When you think of ritual behaviour what comes to mind?  Maybe it is the ancient chants and symbolic behaviour of priests or other religious figures or maybe the quaint traditions of people in some idyllic holiday location.  Chances are you did not think of how you make tea or coffee, or how you may make your instant noodles (or similar quick comfort food), let alone the way you would serve biscuits at the Monday morning work in progress meeting.  You may think of them as just a habit and ‘just the way it is done’ and of no real consequence.  While consumer rituals can become a habit and how consumers do things have a very real value to both the consumers and marketers.  Unlike a habit, rituals have meaning.


Why are Rituals Important to Consumers and Marketers?

The short answer is that it creates value for both parties.  The ritual itself creates value by giving the behaviour, objects used and outcome meaning and can also give consumers permission to consume.  For marketers, consumer rituals can provide marketers with an efficient mechanism for linking their brand to product use, media planning and further product design.  In advertising, using ritual consumer behaviour is ideal for brand building communication and increasing product adoption by showing consumers when, how, where or with whom to consumer your product.

In a recent study by a group of researchers at Harvard University (see link at bottom of the article) the value of a ritual behaviour value was tested by creating a simple ritual for unwrapping chocolate compared to just allowing people to eat the chocolate.  The experiment showed that not only did the person eating the chocolate think it tasted better after performing the ritual, they were also willing to pay more.  The authors also showed the same was true for carrots, yes, carrots!  With the many rituals around eating Tim Tams, ritual behaviour may help explain their premium price in the Australian market.  Early Tim Tam advertising exploited the use of biscuit rituals.

Rituals thrive where there is the uncertainty of outcome.  Uncertainty about money, health, social acceptance, employment, or any other outcome that is important to us.  The ritual helps us a feeling of control over the uncertainty and help ensure we get the outcome we want.  Gambling, cleaning, and cooking are classical areas for rich ritual consumer behaviour as are areas where the risk is social such as in gift-giving, education and employment.  In the social domain, rituals can become part of what we call manners.   Rituals designed for social acceptance, cohesion, and health.

Part of controlling for uncertainty and ensuring the right outcome is using the ritual acting like a mental check-list of what needs to be done, in what order and by who.  They also help put us into the right frame of mind to tackling a job.  Performing the ritual helps us to feel like we are ready to start.  For example, getting ready to bake ritual ensures we have all the right things and we feel ready to start.

For service products rituals can also form part of the customer journey, describing the overall journey or be specific to particular staged.  For example, graduation ceremonies when completing a course or the rituals associated with the final payment of their mortgage.  Apart from helping us to feel in control of uncertainty rituals also help us give closure and then permission to move to the next stage.

Objects used in a ritual can be viewed as worth paying more for or have consumers place a premium on their quality and price.

A Tea Ritual.  When guests arrive it is loose leaf tea and not a tea bag.  First I ask our guests what type of tea they want; offering a range of types like green, black, fermented, loose, and rolled teas.  When making the tea I put cold water in the kettle on then take out a tea pot with matching cups.  If we do not have enough cups then I have the odd or chipped one.  I like to use smaller cups; not mugs unless I have to.  When the kettle is boiled I then put some in the pot and then empty is and pore in more again, to heat the pot and clear it out, even though the pot is clean.  When serving the tea I fill the cup of the eldest female or the female guest first then their partner.  I always put the milk in last even for loose leaf tea.  My grandmother said this was to ensure you have red head children.  And then there as the biscuits and cake!


Let’s Take a Step Back.  What is a Ritual? 

A ritual is a sequence of behaviours, spoken or performed, that have meaning beyond their functional role and are repeated in similar contexts.  While ritual consumer behaviour can be a habit, which is automatic behaviours, rituals have the meaning ascribed to its parts or the overall act.  Habits tend to be more simplified behaviour, while rituals require multiple behaviours.  Unlike habit, a ritual can extend over more than one person and over extended periods of time.  For example, a birthday gift-giving ritual can be made up of sub-rituals that start with the buying and may end with how the wrapping is disposed.

Some ritual consumer behaviour may have roots in tradition and religion, but many have family or person-specific origin and were developed in relation to marketing which may have reflected existing ritual or created the ritual.

Another way to understand ritual behaviour is by knowing the elements that make up a ritual.

  • Artefacts. Artefacts are any objects used in the ritual.  A credit card, biscuits, plates, pens or anything.  For goods manufacturers, these are the products you sell and for service companies, they may be the things you provide like a credit card or to symbolise your service.  Some objects can even take on a talisman-like quality.  For example a lucky pen, a chipped wooden spoon, a personal cup or an item of clothing.
  • Scripts. The script is all the details of the ritual of what, who, when, how and why for each artefact and behaviour.  More specifically it is what you happens at each stage of the ritual.  Scripts can vary in their level of prescribed detail and how strict they need to be followed.
  • Performance. Rituals have to be performed with actual behaviour even if it is spoken or written.
  • Audience. While many rituals are targeted towards the person doing them, many are also targeted towards others who may be watching.


A Study Ritual.  First I clear the table of all other work related things.  I study at the dining table which gives me room.  If my children have left a toy behind, I like to keep them on the table but away from where I am reading and writing.  My reading material goes to my left and writing material to my right.  Pens arranged together.  Even if I am know using it, I like to have the text book where I can see it.  The lap top is turned on, then I make coffee.  Rarely do I start with tea.  Before I start to study I like to check emails one last time.  I know this is procrastinating but if I don’t do it straight away I will do it later anyway.    Take a sip of tea.  Now I am ready to start.


How Do You Find Consumer Behaviour Rituals?

Because rituals are so prevalent we often miss them, especially those we undertake ourselves.  Finding rituals in your category starts with looking at the reasons for buying, the path-to-purchase and the customer journey, to understand where a ritual consumer behaviour may exist.  Finding rituals may also involve taking a broader view by looking at the context to uncover its trigger.  Cultural traditions and patterns often act as a trigger.  For example, an education or finance ritual may be part of a broader coming to age or a personal identity transition ritual.  Knowing the context also helps to identify the meaning and value a ritual is designed to achieve and the risks they are trying to manage.

The actual research method used varies and needs to relate to the type of ritual being explored.  For behaviour that is context-dependent and relates to a rapid sequence of behaviours then observation methods common in ethnography may be more appropriate.  Where a person is self-aware of their behaviour then depth interviews and group discussions using techniques like cognitive and protocol interviewing can also uncover the ritual at the right level of detail.


A Pop Corn Ritual.  Movie night with the children is normally a Saturday night.  No school or other activities in the morning.  I get the children to choose four movies, which we all then get to vote on.  While the DVD is put in I make the popcorn in the microwave.  The children come in to watch and hear the corn pop.  Waiting eagerly, I fill a bowl for each person.  Making sure I use their favourite bowl.  They then take their bowl and one for each parent out to the lounge room.



Using Consumer Behaviour Rituals in Your Advertising and Packaging

Marketing has always had a key role in the creation and promulgation of rituals.  Once you have identified the ritual consumer behaviour that best addresses your brand strategy, or have created a ritual, the below tips will help you leverage the benefit of the ritual.

  • Communicate the Triggers. Tell consumers in what situations they should use your product.  While consumers are likely to use your product in other situations, anchoring your product to a specific context will help give your product meaning and salience for important usage occasions.
  • Demonstrate Ritual Behaviour. Show the sequence of the behaviours in a way that each act and the overall process are clearly seen so that a person can repeat the ritual.
  • Integrate Your Product. Clearly show where your product fits in and show it in a way that makes it central to the meaning of the ritual.
  • Assign Meaning. The meaning of the ritual should align with your brand positioning or vice versa.  If your brand is about bringing people together then the ritual needs to bring people together, likewise if your brand is about celebration, personal recognition or other consumer benefits.


Do not ignore packaging in creating a ritual behaviour or collateral material if you provide a service.  Your packaging can play an important part in the ritual process of opening, displaying and using the product.  Japanese packaging often uses this to their advantage.  For services, the packaging and other materials associated with the service take on a significant symbolic role.  With the drive to have all elements of service delivered online, this value-creating opportunity maybe undervalue.

Consumer rituals while sounding arcane and complex are a common part of everyday consumer life from getting ready in the morning to preparing to go to bed and all those other seemingly small events in our day like making a cup of tea, sitting down to study.  As a marketer, rituals offer you the opportunity to align your product with consumer needs, giving your brand an emotional reason for being, creating a distinctive position and delivering value.  The first step in realising their benefits is uncovering and understand which rituals are key to your strategy.


For more information on consumer rituals.

  • Vohs, J., Wang, F. Gino, and M. I. Norton. “Rituals Enhance Consumption.” Psychology Science (forthcoming)
  • Rook, D. W. (1985) “The Ritual Dimension of Consumer Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Research, 12, 251-264.