Have You Thrown A Potlach Recently? Why Consumer Rituals Matter To Your Bottom Line

Now that the magic fairy dust has finally settled over the British royal wedding, let’s step back and inventory the detritus left over from the merchandising frenzy. Officially approved by Kensington Palace: royal-wedding-ware that includes cups, saucers, mugs and plates, biscuits, dishrags, Champagne and candles. Not so official: Burger King sandwiches topped with two onion (wedding) rings, swimsuits adorned with Prince Harry’s image on the torso, a wedding “cake” comprised of 42 layers of dip, and a bride and groom topper made from queso, courtesy of Tostitos, and Harry-and-Meghan sex toys and condoms (for the after-party?).

OK, these nuptials were a bit more over-the-top than some others, perhaps – but not by much. Many American weddings are in the ballpark with their lavish meals, scripted dances, butterfly releases, and of course agendas brimming with related events like bachelor and bachelorette parties, showers, registries and honeymoons (some crowdfunded these days). These activities are serious stuff: Americans spend $70 billion a year on weddings, more than we spend on pets, coffee, toothpaste and toilet paper combined.

This level of excess certainly isn’t confined to modern Western weddings. Indeed, every student of anthropology learns about the infamous potlach gift-giving ceremony an Indian tribe in British Columbia practiced – and that helped to inspire Thorstein Veblen’s writings on what he termed conspicuous consumption. Hosts flaunted their affluence by giving away their wealth and sometimes even destroying valuables; others were compelled to do the same, and sometimes they bankrupted themselves in a self-destructive cycle of one-upmanship. Sound familiar? The massive wedding industry continues to find new ways for consumers to compete in their own potlach ceremonies as they vie to offer the most lavish or novel attractions. Exotic destination weddings, online gift registries, save-the-date cards, chocolate fountains, you name it and someone will trot it out.

The modern wedding is but one example of a hugely important type of consumer behavior that actually drives billions in retail spending. As I discuss at length in my textbook, a ritual is a set of multiple, symbolic behaviors that occurs in a fixed sequence and is repeated periodically. Bizarre tribal ceremonies, perhaps involving animal or human sacrifice, may come to mind when you think of rituals. In reality many contemporary consumer activities are ritualistic. If you’ve ever removed your hat and stood up to sing the national anthem at a ballgame, driven your car (lights on) as part of a funeral cortège, or for that matter, sent a greeting card for a friend’s birthday, congrats: You’ve participated in a modern ritual. We often ignore the significance of these activities in our daily lives, at least until someone violates them. The current controversy swirling around NFL players who refuse to stand for the anthem is a case in point.

To be sure, a wedding ceremony is one of our most familiar – and expensive – rituals. Each element is carefully scripted and is chockfull of meaning. We blithely repeat these rituals even if most of us today don’t remember the original reason our ancestors created them. Why do we “give away” the bride? Years ago it was common for fathers to use daughters as currency to pay off a debt or to appease a member of a more powerful tribe. The bride wore a veil so that the payee would not refuse her as payment in case she turned out to be less attractive than he desired. The best man was so named because he was “best” with his sword in case enemies attempted to kidnap the bride.

So if you’re not an anthropologist (or the hapless father of the bride perhaps), why should you care? The answer is right in front of you: Many businesses benefit tremendously because they supply ritual artifacts to consumers.  These are items we need to perform rituals, such as wedding rice, birthday candles, diplomas, specialized foods and beverages (e.g., birthday cakes, ceremonial wine, or even hot dogs at the ball park), trophies and plaques, band uniforms, greeting cards, and retirement gold watches. In addition, we often follow a ritual script to identify the artifacts we need, the sequence in which we should use them and who uses them. Examples include graduation programs, fraternity manuals and etiquette books.

study the BBDO Worldwide advertising agency conducted illustrates the close relationship between brands and rituals. It labels items that we use to perform our rituals fortress brands because once they become embedded in our ceremonies – whether we use them to brush our teeth, drink a beer, or shave – we’re unlikely to replace them. The study ran in 26 countries, and the researchers found that, overall, people worldwide practice roughly the same consumer rituals. The agency claims that 89% of people always use the same brands in their sequenced rituals; three out of four are disappointed or irritated when something disrupts their ritual or their brand of choice isn’t available. For example, the report identifies one common ritual category it calls “preparing for battle.” For most of us in modern times, this simply means getting ready for work. Relevant rituals include brushing one’s teeth, taking a shower or bath, having something to eat or drink, talking to a family member or partner, checking email, shaving, putting on makeup, watching television or listening to the radio, and reading a newspaper. Only then is the modern warrior ready to engage. These activities seem very prosaic, but try skipping one or even (shudder) a few and see how you start your day.

Rituals evolve over time, and so do business opportunities for those who understand how vital these ceremonies are to the bottom line. The throwing of rice (a symbol of fertility intended to encourage the newlyweds to get busy and start producing offspring) is one ritual element that’s changing: Many couples today replace rice with butterflies or other items because of the (false) belief that birds who eat the rice will die when it expands in their stomachs. Another recent craze (fueled by social media, of course) requires the couple to #trashthedress, i.e., destroy the bridal gown moments after they take their vows to commemorate the relief they feel that all the stressful planning is finally over. They hold a photoshoot to document covering the dress in paint, going for a swim in it or running through muddy fields. Instagram already boasts more than 200,000 images of this new ritual.

Consumer rituals come in other forms as well, such as the act of gift-giving and holiday celebrations (I’ll cover those in another column). For now, the takeaway is to think carefully about what you sell (or what you could add to your line) that serves the role of a ritual artifact. What, you don’t believe it’s feasible to create the demand for new ritual artifacts that you can then supply?  Just think about that little trinket (that’s supposed to cost three months’ salary) the man slips on the woman’s finger as he proposes – and thank the DeBeers diamond company for coming up with that one. Now, it’s your turn.

My latest book is Marketers, Tear Down These Walls! Liberating the Postmodern Consumer.

Forbes June 14, 2108

Michael Solomon, Ph.D.