Brand Strategy

When Consumer Habits Fall Apart, Look For The Rituals That Remain

Now is the time to decide if your brand is a habit or a ritual

When people or brands say, “We’ll get through this together,” or “After the Coronavirus has passed,” they’re revealing a lie in our collective words of encouragement.

There will very likely be no “before and after” COVID.
Instead, there will be a very slow tumbling of closures and business failures, amplified by a reshuffling of social norms and broken ideals.

Today, grocery stores have begun installing plexiglass barriers and safe standing zones for checkout, while airlines have less and less direct flights and stewards ask travelers to raise their hands to go the bathroom. Tomorrow will bring us ultra-hygienic hotels and contactless restaurants.

We won’t really know when we’re out of this, and that means we won’t go back to many of the habits that characterized our pre-COVID lives.

As business slows, the retail landscape contracts, lagging companies rush to D2C and we unwillingly embrace uncertainty in the face of a global deceleration, now is the time to ask yourself what your brand actually means to consumers.

Is your brand a habit or a ritual?

It’s an important question because there’s a good chance many habits will not survive the current climate, but rituals will.
And most of our habits are centered on the products we buy.

Habits make life easy. Rituals make life meaningful.

In a consumer study last month, market research firm Perksy found that 70% of Millennial and Gen Z buyers have already switched brands:

Perksy Study: April 14th, 2020

Granted, much of this brand switching is happening because of lack of availability, but even so, 44% of those who have switched brands are likely to keep buying those new brands after the pandemic has ended:

April 14th, 2020

The vast majority of brands and products are consumed like habits — a regular tendency to repeat the same purchasing behavior because it cuts down on friction, cognition or effort.

We buy the same brand of chips, underwear or personal electronics because we already know we can trust them. Not because they’re the best, but because the effort involved in finding the best outweighs our current ‘good enough’ solution.

That’s why when those habits are effectively disrupted, it’s very easy to stay with the new solution, even if the old solution becomes available again.

But as brands large and small lose their customer base to manufacturing disruptions and retail closures, there is a segment of companies that is not suffering the same consequences.

As sociologist and brand executive Ana Andjelic has pointed out, “Show me what’s NOT accelerating and let’s figure out why.”

In her recent piece, Contradictions, Inversions, Oddities, and Coincidences, she notes that astoundingly, cruise ship bookings for 2021 are already outpacing bookings for 2019.

Moreover, “76 percent of the travelers who canceled a cruise in 2020 chose to take credit towards a future cruise in 2021, compared to 24 percent who opted for a refund.”

Cruise ships aren’t the only outlier here.

Peloton’s backorders extend out over 2 months (and continue to grow), while brands like the Mirror interactive system see huge spikes in conversion.

Yes, gyms are closed and people need a way to workout, but it seems that the very premium end of smart home workout systems is enjoying an outsized return. Even as social restrictions begin to ease, the demand for these brands continues to accelerate.

A new cottage industry for birthday parties and baby showers has sprung from ashes of the pandemic, with companies like Kiki Kit and Imagination Adventures parties offering experiential party planning that transcends the limitations of your typical Zoom call. These are immersive experiences that just happen to have a screen.

In LA, elaborate “Porch Pop-Ups” have shown up around town, with music and masked performers entertaining party goers from a safe distance on the front lawn (and even this past week, Elaine Welteroth’s stoop wedding in Brooklyn made news for its new take on celebration.)
All of these brands have one thing in common: they have ritualized the experience of their products.

We don’t fight for our habits, but we do fight for our rituals.

Rituals fulfill our current needs in a way that habits can’t.

They provide meaning in an uncertain time. They help us mark change and they tell us who we are.

It only makes sense that when our daily habits are ripped out of our hands, we hold on even tighter to the rituals that define us.

Even if your product is utilitarian in nature, or your brand is seemingly too inconsequential to be ritualized, there is a way to create greater context around your story so that you are no longer consumed like a habit.

But first, we need to understand what makes rituals so powerful.

Decoding the mechanics of a ritual.

How does a ritual actually work?

I spoke with Sasha Sagan, author of the book For Small Creatures Such As We, to answer this exact question for our brand strategy + culture podcast, Unseen Unknown.
Having grown up in a secular household with her father, astronomer Carl Sagan, and mother, author and producer Ann Druyan, Sasha’s work has been dedicated to finding meaning and rituals outside of traditional religion.

Whereas habits create ease and consistency, rituals create meaning.

According to Sasha, rituals provide us with an anchor and whether they happen daily, weekly, monthly or annually, they deepen with meaning over time.
Rituals tend to serve the same human needs:

  • Rituals help us feel the passage of time and/ or appreciate change
  • Rituals give us stability, order and routine in times of chaos
  • Rituals help us sanctify and extract context from a situation

Every one of these emotional benefits is in high demand right now.

As crazy as it might sound to take a credit for a future cruise instead of taking a refund, keep in mind that a cruise is something to look forward to every year for some people. It helps us mark the passage of time.

The $2,400+ price tag for a Peloton seems exorbitant given the glut of other options in the market, but the well-documented cult-like experience of a cycling class gives people stability, order and routine.

Birthday parties, weddings and baby showers haven’t just gone digital. They have changed venues, changed artifacts, changed norms, and changed language, but the ritual persists as a way to sanctify the moment and extract context from a time in our lives.

It can be easy to dismiss these as unique situations — brands and products that came as a result of rituals that already existed before them — but that would overlook the value of storytelling in a brand.

In fact, there is an opportunity today for brands of all kinds to position their products not as habits, but as rituals (new or old) that help people extract one of these same pillars of meaning.

Oscar Meyer’s #FrontYardCookout invited neighborhoods to replace the tradition of a backyard barbecue with friends and family, and instead create an intimate (but socially safe) front yard cookout in their driveways.

Rather than talk about quick meals or feeding hungry kids sitting in front of a screen being homeschooled all day, they elicited the tradition of summer celebration.

The golden lighting, long shadows and lawn chairs remind you of warm weather rituals — moments for pausing to reflect on the year so far and gather, reconnect and solidify relationships.

Open Spaces, the home organizing company launched late last year by cofounders Emmet Shine and Nicholas Ling of Pattern Brands, has created some great content and storytelling around the act of cleaning and organizing your home.

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by OPEN SPACES (@getopenspaces)

In their Space Tapes series, they explore “the lives of our community and what they’re listening to.” Each song is tied to a story about that person’s life, a reflection on their past and life journey.

Open Spaces sells home organization items like nesting trays and wire baskets, but content like this adds gravity to the act of cleaning your home. It’s about the ritual of cleaning your mind, your soul and your heart.

That may sound like an exaggeration, but considering the Marie Kondo platitudes that float around in our digital world, it’s no stretch to have people invite deeper meaning into their spring cleaning.

[You can listen to cofounder Emmett Shine talk more about how they built the brand on our podcast here.]

Dame, a high-minded, stylishly designed women’s sexual wellness brand has started Self-Love Sundays for the month of May, beginning with a lesson on self-massage.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Sunday, a traditionally holy day, evokes thoughts of observation, pause and gratitude. The concept of self-love, even in a sexual context, feels far more intimate and important when celebrated on a weekly schedule.

None of these brands have typically ritualized products, but they found a way to either evoke a ritual or create one in their content, storytelling and positioning.

The products we need right now aren’t merely about ease and reduced friction. They’re about anchoring us, in whatever way possible, to the things that make us feel certain again.

“The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action while reason leads to conclusions.”

— Neurologist Donald Calne

Rituals are about emotions.

If you feel that your brand is positioned as a habit, find ways to message around the emotions that your product experience creates instead.

  • Create a routine out of the experience that ties it to a sense of meaning, celebration, remembrance or normalcy
  • Provide context that makes users appreciate a larger tradition through content, storytelling and positioning
  • Offer meaning, identity or the marking/ significance of time as a benefit

Every brand tells a story. Think of the stories that your customers need right now, and start your narrative there.

This is the time to take big swings, ritualize your brand and try new storytelling. Bold moves will be celebrated. Well-intentioned mistakes will be forgiven.

Make your brand meaningful.


The Defensibility Fallacy: Product vs. Brand


Defensible products do not make defensible brands, although it can be easy to confuse the two.

What makes a brand defensible?

The world talks a lot about product defensibility, but brand defensibility seems to be a far more abstract subject. How do you build a brand that not only triggers users to act, but also puts competitors in a natural position of weakness?

Defensibility itself is an inherent trait or quality that puts your company in a role that’s hard to challenge. It is an advantage in your DNA that places you in a white spot of the landscape, and often gets stronger with time.

Defensibility is the ultimate goal of brand strategy.

Anyone can make a brand. Very few can make a brand that naturally undermines the value of others in the space just by existing.

But if I ask CEOs, leaders and other strategists what brand defensibility actually is, they’ll usually confuse it with product defensibility.

When it comes to product, defensibility looks like:

  • Data Moats
  • Ecosystems
  • Network Effects
  • Intellectual Property (sometimes)

These are locking mechanisms. They lock people into an escalating commitment over time.

When people make the decision to switch from Apple’s iPhone ecosystem to Google’s Android ecosystem, they are running an equation in their heads: what is the cost/ pain of leaving a walled garden vs. the benefit/ reward of an open platform?

A similar locking mechanism is at play when someone considers using an alternative to Google Maps (data moats) or investing their personal lives in Instagram vs. Snapchat (network effects). The more you have invested, the harder it is to jump ship.

Product defensibility is really easy to spot, and for many, it can be easy to confuse it with brand defensibility. You may think Google’s trustworthy brand is borne of their data and ecosystems, but it’s not.

Brand defensibility looks very different than product defensibility:

  • Protected Narratives: Stories and storytelling devices that are fundamentally unavailable to your competitors. (I talk more about this here.)
  • Identity Validation: Validating a user, subculture or group that’s primed to be acknowledged. (Strategist Ana Andjelic does a great job of describing it here).
  • New Truth/ Worldview: A vision of the future that no one else can afford to tell. (I go deep into this topic here.)
  • Brand Perception: The trust, perceived sense of autonomy, and sense of “what this brand says about me”. (I explore a specific case study here.)

These are belief models. They are a highly personal logic that explains how something works in the real world, and they operate very differently than locking mechanisms.

Snapchat may have had strong network effects early on that caused people to join its platform, but it was Instagram’s belief model of Identity Validation and New Truth that said “A beautiful life on display is the only life worth living” which ultimately won out and made many of those same Snapchatters move their life investments over to Instagram.

When Instagram copied Snapchat’s ephemeral content with Stories, they erased any product advantage. But what caused the migration was their brand.

In other words, Instagram’s brand defensibility around identity and belief won over Snapchat’s product defensibility of network effects.

That dynamic underscores a critical point in product vs. brand:

Locking mechanisms force a decision based on short-term need.

Belief models create a behavior based on long-term desires.

I can tell you right now that behaviors based on long-term desires ultimately beat out decisions based on short-term needs, and we’re seeing that happen more and more in business every day.

Belief models move markets and make markets.

Food and beverage, travel, luxury, wellness, beauty — these are all markets based on belief models.

There’s very little IP or inherent product defensibility in these verticals. They rely on belief models in order to move product. You might even say that those belief models are the actual product themselves.

A belief model can easily move a market. But more importantly, it can launch entirely new markets and spaces that never existed before.

Many of you reading this will likely already have adopted a new belief model around functional ingredients.

This is a new slew of ingredients like CBD, adaptogens, nootropics, CoQ10, Vitamin C, turmeric, moringa oil, collagen and so on that are promising to change our lives. They’re finding their way into everything from makeup and ingestible beauty to infused drinks and functional foods.

They tell the intoxicating story of “inside out” potential — the belief model that anything can be cured or optimized with the right functional ingredient. Find the right ingredient, and you can unlock something amazing within yourself.

This belief model, although very new, has already had huge impact in consumer markets.

If you pay close attention, you’ll see that it not only moved many markets like food, beverage, beauty and luxury, but also created new ones in personal development, productivity and medicine.

… and it all came from a market progression that already existed. In beauty alone, the story is clear:

  • The “all natural” movement of the 1980s and 1990s: Natural, clean, unscented — ingredients were about purity, and we centered our values around that belief. Brands like Jergen’s All Natural came on the scene, Dove introduced their unscented bar, Burt’s Bees graduated from its cult following.
  • The “actives” obsession of the 2000s: People begin to believe in immediate results and visible change. Botox, limp plumpers, tooth whitening kits, eyelash serums and new plastic surgery procedures all become popularized.
  • The “functional” frontier of today: Charcoal, ginseng, adaptogens, CBD, hemp and special supplements all reflect the belief that we can unlock something within ourselves with the right functional ingredients. Brands like Moon Juice, Vital Proteins, Ambika Herbals, Dirty Lemon and Kalumi Beauty are a tiny fraction of the companies that have rushed in to fill the new demand based on this belief model.

Don’t forget the emerging authority of functional medicine, gut health and alternative medicine, too.

More and more, we are driven by our belief models over our logical short-term needs.

The way we choose to understand the world is driving our purchase decisions. The evidence is right here in front of us.

Defensible brands can survive without defensible products, but not vice versa.

You can’t win the war with only a defensible product.

The moment someone comes in and layers a compelling, defensible brand on top of a similar product, you’ll lose.

The opposite — a defensible brand without a defensible product — can actually win.

A perfect place to see this happening is in fashion.

Defensible product is almost unheard of in fashion. Spend some time on Diet Prada’s feed and you’ll see why. Not only do all brands constantly steal ideas from each other, but everyone is pretty much helpless in safeguarding their designs, looks or processes from a competing label.

One of countless copycat callouts on Diet Prada’s feed.

There is no IP in fashion. There are no data moats, ecosystems or network effects.

And when you take away all of those product protections, all that is left is brand. That brand is a story. It’s a story that heavily employs Identity Validation and Brand Perceptions.

If you try to dissect a company like Prada, Michael Kors or Burberry, you’ll see that under that story there is not much else. The clothes themselves are interchangeable and meaningless. The actual product is irrelevant.

It is our beliefs about that clothing brand, and what that brand says about us when we wear it, that drives our purchases.

We do not buy to clothe ourselves for comfort against the elements. It’s about the stories we tell ourselves by way of the brands we wear.

Never has this been proven so true than when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had used fashion tastes to identify right-wing voters at Business of Fashion’s 2018 conference.

‘”Preferences in clothing and music are the leading indicators of political leaning,” said Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower.

Clothing serves as such a strong belief model that we can, with great accuracy, determine a population’s political leanings based on it:

The narratives of the great American brands, which play on the myths of the West and the (mostly male) frontier are also the narratives of the Republican right. Those who choose to spend on the former are susceptible to the latter. He mentioned Wrangler and L.L. Bean in particular as brands that Cambridge Analytica aligned with conservative traits.

(Kenzo, by contrast, which is designed by Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, the avant-garde duo behind the retail store Opening Ceremony, appealed to liberals, he suggested.)

This is a tremendous example of how defensible products (and the locking mechanisms behind them) operate very differently than defensible brands (and the belief models they employ.)

Locking mechanisms are logical levers that can be reduced to pros and cons, but belief models are far more flexible representations of the relationship between things.

Belief models are a combination of our knowledge, experiences and intuition, and they can easily cause us to replace black-and-white reasoning with more colorful ideology — such as with fashion.

The fact is you can’t fight ideology with logic.

Once we believe the world works a certain way, we bend logic into that framework.

The more an audience is bombarded with choice, fragmentation and competing truths like we are today, the more valuable these ideologies become. They’re crucial frameworks for our behaviors.

We’re living in an age when those ideologies have become everything.

Belief models for the future.

Nothing is defensible eternally — product, brand or otherwise. But focusing on brand defensibility in the first 2–5 years of your venture can set your company up for a decade of dominance.

I believe that no matter your industry, whether you are B2B or B2C, the brand is what you are selling. In which case, you need to do everything possible to make sure that brand is defensible.

Brands, just like products, have to evolve over time with their customers. Belief models, no matter how strong they are today, will be supplanted by new ones in coming years and generations.

Pay attention to the ideologies that are growing within your audiences. They will always lead you into the future of where your brand needs to be.