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 tipping point of trust

It’s the most important destination for your brand and users. This is how to get there.

[Photo by Oliver Sjöström.]

I had a prenatal massage at one of my favorite spa chains recently, and struggled with trust in a way I’ve never experienced before.

I love massages. I always have and I get them regularly. But a prenatal massage is different. You can’t lay down in the same positions or put pressure on certain body parts like the stomach and ankles. You feel stiff on the table, but because the hormone relaxin has actually loosened your joints, you may be far more flexible (and prone to strain) than you realize.

Overall, it’s like discovering yourself in a new body, which means I wasn’t in my favorite spa getting my 60 minute massage.

I was a new consumer buying a new service for the first time, and any trust accumulated between me and the brand up until that point had been wiped out. I was experiencing this with a fresh perspective.

Instead of zoning out the moment I laid down like I usually do, I was tense for the first 45 minutes before I could finally relax for the last 15. I simply couldn’t ease my body or turn my brain off.

I was unable to give myself over to the process because there weren’t enough brand interactions to get me to the tipping point of trust.

The brand had done nothing to indoctrinate me into our new relationship, and I had no way to frame the experience or contextualize what was happening.

Although the masseuse was well rated, kind and continuously checking in with me to make sure I was comfortable, I was missing the cues that should have told me, “this is what to expect”, “this is how you know it’s being done right”, and “this is what you should care about.”

Without those cues, I simply didn’t know when I could relax and I didn’t have the permission to let go.

The tipping point of trust is the moment that we go from thinking about an exchange to purely experiencing it. Depending on the business you are in and the customers you are speaking to, you can think of it as going from shopping to consuming, witnessing to being, or conscious to subconscious.

Users cross the tipping point when:

  1. they are willing to be vulnerable enough, and
  2. that vulnerability is rewarded.

Your job isn’t to get rid of the vulnerability. Vulnerability is an important relationship-building tool. Your job is to make that vulnerability worth it.

Trust is inherently tied to risk, but you don’t gain trust by making risk go away. You gain trust by making the risk worth it.

When you give people permission to be vulnerable and then reward them for it, you create a strong bond.

23andMe understands this. There is a great deal of inherent risk with their product, but instead of focusing on mitigating that risk in their brand positioning, they work to set a narrow field of expectation that users can measure their experience against:



When users take the leap and contextualize their experience not as a black box DNA test, but rather as “Meet Your Genes” — or put another way, a colorful way to familiarize yourself with anthropomorphized genetic personalities living in your body — they are rewarded with an easy understanding.

You know to interpret your results with a sense of playful discovery. You know to connect with your genes as if they are friends living inside of you. You know to see them not as cryptic markers that control your life, but rather as personified characters that answer to you when you ask them to reveal themselves.

That brand positioning primes you for a very different kind of experience.

(I‘ve written’ more about my own experience with this, and identity narratives in branding here.)

This also underscores something important: the tipping point is reached with the brand and not the UX.

Many people think that you get to the tipping point of trust with good UX moments or product features, but neither of those things can give users the context they need in order to have the right kind of experience going in.

They can certainly build trust incrementally, but they do not change the overall mindset of the user like brand can.

Brand is where you start.

The Nature of Trust and Control

Trust has been defined and redefined many times in the past few decades. It’s a tricky word to describe, like ‘cool’ or ‘porn’.

There is one recent definition, however, that works well in a branding context:

The willingness of a party to be vulnerable to the actions of another party based on the expectation that the other will perform a particular action important to the truster, irrespective of the ability to monitor or control that other party.

Mayer et. al., 1995:712

Trust means giving up control in one way or another, but in a user context, giving up control is scary. As brands, we work diligently against that fear, trying to offer control through transparency, dashboards, customization or any other number of features that put our customers in the driver’s seat.

On their own, these features fall short of true control because in the end, they’re just band-aids for the symptom.

No company can ever give 100% transparency. Dashboards are limited by definition. Customization usually only goes so far.

A far more powerful way around the trust issue is to change the way your user perceives control in the relationship to begin with.

23andMe moves the center of control from your genes (which comes from a very strong historical narrative, by the way, that says everything about a human is genetic) to you as an individual.

Genes are made to be coaches, HQ operators, friends and so on. They help, but they do not control us. They guide, but they do not command the quality of our lives.

For a silly brand campaign, it’s actually quite smart in changing perceptions of what genes are and how we should interface with them. Genes don’t control us. We do.

Control is in the perception. You can shift the center of control by shifting the paradigm.

Framing For The Tipping Point

Another way to think about the tipping point of trust is to think about framing.

Brands are framing mechanisms. They inform us how to embrace and internalize an interaction.

At the extreme end of the framing spectrum, we run into a bias called the framing effect. The framing effect is our predisposition to assume there are certain boundaries to a choice or situation, based on the information at hand:

The framing effect is a cognitive bias where people decide on options based on if the options are presented with positive or negative semantics; e.g. as a loss or as a gain.

People tend to avoid risk when a positive frame is presented but seek risks when a negative frame is presented. Gain and loss are defined in the scenario as descriptions of outcomes (e.g., lives lost or saved, disease patients treated and not treated, etc.).

As a former publicist, I can tell you this happens a lot in political reporting.

Take a look at the recent coverage for the Green New Deal and you’ll see that most of the headlines asked “Can we trust this deal?” rather than actually trying to understand what was in it.

The framing proved very powerful — from the beginning, we were primed to see it as problematic and unfeasible, even without knowing what it was comprised of.

You can literally watch hours of segments about the Green New Deal, as Vox reporter Carlos Maza did in the video below, and realize that none of them actually explain how the deal works:



Granted, the policy set forth was still lacking in certain details, but that’s not atypical for a proposal like this where further explanation is released later. There were plenty of details right there in the deal that were simply never covered in the press in any meaningful way.

Tactically framed political reports and articles are positioned so you don’t think to trust the content, you think to trust the critique.

Framing can be dangerous, especially when you have a lazy or jaded audience that’s become more accustomed to reacting than investigating.

But if framing can obscure the things that should matter, it can also force us to care about things that may have not mattered before.

Wilkinson Mazzeo PC is a small legal duo in San Diego, California that has used framing to completely change the way their customers view both the law and lawyers: March 13th, 2019

I often write about large brands in B2C or D2C, but this is a strong example of how the same branding principles can be applied to B2B, or smaller to medium-sized brands (although Wilkinson Mazzeo does have impressive clients experience under their belt).

As you go deeper into their website you realize this company is having a completely different conversation about law, entrepreneurship and community than anyone else in the space.

They say that they are “humanizing the practice of law”, but I would argue that even more importantly than that, they are reframing both what law should be, and what we should care about as consumers of that law:

Wilkinson Mazzeo’s love letter to the creatives they serve.

You can’t explore this website as a creative or entrepreneur and not start having a conversation in your head. “Does my lawyer think like these guys do?” “Would my lawyer care as much?” “Is my lawyer creative enough to protect my company?”

“Have I been thinking about law in the right way this whole time?”

Emily Wilkinson and Sam Mazzeo have reframed the conversation to get you to the tipping point of trust very quickly. Whereas you may have observed the brands of other law firms in the past, you come to quickly experience the brand of this one right now.

They even have merch. They have merch because they know they’re not selling legal services, they’re selling a relationship based on trust.

Just like when you wear a Patagonia shirt or band tee, you’re celebrating your relationship with the other party.

Wilkinson Mazzeo’s merch.

Most importantly, they make it easy to leave your biases about lawyers at the door when coming to this brand.

Framing for the tipping point of trust changes the reference points people use to gauge your brand.

Understand how to get users to the tipping point of trust first, then create the signals that will guide them there.

There is a certain kind of vulnerability required here in order to converse with this brand. You have to be willing to forget what you thought about lawyers. You also have to connect with these two specific lawyers as friends first, legal practitioners second.

Once you do, you’re rewarded for your vulnerability and start the relationship from a very different place.

That tipping point is the most important place to get to for this brand, or any other brand.

Find it and then steer your users toward it.

User Experience

How Brand Thresholds Push Users Forward

[Photo by Marco Bianchetti.]

Make people go deeper into your world.

We all carry symbols within us. Symbols like parenthood, gender, blue collars, a country’s flag, a cross on a hill or a grad school pin.

These are symbols that, regardless of place or context, will make us feel something when we encounter them.

In some cases those symbols alter our mental state. There is a measurable change between the person we were before we encountered the symbol, and the person we became after it.

When symbols change us emotionally, they become powerful thresholds.

One of the symbolic thresholds that has always had a profound effect on me is the Japanese torii.

A torii is a freestanding gate that symbolizes transition — from human to sacred, from the known world to the secret world. It is a border between the visible and invisible, and for all of its simplicity and detachment, it carries a gravity that I haven’t experienced in any other symbolic threshold in my work.

The Great Torii of Itsukushima Shrine

When I first learned about torii in an art history course over a decade ago, it wasn’t the structure itself that struck me but rather the power it carried outside of place or time.

While torii are typically placed at the entrance of Shinto shrines, they also appear in completely secluded locales. You may see one in an empty field, a forest, or outside of Japan altogether, but no matter where it is, it’s meant to mark a path for transition.

That is the significance that was imputed on this structure. It is created over and over again to exist outside of any specific time or place, and there are very few other symbols that operate in the same way.

It is not the space that makes the torii meaningful, it is the torii that makes the space meaningful.

Thresholds change the context around them.

I’ve seen them in Japan, in French museums, and standing tall in barren cattle ranches in southern California… and in all of these places, the torii created an emotional threshold that framed my experience of the world around me.

There is a lesson here in how thresholds mold the human experience and how they are different from every other kind of touch point we experience in our lives as users.

For brands, a threshold is an opportunity to create meaning where there once was none.

What It Means To Create A Brand Threshold

A $2.6 billion industry has popped up around subscription products, and 55% of that growth is attributed to a newly popularized brand threshold we’re all familiar with by now: unboxing.

There are now 3,500 subscription box offerings in the US market, all with markedly different business models.

Some, like Birchbox, use the subscription box as an upsell to full sized products on their website.

Ipsy takes a different route and uses beauty and lifestyle influencers to create content that generates ad revenue on top of the actual product.

FabFitFun makes a healthy margin off of sponsored products, and Sephora blends the sponsored model with straightforward sales.


Ipsy Glambag Plus unboxing by Madison Miller


It is not the convenience, the price point or the novelty that has propelled these brands to success. In fact, many boxes have wildly different price points irrespective of value-for-price, many do not allow customization, and at this point, what novelty can be left?

It is the emotional threshold of unboxing that has moved the subscription box industry into the mainstream.

As Elizabeth Segran of Fast Company puts it, “It hinges on a business model that goes beyond making money on the box itself, and investing in content that makes the unboxing experience exciting every single time.” [Emphasis added.]

Unboxing is an emotional threshold that has been iterated, perfected and monetized for maximum effect. A good unboxing creates a clear transition from before the event to after. People feel changed after an unboxing.

Every time your brand compels a user to increase their engagement in order to receive an emotional reward, you are creating a threshold.

Emotional brand thresholds promise a changed user on the other side.

Your user has to make a choice to move through that threshold and experience the change. It is in these critical mass moments that people move deeper into the brand, and they operate on 3 principles:

  1. Investment. Thresholds always come with an upfront cost of time, money or effort on behalf of the user and the brand. For an Ipsy box, all of these investments come into play.
  2. Change. There needs to be a before-and-after change in emotional state. Unboxing isn’t about the products you get, it’s about the anticipation of the reveal, the payoff and the euphoria afterward. In this case, it is also about the promise of who you will become with this new arsenal of goods.
  3. Message. A strong threshold is a very powerful branding moment. It communicates the brand position in action, not words. There needs to be a message that comes through, and in Ipsy’s case, it’s a message about playing with beauty.

These rules can help you turn certain touch points into positive thresholds. They also mean that not all customer touch points are thresholds to begin with.

Sponsored gift bags at an event, for example, are not thresholds. There is no directly related upfront cost for the user, and no unified message.

Customer service, thank you emails, subscription pages, POS gimmicks, videos and content usually aren’t thresholds either. They may employ one of the principles above, but not all three.

Touch points are simply a time and place when your brand touches the consumer, wherever they are.

Thresholds are an occasion where you and the user both agree to meet someplace new, and to leave in an altered state.

Different Portals For Different Needs

The Ordinary skincare brand, for all of its drama and troubles, has been extremely clever in creating thresholds that move users deeper and deeper into their brand world. Fans have to travel through a series of costly portals in order to get the emotional reward they are seeking.

One of these thresholds is their extremely active and engaged Facebook group managed by users. It’s a private group that you actually have to apply to get into by answering some questions about yourself.

Once you’re in, you’re thrust into a world of acronyms, coded language, intimately revealing skin photographs, excel spreadsheets for experimenting with different regimens, documents and fervent followers that will push you even further out of your comfort zone and demand an increased investment in time and effort. This is a new space that both you and the brand are agreeing to meet in.

If you want to learn about skincare like a dermatologist, you have to educate yourself in The Ordinary’s world. And if you don’t, you’re not welcome here.

It’s a steep price to pay, but believe me, once you successfully pass that threshold you are a changed person with a changed relationship to their skin.

For the frustrated legions of women who have tried everything to get their skin better, it is an emotional reward they are willing to pay upfront for.

And it is that stretch between the investment and the reward/ change that leaves users wide open to the brand’s message — ‘The beauty industry is ugly. We’ve found a new way.’

Thresholds force us to suspend our biases and be open to a new message. They’re moments of change that allow us to accept fresh ideas in place of old ones.

One of the best times to have your brand message heard is when your user is going through a transition.

Everything about The Ordinary’s threshold creates a sacred space with promise and evolution… and that’s the best time to form new beliefs. That is precisely when the message comes through.

A threshold happens when both the brand and user are drawn closer together because both have opted to take a voluntary step toward each other. The user invests their time/ money/ attention, while the brand invests in a sort of wall, where not everyone is let through, but those who are get that emotional change.

You can look at it as a test, a boundary, a wall or a step. It can take many forms. What is consistent across all of them, however, is that not everyone will pass. Those who do will be changed on the other side.

Places Where Thresholds Can Appear

If you’re hard pressed to find examples of thresholds in your own brand or others’, you’re right. Brands are starting to understand the significance of these moments and it’s a tactical device that has been historically underutilized.

Many things come close to being a threshold, but don’t quite get there. Traditions like the Jeep Wave in the US or John Lewis’ holiday ads and the Coca Cola Truck in the UK, tribal gatherings like SoulCycle and Tracy Anderson cults, or any other number of unofficial events we care about as consumers.

But with the right thinking and perspective, there are a few key touch points that could be turned into thresholds:

  • Store Entrances: Literally the physical threshold that users pass through every day. The best, most experiential storefronts get the message right, and can affect at least somewhat of an emotional change, but almost none can balance it with some sort of upfront investment for the user. Popups are perhaps the only thing that come close.
  • Product Drops: Yes there is an investment, but the message and emotional change usually fall short. At best, you have brands like Supreme that create a flex-focused brotherhood, but it’s more akin to a game than an exchange.
  • Events and Pilgrimages: Everyone understands how to create an immersive, on-brand experience. And of course there is the cost of traveling and attending, but what is really missing is the emotional change. Many brands create an experience for the sake of experience — delight, fun, indulgence — but can they really say that their users leave as changed people?
  • Announcements and Product Discovery: Again, do brands balance all three principles when it comes to announcing a product or creating a sense of discovery around their new offerings? There is no upfront investment before the actual cost of the product itself. The message may be there, but there likely won’t be a before-and-after emotional state for the user.

Thresholds are not easy to create.

They require a totally different lens through which to see your users interactions with your brand. But when they do appear, they are powerful engagement machines.

Questions To Ask Yourself

With the right thinking, mundane touch points can be turned into thresholds that follow the three main principles that all thresholds follow.

Start by asking yourself the kinds of questions that will lead you to that critical user interaction:

  1. What emotional change or arc are we capable of creating in our users? What emotional arc is best aligned with our brand?
  2. How can we create an upfront cost in those touch points that will a) only draw committed users, and b) amplify the value of the reward?
  3. What theme or message needs to be integral to the experience in order to communicate our brand identity?
  4. Where are our users looking for more meaning in the brand experience?
  5. What are the emotional ups and downs they go through in the overall UX, and how can we turn those points into thresholds?

Remember, the point is to gently push users deeper into your world with every gate that they have to pass through. If those gates are solid, they will begin to take on a life of their own and hold a meaning that is as big as your brand.

Crossing a threshold is about taking a risk and accepting the change that lies on the other side. Just like any relationship, the one that your user makes with your brand is strengthened by these moments.

Use them wisely. Sometimes creating a boundary around your world helps ensure that your true users can find a meaningful way in.