Consumer rituals can be a deep source of competitive advantage

Consumer rituals can be a deep source of competitive advantage

Tuesday July 10, 2018,

6 min Read

The word ritual is mostly used in the context of religious rituals. People engage in rituals individually, as a family, or as a community.

An example of a non-religious ritual is a sports fan painting his face with the symbol, logo, or colour of his favourite sports team.

There is a very fine line that differentiates between consumer habits and consumer rituals. Rituals have a strong emotional core.

The concept of consumer rituals is not new. The advertising industry often uses consumer rituals as a vehicle to communicate and get the attention of the consumer. For example, a hair-oil advertisement uses the mother-daughter ritual of applying oil.

The study, use, and measurement of consumer rituals can become a deep source of competitive advantage, provided it is consciously and purposefully integrated into brand strategy and execution. How can you go about this, and more importantly, why should you?

Image: Flickr

The importance of emotional connection and relationship

Strategically, a manufacturer can focus on building and delivering a product or service at the lowest cost possible and still be profitable, because of competitive advantages in technology, process, or Intellectual Property (IP). But if the entry barriers are low, someone else with similar technology, process, or IP can easily come in and threaten an existing manufacturer, reduce his margins, take him over, or make him go extinct.

In today’s world, the emotional relationship a brand has with its consumers is the most strategically important entry barrier.

So the ultimate objective of brand building is to establish an emotional connection and relationship with the customer. A brand that is weak in its emotional relationship with its consumers:

  • Will have more churn (customers switching to alternative brands frequently)
  • Will have low pricing power (give in to more offers and discounts, difficult to pass on increasing costs, set prices substantially lower than the competition, etc.)
  • Will have low profitability and cannot invest in product innovations and improvements
  • Will struggle to pick up insights related to changing consumer behaviours and new requirements because the relationship itself is shallow and transactional

Impressions vs connection

Large companies can afford to buy up and saturate multiple mediums (from TV to shelf space) with their advertisements and messages so that their products are always on top of the mind recall of their consumers. They also believe that bombarding a consumer with continuous exposure of their messages will crowd out all other alternatives, making them choose their product by default without any effort. This also becomes an Achilles’ heel or inherent weakness of these big budget competitors.

In developed markets like the USA, there is research data available to prove that such big-budget competitors are seeing a diminishing rate of return, losing market share and more importantly, profitability share, while smaller, nimble brands who focus on the emotional connection and relationship with their consumers are able to grow profitably.

Even in India, while there may not be any formal research done on this subject, we often see that companies that are able to build an emotional connection with their consumers are able to challenge this paradigm and operate with modest budgets.

So the use of consumer rituals as a source of competitive advantage is an imperative for Tier II – Tier III brands, and to those brands who are operating in a commoditized environment with very little product differentiation.

Consumers are increasingly avoiding advertisements

This is more of a recent trend, where consumers have started to actively avoid, skip, mute, and ignore advertisements and messages that are pushed down their throat intrusively.

Today, consumers are willing to pay a premium for ad-free content, and most of the emotionally engaging content and their consumption has moved away from the grasp of “impression-focused” advertisers.

So we need to find ways and means of building and maintaining an emotional connection with the consumer through means other than plain vanilla advertising and promotion.

How can consumer rituals help?

Rituals are essentially “observable consumer behaviour” with a strong emotional core. Consumers engage in them repeatedly and at regular intervals. When the consumption or usage of one or more products is closely intertwined with the ritual, then that ritual becomes a consumer ritual.

Consumer rituals can be classified into:

  • Category-level rituals: “Running” or “walking” is intertwined with the category of footwear.
  • Product-level rituals: Sunday head-bath is intertwined with Sheekakai or groundnut oil.
  • Brand-level ritual: Wearing a yellow jersey of Chennai Super Kings while watching the match on TV.

Brituals – the process

Step 1: Identify

Identify one or more consumer rituals associated with a particular category, product, or brand. This can be done by brainstorming, customer interviews, focus group studies, and any other method that is used for generating consumer insights.

Step 2: Find the underlying emotional truth

Let’s take an example of a Consumer ritual, “Consumers roll the toothpaste tube and squeeze the last bit of paste from it.” Identifying a ritual like this is, in itself, of no value if we do not understand the emotional truth behind it.

Rational explanations like consumers are looking for value for money, or trying to squeeze the maximum out of the money that they have spent, etc. is, again, of no use, because these explanations do not have a strong emotional core. Also, it will not be able to explain contradictions like why do consumers earning Rs 25 lacs per annum, who spend on premium/costly brands, still do this “squeezing the last bit” ritual?

This is where expert intervention is required. “Well-brought-up people do not waste” is probably a better emotional truth that explains this ritual.

Step 3: Integrate the ritual

The objective of this step is to slowly and progressively own this ritual in the minds of the consumer as being associated with the particular brand that they are using. In other words, converting category-/product-level ritual into a brand ritual.

During this process, the brand can expand, extend, and embellish the ritual so that the brand-to-ritual association is strengthened. For example, Harley Davidson sells jackets with their logo, that riders wear when they go on a trip.

Step 4: Measure the Consumer Ritual

Measuring TRP or IRS or Page Views is just a measure of reach. Measuring the emotional connection is now possible if we measure the consumer ritual associated with the category, product, or brand. We can also measure to what extent the category-/product-level ritual has been transformed into a brand-specific ritual, or britual.

These measurements (through sample surveys on target population) can be done periodically every month/every quarter to measure the progress. We can also compare these data across competing brands.

In fact, the data from these measurements can tell us to what extent our brand building strategy and execution is delivering on the ground. We can then loop back to fine-tune and improve.

Ramkumar RS has over 25 years of experience in marketing.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)