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Alokananda Chakraborty: 'Shake-shake' and other rituals

A point-of-contact ritual can set your brand apart from its competitors

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The last time I walked into a friendly neighbourhood McDonald’s outlet with my daughter, the smiling salesperson at the counter handed me a little pouch of masala with a pack of their classic potato fries. He said if I emptied that stuff in the pack of fries and gave it a nice shake – as in shake, shake, shake – my humble fry won’t be the same again. Huh? We did as instructed — and are we glad we did! These fries have been exactly the same, in taste and in consistency, every time we’ve tried them — an impressive feat by any standards. And this time, again, they did not disappoint.

McDonald’s says its have been developed in India for customers in the country who are always looking for something chatpata, and the “shake-shake” ritual makes the whole process of eating your fries a whole lot of fun. Something for which you are likely to go back, over and over again. Something that will likely transform an otherwise mundane offering into an experience.

Get the drift? have been at it for many years, but now they seem to be working overtime to build rituals at the point of contact with the consumer. One can see part of the attraction of such initiatives — they tend to give brand-consumer interactions a meaning and a value beyond their primary function. And if they stick, they can really improve your brand’s stickiness, an advertising hand in Mumbai once told me. Like Oreo and its twist-lick-dunk routine. Like Corona and lime, Magners on ice, — or, as Folgers keeps saying, “The best part of waking up is Folgers in your cup!”

Mind you, this is very different from what tea bags tried doing with “Dip dip dip/add the sugar, and the milk, and it’s ready to sip/If you want it stronger, dip a little longer/dip dip dip, and it’s ready to sip” campaign in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. That addressed a specific need: back then, tea bags were consumed mostly out of home but the category refused to take off because consumers felt awkward disposing of the tea bag, especially in social settings. Moreover, tea bags were perceived to be inferior in strength to brewed (leaf) tea. So the “dip, dip…” television campaign simply showed the correct etiquette for disposing of tea bags in a social setting, as well as driving home the point that the strength of the tea depended on the time you gave the tea bag.

In contrast, McDonald’s shake-shake, and other similar routines, aim to create affinity towards the brand and provide consumers with a reason to revisit the brand experience. How? Martin Lindstrom, a 2009 Time 100 honoree and the author of Buyology and Brandwashed, who calls himself a “fan of the consumer”, says such rituals commit habits to your “implicit” memory, “which encompasses everything you know: how to do without thinking about it, from riding a bike to parallel parking to tying your shoelaces to buying a book effortlessly on Amazon”.

This, at least in theory, includes putting more emphasis on retaining existing customers and developing a deeper sense of loyalty among them. This seems to be a more efficient model simply because – well, this is a cliché, but it’s based on facts – it costs significantly more to acquire a new customer than it does to retain an existing one.

Then, what’s all the fuss about?

Neo (The Matrix Reloaded, 2003) wouldn’t have known how right he was when he said, “Choice, the problem is choice.” Take that to the world of brands and you have choice among products and brands that boggle your mind with their overwhelming sameness. Sometimes competing brands are manufactured at the same factories, and services for competing brands are carried out by the same set of people. So what does a marketer do to offer a differentiator in a world of overwhelming sameness? How can he transform the whole process of consumption into a highly anticipated luxurious experience for which you will pay muchos dineros?

Well, he could try to take the brand-consumer equation to a different level by offering some non-feature differentiation. Enter rituals that can add a unique benefit in a world of blinding sameness. Of course, this is not very new. Remember Mars’ “Cool ‘em” campaign that encouraged kids to chill their Mars or Snickers bar in the refrigerator?

But then, for a set of actions to become a “brand ritual”, consumers must relate those actions or elements to the brand. The simpler the ritual, the easier it is to own them. The first thing for the marketer to remember is to train his sales staff properly so that they serve the product correctly. And then as a marketer, you need to invest adequately to promote the ritual and link it back to the brand, so that it becomes the best, and probably the most authentic, way to experience it.

That’s how they built “Corona and lime”, which is very different from building just another beer.

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