Can we build an emotional connection and long term relationship with consumers in a commoditised category like MILK?Ramkumar R S
In an earlier article, we saw how consumer rituals can become a deep source of competitive advantage for brands, giving raise to the concept of Brituals.
Brituals – Recap of the earlier article.
Brituals belong to a paradigm, where products are transactional, but brands exist to fulfill an emotional need. The brand needs to build that emotional connection and long-term relationship with the consumer. If not, the brand just becomes another product with a name and logo. Brands that do not have a strong emotional relationship with their consumers, have more churn, low pricing power, lag behind on product innovation and have low profitability. In today’s world, it is also important for Brands to be authentic and have a social purpose or cause for which, profits are just a means.
Consumer Rituals are those non-religious habits of consumers that have a strong emotional core. Consumer Rituals are closely entwined with a category, product or brand (Walking-Footwear, Headbath-Oil, Watching Sports-Jersey). Studying, using and measuring these Consumer Rituals can become a deep source of competitive advantage.
Why MILK for this Sample Case?
Using MILK as an example, I am going to address a key concern that has come from some marketing practitioners – “Using Consumer Rituals for Brand building – isn’t it exploitative on the part of a brand to do so?”
Even if you are in a product or category unrelated to MILK, you can use this as a sample case to understand the power of Brituals.
MILK is a “commodity”. You can hardly find any difference in product attributes between one brand and another. For a given type of product (based on Fat and SNF) and in a given geography (based on government policies and taxes) there is negligible price difference between brands. Most MILK brands have positioned themselves on a platform of health (for adults) and growth (for children).
The co-operative movement and the white revolution in India, has brought packaged pasteurized milk to millions of consumers in our cities and towns. Till recently, each city or town had one monopoly player, which was often owned by the government or a non-profit cooperative society.
Off late, private dairies and private milk brands have come up, and they try to compete with established names. Since there is no product differentiation or pricing power, private dairies have limited margins and have to compete with modest budgets.
Value added products derived from Milk (Like Ghee, Butter, Curd, Butter Milk, Flavoured Milk, Ice cream etc.) are unique products, and they have to be treated differently. Value added products have more scope for differentiatiation than MILK. So, all the more reason why we have to take up MILK first.
All consumer rituals have a socio-cultural and regional context. The examples given in this article are for demonstration purposes only. The exact approach to be followed for a specific brand in a specific region has to be thoroughly researched and thought through before it is implemented. Since the purpose of this article is educational in nature, I might have over generalized certain aspects. So, practitioners are requested to consider these ideas as “hypothesis”. These have to be tested and proven using appropriate methodologies.
Step 1 : Identify a consumer ritual associated with the category
The right approach is to do study the target audience using professionally designed market research tools. For the purpose of this article, I have taken some Consumer Rituals, that I am familiar with:
a. Most Indians start their day with Milk, one way or the other.
b. Even millennials living alone, who do not believe in Customs or Traditions, start their day with a cup of cereals and cold pasteurized milk straight out of their refrigerator.
c. Many Indian women prefer to heat their packaged milk, first thing in the morning even though it is pasteurized.
d. Many Indian cultures (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, cutting across religions, castes and languages) have a custom of heating milk as the first step while moving in to a new house.
e. Farmer festivals in many parts of India, involve heating milk and rice together and allowing it to spill over.
(People offering milk to God during Pooja is a religious ritual and hence I have not considered it here)
(I have deliberately used the word “Heating milk”, because, pasteurized milk is heated, just enough for it to froth over the vessel once. Whereas “boiling it” refers to the process of boiling for over 15 minutes to kill organisms and bacteria.)
Step 2 : Find the emotional truth behind the ritual
If we juxtapose the above rituals against each other, it appears that, in many Indian cultures, cutting across religion, caste and language, milk is associated with “auspicious beginnings”. A new harvest year, life in a new rented house, a new day.
A more modern explanation for “auspicious beginning” could be “A promising start, filled with possibilities of success and plentitude”
Step 3 : Integrate the Consumer ritual in to your brand building strategy
If we focus the marketing communication on the “auspicious beginning” or “A promising start” symbolized by milk, the emotional connection it will make with the consumer is going to be that much stronger compared to a communication that is based on “health” or “vitamins”.
The associated rituals could be “boiling milk at a new house”, “Having Hot Coffee / Tea” or “having cereals with cold milk”.
The next question is, “How can a brand convert this category level ritual in to a Britual – something that is closely associated with the brand in the minds of its consumers? How can we expand, extend and embellish this ritual and strengthen the brand-ritual association?
1. A brand specific music jingle that oozes “Auspicious beginning” and a “promising day ahead that is full of possibilities and success”
2. A music card / track that plays traditional “auspicious non-religious music” (customized to the region / geography / target audience) followed by the “brand specific jingle” – people can open this card / track while heating the milk and close it after it is over.
3. Bright Coffee Cups and Cereal Bowls that are designed to represent “promising start to a new day”
4. Silver ware for the traditionally minded.
5. A Special steel vessel with an integrated plate at the base, that allows milk to boil-over without soiling the stove or burner. (Some people believe milk spilling on the stove and burner is inauspicious, and some people believe allowing the milk to boil over represents a hope of plentitude. Some others don’t like the cleaning up that follows after they forget to switch off the stove in time. This vessel might satisfy some of them.)
These ritual wares are not very different from jerseys used by fans watching sports or jackets used by motorcycle riders while going on long trips.
These are just a few examples to demonstrate the concept of “ritual ware”. It is important to study, think-through and arrive at the appropriate “ritual-ware” that suits your target market and audience.
These “ritual-ware” need not be given free. They can be priced and can become an additional source of revenue.
Step 4 : Measuring Consumer Rituals
A Base level survey among the target audience to ascertain what % of them associate milk with auspicious beginnings (before prompting and after prompting).
Continued Surveys to measure the usage of “ritual-ware” during the ritual and the share of each brand (assuming multiple brands implement this strategy)
Loop back and fine tune strategies based on survey data.
Do more focus group studies and insight generation for Value Added products such as Ghee, Butter, Curd, Butter Milk, Flavored Milk, Ice cream etc.
Step 5 – What is the Brand’s Purpose of Existence?
Using Consumer Rituals for Brand Building – isn’t it exploitative? Inherent in this question is an assumption that brands have to wear a mask in front of their consumers, that is different from who they really are. Another assumption is that Brands are just trying to sell products at a premium price, by exploiting human emotions.
And yes, if the brand’s primary purpose of existence is to make more money, then using consumer rituals for brand building will only make it sound selfish and exploitative. So, you would rather remain a product, keep your relationship transactional and be true to your own purpose. Because today’s consumers can easily figure out whether you are authentic or not.
What if your Brand’s purpose of existence is to give hope and positive attitude to its consumers?
Like NIKE that promotes a culture of “Just Do it”, can your MILK brand represent a hope of “Auspicious beginnings”?
Or “Plentitude and Success”?
What if your MILK Brand’s purpose is to become the “unifying cultural force” that is so very Indian, cutting across religions, castes and languages.
This is why step 5 is so very important. Because we may have to go back and fine tune some of our communication, positioning, rituals, and ritual-ware to align with this. May-be we will find other MILK related rituals to represent the brand’s core purpose of existence.
Once we do that, then we have to ask the next question.
How do we transform the organization to truly live and breathe its true purpose? It is not sufficient to make the brand “sound” authentic. Can consumers feel the Brand as if it is a living being that they can relate with? Is there coherence between the emotional values represented by the brand and the way the company’s employees feel and act?
We will cover all these and more in future articles.
To conclude this part, BRITUALS is not just another marketing trick that you use to increase sales. It is a journey that has multiple dimensions. We explored some examples using a sample case of MILK.