loyalty. The Mauritian experiments do suggest, however, that the creation of a meaningful ritual context can help marketers get around the rationalizations of convenience and low price.

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