I followed a man the other day. He was unremarkable, except for one detail: he was listening to a pristine, vintage CD Walkman. I recognized the model, of course. It was a final generation Sony Discman — as thin as a CD itself, with a matte metallic exterior and polished chrome trim, fiber optic output and a twist action, cylindrical headphone remote with an illuminated LCD display. In other words, everything I could have possibly wanted in a music device — in 2003.
Strangely, it is less curious to see someone with a Discman today, than it was just a few years ago. Carrying retro-tech is rarely a case of personal misfortune; it is mostly one of personal choice. Kids like Spotify, parents prefer iTunes. The lazy listen to Pandora, purists download 24bit high resolution tracks. Like sneakers, how you listen to music is a ritualized statement of identity — whether it be a retro-upgraded iPod classic, a steampunk bundle of portable electronics, or, as in the case of the gentleman I had spotted, a beautifully appointed CD player from a parallel universe.
Curiosity piqued, I immediately shadowed him and his music player. He was walking at a rapid pace across the elevated bridge that connects Hong Kong’s IFC building with the Landmark shopping centre.
Hong Kong is a city of many levels. The street is all clamour and chaos, salary workers and battered red taxis, while far above, high rise towers cling to mountain tops, between which the inscrutable wealthy move unseen in black limousines. Somewhere in the middle, you will find elaborate sky walkways, that connect almost every downtown building into a vast labyrinth of granite, steel and luxury stores.
That’s where this story begins.
When I finally caught up to my target, he was ordering a coffee at the ‘Brew Or Drip’. I hadn’t seen this coffee kiosk before. Small and hip, there were only three things on the menu: black, white or drip. The ‘drip’ option was three times the price of the other two, and as I watched, also seemed to take twice as long to prepare. It was quite a show. First the beans were ground, then the glass pot heated and the paper filter prepared, before finally, slowly and ceremoniously, temperature monitored water was poured over the fresh grounds.
I guess it was not a surprise that my ritualistic music man, had an elaborate coffee drinking ritual as well. In case you were wondering, Starbucks is all about ritual as well. At Starbucks, ordering and customization are the customer ritual. People have all kinds of crazy, highly individual ways of modifying and pimping out their beverages, with varying degrees of success. At the ‘Brew or Drip’, in contrast, your optionality was seriously limited — it was, well, brew or drip. The brand ritual was not how you ordered, but the elaborate way in which your order was prepared.
Music and coffee are obvious candidates for brand ritual, but there are many others as well. We do strange things to Oreo cookies, we stick lime wedges in bottles of Corona, snap and share a Kit-Kat or even slurp hot tea through Tim Tam chocolate biscuits (if you are an Australian). Rituals infuse our product experiences with meaning, purpose and magic. They even, as revealed by psychological research, make our taste of food more enjoyable.
The digital world is not without its own rituals, either. Search YouTube for ‘unboxing videos’, and you will find 29.4 million fanboy clips that transform the simple act of opening a package, into a solemn, and painstakingly slow, liturgical sequence. Similarly, when the Apple Watch was first released, it couldn’t be bought — just demonstrated in a 30 minute ‘try-on appointment’ by a ‘specialist’ who would then facilitate your ordering process.
Purely digital brand rituals are interesting, because they seem to dissolve much more easily into the fabric of our daily behaviors. Many consumers no longer just watch TV, they ‘Netflix and chill’ (although, in a wonderful example of semantic drift, even that now means something quite different for Millennials!).
Not surprisingly, Facebook is also a thriving petri-dish of ritual incubation. Think about what happens on birthdays, now that the practice of sending a Hallmark card has been usurped by a wall post (or if you really like the person, a personal direct message). The Facebook Data Science team can even predict people’s impending relationship status changes, based on the rate at which they tag each other in photos.
Ritual is a powerful tool for any brand, physical or digital, that wants to go beyond customer awareness, to a deeper, more primal level of engagement. That said, you have to be prepared to give up control.
The best kinds of rituals are not the ones invented by your creative agency, but those that spring up spontaneously in the wild. Find them, observe them, and whenever you can, amplify them.
We may have left the wonder of the savannah and the shaman behind, but even now, there is this small, ancient part of ourselves that can’t help but imbue the world around us with magical meaning.