Friday, June 21, 2013

Oreos, coupons, and the importance of ritual in marketing campaigns

I'm going to start off this (totally marketing-related) post with a story about my sister.

In my family, holidays are a pretty big deal. My mother has an amazing ability to turn any major event into a sort of holistic celebratory experience - not just the biggies like Thanksgiving, but birthdays, Halloween, Advent. Remarkably enough, none of this has changed much as my siblings and I have grown older; even though I live six hours from home, I still received a Valentine's Day box this year containing beautifully wrapped candy and a card from my parents. (I'm not trying to brag, but it was awesome.)

We all appreciate this, but my younger sister is far and away the strongest believer. A couple of years ago, when she was probably 21 or 22, it was nearly Easter and she was the only child who could make it home. At some point my father asked her, "You don't want an Easter basket, do you?" Reportedly, she gazed at him for a full ten seconds before asking, "Is that some kind of joke?" When my mother called me later to relate the tale, she told me, "I'm going to be honest with you. I don't think she wants an Easter egg hunt, but I'm not 100% sure." She got a basket that year. And, of course, so did my brother and I.

Let me clarify here: my siblings and I are not Veruca Salt-style materialists. Quite honestly, I think the basket could have been a cardboard box with a nice note inside, and Candace would have been happy. The thought, of course, is what counts. But also the ritual, and all that's associated with it.

Anecdotally, we all know that rituals are important. However, a new study takes a quantitative look at how rituals inform our actual experience - and, not surprisingly, they have a strong impact on how we perceive enjoyment in and engagement with what we do. Behavioral scientists from the University of Minnesota and Harvard Business School conducted a series of experiments in which participants were given an item for consumption - a chocolate bar, a glass of lemonade, or a bag of carrots. Half of the participants in each experiment were asked to perform a specific ritual before eating or drinking. (With the chocolate bar, for example, one group was asked to break the bar in half before unwrapping it, unwrap one half and eat it, and then consume the rest.) During the process, the researchers measured "savoring" (the time between bites, as measured by the push of a button); afterwards, participants were asked to rate their enjoyment of the item and its quality.

The results? Those who engaged in a ritual before eating or drinking reported substantially higher levels of enjoyment. They also gave higher marks to what they consumed. The other participants didn't not enjoy themselves - but they were far behind their counterparts, who, by and large, appeared to have a pretty good time.

What are the implications of this type of research for marketers? Most of all, it reminds us not to discount the overall brand interaction experience that consumers have with a given product. If a brand has a legacy of usage among a particular segment, it may well be that the children of those original consumers associate the product and its use, for better or for worse, with their mothers or fathers. Alternately, if a brand is able to capitalize on a particular need or desire among its customers, it should think twice before making changes. (There's a reason that Tiffany has kept its boxes the same color since 1845. And there's a reason that Holly Golightly idolized those boxes so.) If consumers typically do something specific related to a product, it's going to affect how they enjoy it. And marketers should think about that when designing their brand and relationship campaigns.

A great example of how brands can capitalize on the rituals of consumers comes from Oreo. By now, the catchphrase "How do you eat YOUR Oreos?" has entered the American vernacular. But it's an idea that the company continues to play with, as evidenced by this commercial that links Oreo deconstruction with cross-cultural friendship. (Warning: your heart may grow at least three sizes.)

Conversely, a great example of how not to handle brand rituals comes from JCPenney's attempts to overhaul its image over the past year. When former CEO Ron Johnson came on, one of the first things he did was to get rid of "fake prices" - artificially inflated prices that consumers typically circumvented with the company's famous coupons. While the company was widely viewed as needing a radical overha ul, this particular move failed to take into account that its core customers - older women who had grown up with JCPenney - actually liked the coupons. As Time's Brad Tuttle put it,

...(S)hoppers aren’t purely logical creatures. They’re often drawn to stores not by the promise of fair pricing, but by the lure of hunting for deals via coupons and price markdowns. It’s all a game, and a contrived one at that. But it’s a game that shoppers are accustomed to playing, and that many — consciously or not — like playing, with the “How Much You Saved” line at the bottom of the receipt serving as a score.
Ultimately, a product isn't just a product. It's a talisman, a tool, an item that reinforces something about the ways we relate to the world - even if it's as irrational as coupons that reduce fake prices or an Easter basket for an adult. The actions and attitudes consumers associate with our brands affect whether they come back for more, and we'd all be wise to remember that fact.

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