Rituals – The Secret to Instant Innovation

Why does knocking on the table before eating a baby carrot make it taste better?

It may sound like a bad cracker joke, but researchers at the University of Minnesota and Harvard Business School have shown it to be true: Performing a ritual before eating said carrot made study participants believe it was better-tasting, and more expensive!

The research demonstrated that engaging a consumer in ritualised behaviours imbues products with additional value. Added value, as we know, drives profits. In other words: here’s an opportunity to make your product better without even changing it.

Consumers don’t always need new products… they just need better reasons to use existing ones.

Why are rituals so powerful?

A true ritual is more than simply a habit (which is learned, automatic and routine). Habits provide behavioural short cuts to help us simplify daily processes and save brain power. Rituals add an emotional dimension to an experience and give it meaning.

Take the simple act of drinking a cup of tea: at its heart it’s a functional activity for quenching thirst. But tea is so much more; a way to comfort a friend who’s upset, a social lubricant when awkwardly welcoming the in-laws for the first time, celebration of a special birthday or welcoming your partner home.

Rituals add enjoyment or give meaning to the process of consuming/using a product. They can also provide comfort, allow for emotional expression or signal membership of a group.

Brooke Bond Tea, a major tea brand in India, positions itself as being the tea brand that strengthens family relationships and builds bridges between people within diverse communities. As a brand it attempts to own one of tea’s most important rituals roles: helping thaw awkwardness between people and building bonds.

Why does that matter? Put simply: Consumers will pay more for products that are more enjoyable to use or that provide a means for emotional or social expression. You don’t necessarily need to rework your product or packaging in order to achieve this.

Benefits of creating brand rituals:

  • Rituals can make your product top of mind in your category. A good example here is Oreos. Dipping cookies in milk was already category behaviour, but Oreos added a whole new dimension to this existing behaviour  (with their “… twist, lick, dunk”) to take ownership of the occasion.
  • Adding a ritual can add differentiation in a category where it can otherwise be difficult. Corona did this with their message to add a wedge of lime and drink straight from the bottle. Drinking Magners on ice is a similar example.
  • It can increase brand enjoyment. Enjoyment leads to higher engagement and higher repeat purchase. Apple understand this well. Even the unwrapping of their products is considered an important ritual that should be enjoyed; allegedly there is special room at Apple HQ just for playing with the packaging.
  • It can build emotional connections. Giving a sweet to your best friend wasn’t such a big deal until Rolo came along and made it a meaningful demonstration of your love to give away your last one!

What makes for a good brand ritual?

Here are some tips and questions to help you on your way:

  • Build on existing consumer behaviour rather than try to synthetically create new behaviour. Giving someone you love a chocolate was already established behaviour, but Rolo took ownership of this specific moment.
  • Be relevant. Does it serve a purpose? Consumers have to understand why the ritual is worth it. Does it help make the product taste better? Does it make the user look knowledgeable? Does it build social currency with a group?
  • Make it easy to remember and to execute. Brands aren’t the most important things in consumers’ lives… don’t ask too much. (e.g. Corona’s slice of lime)
  • Make it enjoyable. Is there a process of creation or crafting that adds to the enjoyment of the experience? (e.g. Kraft Lunchables for kids)
  • Own it. Make it specific to your brand. Does it link in with brand personality and values or start to give you the brand stretch you’ve been striving for?
  • Make it shareable. Does it include a social element or generate group belonging? Can it be passed on by word of mouth or observation? (Jäger bombs are a great example)
  • Create a feel good factor. Does it make something laborious or boring more enjoyable? (e.g. Clinique’s 4-step programme which encouraged people to adopt a fuller skin care routine that might have seemed a hassle before)

How to find your ritual opportunity

Insight is key here. Find ways to research and observe existing category habits and behaviours and to gain deep understanding into the meaning behind these. How could you build on these and add an enjoyable ritual? Watch consumers interact and behave with your product: Is anyone already doing something interesting you could encourage and turn into the next big YouTube sensation? Are your consumers already engaging in novel or surprising uses for your product (i.e. something that it was never intended/ designed to do)? How do you create a ritual that gives consumers a better reason to use your product over another?

In a nutshell, rethink the usage experience; not necessarily the product.


This article was originally published on the website of The Strategy Distillery.

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Shelly GreenwayShelly Greenway is a front-end innovation strategist and partner at The Strategy Distillery –  a brand innovation consultancy that specialises in opportunity hunting and proposition development. Their success rates are driven by their proprietary consumer co-creation IP.

Shelly Greenway

Front-end Innovation Strategist at The Strategy Distillery, a brand innovation consultancy that exists to increase NPD success rates.




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