Brands have successfully utilised rituals for their symbolic and emotional power for some time, but how will new rituals be built when AI and voice assistants become our most common interface, asks Gareth Kay.
In 2017, I was lucky enough to see former Vice President Joe Biden talk. It was a different kind of talk to the ones you usually see politicians give as it's a book tour where he reflects on his life in the light of his son Beau's death. At its heart, it was a talk about family and the central role it has played in his life. One of the themes Biden returned to several times was the importance of rituals and traditions in the family. He talked about the annual Thanksgiving trip to Nantucket, the family meetings and dinners. These rituals were the things that grounded him and provided important teaching moments for the family and for him. They provided order.
Now at first blush you might argue that this feels a slightly old-fashioned view of the nuclear family. But the reality is that rituals and traditions are becoming more important than ever in our hyper-accelerating and fragmented world. The American Psychological Association reviewed 50 years of research and concluded that family routine and rituals are critical to the health and wellbeing of families more than ever as they try to meet the increasing demands of juggling work and home. Rituals and traditions have become more, not less, of the rock that offers us stability and reassurance in more frenetic, demanding and stressful times. They create a much-needed sense in today's increasingly isolated world of togetherness and belonging.
Brands have utilised rituals for their symbolic and emotional power for some time. Oreo cookies created the ritual around 'twist, lick, dunk'. Terry's Chocolate Orange arguably built ritual directly into its product experience. The language you use to make an order at Starbucks. The six-step pouring experience – the glass, the angle, the pour, the head, the top off and the first sip – that makes Guinness worth the wait. Rituals have allowed brands to encourage more habitual product consumption while building a sense of community. They create anticipation before consumption. They build distinctiveness of experience, with the added benefit that they have real baked-in longevity (when they catch).
All powerful rituals, but all created some time ago. The brands built on ritual over the past decade or so – think SoulCycle and the way they have created an experiential journey rather than a fitness routine – are few and far between. And I think a big part of the reason why it feels like brands are not creating rituals anymore is that we've begun to see routine and ritual as being the same thing. They're not. They feel like similar concepts – things that you do over and over again the same way – but they have incredibly different attitudes behind the action. Routine is about function: the stuff we need to, or have to, get out of the way. Rituals, on the other hand, are informed by intent. It's a sequence of steps, but they are carefully curated and edited with true purpose and meaning at their heart.
When you look at how marketing is increasingly working, the desire for seamlessness in delivery, always on in presence and transparency in form means brands increasingly are designing experiences that are built on routines rather than rituals. You see it in user onboarding. In how we increasingly think about media and channel planning. In the ways we tend to think about how our brands can most effortlessly fit into our consumers' lives and 'get the job done they're hired for'. And as a result, it feels like more and more brands are becoming functionally excellent but are increasingly devoid of soul. There's no emotion in the way they do things.
So, how might we think about building new rituals? Well perhaps the first thing we can examine is how people already live their lives. Far too often now when we think about designing the experience of the brand, we are optimising for speed. It's a product-first view of the world. What if we instead zoom out and look at what people do already in their lives and ritualise this behaviour? What could we do to make our morning routine feel a little less functional and turn it into a ritual? (Yes, I'm thinking of that horrible habit of firing up the phone as soon as the eyes open.) What might the shared language and reactions be when two users come across one another? What might we bake into the AI and voice assistants that increasingly will become our most common interface? If we think about how we might bake repetition and symbolism into the experience to ritualise it, rather than trying to optimise for efficiency, perhaps we'll create more distinctive and memorable experiences that are worth talking about.