“At the front of the auction room is a large television screen that projects each bid simultaneously in pounds, U.S. dollars, euros, Swiss francs, Hong Kong dollars, and Japanese yen. In May 2007, Sotheby’s added Russian roubles to the conversion for the first time. Every bidder is perfectly competent to calculate their bidding position in the auction currency; the conversion is there to remind everyone what an international event this is.”
Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark
When I recently read Thompson’s entertaining and illustrative book on the role of branding in the world of contemporary art, I realized I have never written about one particularly fascinating topic: The use of rituals and symbols to build a brand.
Today it is relatively easy to get a consultant to define and deliver a brand book, but it is much harder to implement it. Most agencies can only relate to tangible guidelines, and marketers seldom find ways to bring the personality of a brand to life. Colors, type, and other rules are easy, but how do you build the consumer journey we all talk about?
This is where rituals come in. Think of rituals and symbols as protocols that allow a product or service to be “lived” more than “perceived”. Symbols make concrete the abstract, and then rituals seamlessly weave them through the fabric of a company.
Allow me to use religion as an example. Faith is the most abstract concept of them all, and it has used branding in the most masterful way. The only way to implement faith is via symbols and rituals that have tangible meaning but also provide real differentiation. Christians might put up a Christmas tree in the winter to celebrate the birth of Jesus and go to church every Sunday to reaffirm their believes, for example. Jews might light candles every Friday night and place a mezuzah on their doorposts as a way to making God part of their home. These kinds of rituals help convert distant and abstract ideas into customary and tangible experiences.
The most successful cases of companies using rituals to brand include Starbucks and Jet Blue. Both the airline and the giant coffee outlet differentiated themselves by implementing pervasive concepts that converted their businesses into cultural experiences. At Starbucks, clerks became baristas and ordering coffee meant engaging with a new and appealing language. At Jet Blue, taglines became pre-flight entertainment, peanuts became blue terra chips, and airplanes became more than just a way to get from A to B.
In an era of unprecedented ad saturation, it is now more important than ever to both create and implement a cohesive and appealing brand identity. Every brand book should include symbols beyond the logo and rituals that instigate the values and personality of the brand.
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