I have been pondering behaviour and beliefs a lot recently. Marketing and comms convention typically focuses on (trying to change) the latter in order to change the former. But the inescapable fact is that this works less frequently than we would like to think. In fact, it can often seem as if the exact opposite works harder: focus on the end game, get people doing something different (rather than thinking differently about it), and the beliefs you were trying to foster in the first place will typically follow on behind anyway.
This paradox has clear implications in the area of social issues and action. But it can play just as significant a role in the day-to-day world of brands. The problem is that, in this context, we can all too easily relegate behaviour change to a tactical, point-of-sale exercise: cold, mechanical…and a bit Pavlovian. And despite the truth that beliefs follow behaviour, if everyone is pulling the same levers, there is no advantage to anyone (hmm, sounds like price promotion).
So is there a place for more strategic, brand-building behaviour change?
Yes...and it is called ritual.
Ritual is, if you like, 'branded' habit or routine. And by ritualising your brand in this way, you can elevate behaviour change beyond the world of tactical mechanics to something far more potent and ownable.
Which should come as no surprise. Psychologically, people seem to like, and naturally gravitate toward ritualistic behaviour. After all, ritual has been used to great effect for millennia, in religious, socio-political and even cultural spaces: voting on X-factor is as much a 'ritual' for those who do it as saying liturgical prayers is to others.
What is it about ritual that is so powerful then...and how can brands learn from this? For me, there are 4 dimensions...
- Integration of beliefs: whilst a deep cut price promotion might stimulate behaviour, as stimulus it is content and value-free. Change might stick, and beliefs may adjust accordingly. But evidence suggests otherwise. Ritual, on the other hand, is behaviour that integrates beliefs. Whether responding to the mosque's call to prayer, or having your '5 a-day' of fruit and veg, the behaviour you adopt already embodies a way of thinking...making it far more likely that these beliefs will become your own.
- Emotional connection: a 'buy one get one free' offer might well be a bargain but, emotionally, it's a buzz that's (at best) superficial and short lived. In comparison, ritual is all about deep, emotional content and connection, full of meaning (see pt.1) and rich with potent, memorable symbolism and language. Think of a marriage ceremony (even a civic one). Or having your daily dose of 'happy bacteria' in an Activia yogurt;
- Group belonging: though others may enjoy the same link-save promotion as you, you have no connection to them - it's a solitary act. There's none of the behavioural reinforcement that comes from acting collectively or, if alone, knowing others are doing the same thing elsewhere. Think of a religious service or political rally, where followers of a common cause mutually reinforce the 'rightness' of behaviour (and beliefs)...even for those on the margins. Ritual becomes a badge of membership, and potent 'rite of passage' recruitment mechanic for that reason. Much like joining the queue to ask the barista for your very first Skinny Double Mocha Frappuccino;
- Unconscious reinforcement: sell deals, and that's all people will want. And they won't care where from. But build ritual into your brand, and it provides positive reinforcement...at a deep, unconscious level. Our brains are neurologically hard-wired to follow paths of least resistance...and will always favour established behaviour as a consequence. This is what ritual builds. But maybe more interesting still are recently identified 'mirror neurons', which respond in a similar, unconscious manner to the actions of others. So ritual not only anchors behaviour for the people doing it, but can have a 'viral' effect on others as well. Taking (and watching others take) communion every Sunday becomes expected behaviour, much as seeing someone drink a pint of Magners with ice can seem an idea worth copying.
And the ultimate benefit of building ritual into your brand in this way is that, much as with religion, there is a close relationship between, and short step from ritualistic behaviour to worshipful beliefs. You only need to see the ecstatic worshipers waiting for the latest holy visitation at the church of the Apple (Store) to see this.
In fact, as the BBC recently pointed out, in their Secrets of the Superbrands documentary...
"The Bishop of Buckingham -- who reads his Bible on an iPad -- explained to me the similarities between Apple and a religion. And when a team of neuroscientists with an MRI scanner took a look inside the brain of an Apple fanatic it seemed the bishop was on to something. The results suggested that Apple was actually stimulating the same parts of the brain as religious imagery does in people of faith."
Whether the more extreme examples of such brand fetishisation is healthy or not is another question entirely (I'm not sure it is - there are more important things in life). And such full-on, unquestioning worship may be beyond all but a few brands anyway.
But thinking more pragmatically and realistically, there is still no denying the efficacy for any brand or business of directly targeting behaviour. And branding habits or ritualising brands to cement this behaviour (change), facilitating desired new beliefs as a consequence, just seems a more elegant and sustainable solution than ripping the guts out of price.
(See my next post for 6 tips on creating a brand ritual that will stick)