Attachment and Ritualization

(By Colangelo)
By Colangelo / April 20, 2018

Seventy-thousand years ago, a small group of people not so different from you or I, sat upon a hilltop that overlooked the southern tip of the great land mass that would one day be called Africa. While the views of the Southern Ocean sluicing into the jagged shore must have been as spectacular then as it is today, their attention was not focused out toward the sea, but upon the objects they held in their hands.

Mammoth bones and pieces of ochre were incredibly valuable to these people. Not because they could be used in trade or because they could satisfy some physical need, but because they could be engraved. And because they could be engraved, these bones and pieces of ochre became the most powerful objects ever created by human beings.1

Perhaps the bones were used in battle or maybe to heal the ill. The ochre might have been used to mark births or deaths, or even to help bring good weather to the area. Their exact use will never be known. But what is known is that over the ensuing thousands of years, the “descendants” of these objects would cause wars, heal the ill, take part in countless births, marriages and funerals, and make every human being whoever lived feel good, bad, lonely, or fulfilled.

Scholars have called these objects the earliest evidence of ritual activity, thus making their creators the world’s first ritual elders. But to simply call these people ritual elders is not entirely accurate, for they were in fact, the world’s first marketers.

Most marketing and branding articles purport to bring something new to the table. This article makes no such claims. Rather, its intent is to demonstrate that no matter how much culture, technology, and social organization have changed over the past seventy-thousand years, the basic structure of how human beings go about satisfying their needs, wants and desires today is no different today than it was when that small group of people sat upon that hill in Africa. Today’s most successful brands know this, and tomorrow’s will surely need to.

1 The location referred to is Blombos Cave, West Cape, South Africa.

The Puzzling Case of Starbucks

Starbucks is unquestionably one of the great business successes of our time. By the current standards of marketing and branding thought however, it’s also one of the most baffling. For what is truly special about it?

Is its coffee better than the competition’s? Certainly not according nearly every comparison study. Is its food better? Microwaved breakfast sandwiches and pre-packaged salads and sandwiches? Are its products especially healthy or a great value? The truth is quite the opposite. Well, they have a great passion for their product, a motivated workforce, and great customer service. This is important no doubt, but certainly not distinguishable from most other successful brands.

What about values then? Aren’t a brand’s values more important than ever these days?

Yes they are. But while they are important, there is certainly nothing unique about Starbucks values. Three different coffee shops in my neighborhood all espouse the same values such as sustainability, social responsibility, etc. And these three coffee shops, like almost all others, allow their guests to linger and socialize in a comfortable manner, so there’s really nothing special about the typical coffee house experience that Starbucks provides.

So it must be their legacy of great advertising or their exemplary loyalty program? Of course not. Starbucks built their business eschewing traditional advertising, and though their loyalty program is good in that it rewards customers, there is certainly nothing exceptional or revolutionary about it.

So what is the secret to Starbucks’ success? The answer lies deeply embedded in our human nature. It’s what our ancestors began 70,000 years ago.

The Holy Grail
Incorporation, Attachment, and Ritualization

The experience of people incorporating others or other things into their sense of self is as old as the human condition itself. First mother, then blanket or stuffed animal, then perhaps a toy car or doll, and eventually a smartphone. We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all lived through it.

The concept of incorporation is rooted in the psychological notion of attachment. Psychologists first became interested in a theory of attachment in the middle of the 20th century when John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth posited that a child’s personality was in large part dependent upon the nature of their attachment, and ultimately separation, from their mother or other primary caregiver.2

Marketing academics became interested in applying the principles of attachment to marketplace behavior in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. Their logic was easy to follow and resonated with a universal experience: namely that people could become attached to brands just as easily as they could become attached to each other or to objects.

In 2010, C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, Joseph Priester, Andreas B. Eisingerich, and Dawn Iacobucci published a landmark study which demonstrated that brand attachment strength, as defined by how strong a person incorporated a brand into their identity, is a better antecedent of desired marketplace behaviors such as purchase, brand share, need share, and advocacy than the traditionally used measure of brand attitude strength.3

In short, Park and company demonstrated that attached human beings, those who have incorporated the brand into their identity, will be more likely to undertake the behaviors that marketers seek. Subsequent work by Grisaffe, D. B. & Nguyen, H. P., Dunn and Hoegg, and Japutra, Ekinci, and Simkin, confirmed Park and company’s work.4

This notion should not be foreign to any of our experiences. “I’m an American.” “I’m a Buckeye.” ‘I’m a Mac, she’s a PC.” We’ve all heard these and similar phrases. The language makes it clear: I am…we have incorporated our nationality, our sports teams, our choice in computers into our concept of self.

This concept is very important because it helps differentiate attachment from attitude strength and loyalty, the predominant goals and measures of current marketing and brand health.

2Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

3 Park, C. Whan et al. (2010). Brand Attachment and Brand Attitude Strength: Conceptual and Empirical Differentiation of

Two Critical Brand Equity Drivers. Journal of Marketing: November 2010, Vol. 74, No. 6, pp. 1-17.

4 Grisaffe, D. B. & Nguyen, H. P. (2011). Antecedents of Emotional Attachment to Brands: Journal of Business Research, 64, pp.1052-1059.

Dunn, Lea and JoAndrea Hoegg (2014). The Impact of Fear on Emotional Brand Attachment: Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 41, No. 1, pp. 152-168.

Japutra, Ekinci, and Simkin (2014). Exploring Brand Attachment, Its Determinants and Outcomes: Journal of Strategic Marketing, Vol. 22, No. 7.

Loyalty and attitude strength (liking, respecting, admiring) are very different. They require people to maintain a two party relationship: themselves and the person or thing they are loyal to or like. This two party relationship is always under assault from competitive sources as a bond between two parties can always be broken. A simple offer or promotion, as the old marketing model suggests, might do the trick.

On the other hand, once a person incorporates a brand into their concept of self, it is very difficult for the competition to extract that brand from that person’s identity. Think of the difference between getting one to change their favorite cereal or wireless provider versus getting someone to change their religious or national identity. That is the difference between loyalty and attachment.

There are also no limits to what someone may do for the attached brand, just as their are no limits to what he or she might do for other things that they incorporate into their identity such as their nation, religion, family, sports team, etc. Once again, think of the lengths that people go to for their nation, family, sports teams, etc. This is the power of attachment.

The implications of attachment are clear. If marketers can attach their brands, rather than get people to like or love them, they will be able to sell more, better insulate themselves against the competition, and produce more advocates. Reading between the lines, one can see even more benefits: reduced reliance on costly offer, promotion, and yes, loyalty programs. The seeds of reinventing the entire marketing model- awareness, offer, loyalty are there.

So the questions now become, how do human beings become attached to things? And, how can brands leverage this knowledge?


Human beings have an innate desire for order. We start reading books at the beginning and continue on until the end. We put our socks on before our shoes, we look both ways before we cross the street rather than after, even our games and religious ceremonies have certain procedures and rules that we follow.

Imbued with this desire for order, human being develop routines when they engage in everyday behaviors and activities. We have routines for getting ready for work in the morning, applying our makeup, washing our clothes, preparing, eating and cleaning up after a family dinner, and socializing with friends after work. We may develop routines from seeing others perform the same routine and copying it. We may invent our specialized routine out of a process of trial and error, ultimately settling in on what works best for us.

Our desire for routines appears to be born with us. One of the first pieces of advice new parents are given is to quickly establish feeding and sleeping routines to help soothe their babies. Those who have ever had to deal with crying infants know the value of this advice. As the baby grows from infant to toddler to child, new routines are established as transition devices in order to soothe the child as they move from one activity to another. This behavior stays with us as adults, as most of us develop particular routines that take us from home to work, work to home, anytime we move from place to place.

Rituals are very different from routines… They are evolutionary means humans have developed in order to get others to incorporate beliefs, institutions, others, and brands into their identity.

Our individual routines may be similar to the routines of other people, or they may be completely idiosyncratic. Either way, we stick with our routines because they make us feel comfortable and they improve our efficiency. Once we become used to our routines, we tend to stick with them, even if we find better ways of accomplishing our tasks.

Rituals are different from routines and the two must not be confused. Routines are simply repetitive behaviors that help us transition from one activity to another or help us focus on a task at hand. Rituals are repetitive, structured, symbolic performances. While routines transition us from one activity to another, rituals serve a much more powerful purpose. They are the evolutionary means humans have developed in order to get others to incorporate beliefs, institutions, others, and yes, brands into their identity.

It is important to remember that rituals are symbolic acts. In other words, they may have no utilitarian value. Coming home from work and having a glass of red wine everyday to help settle back into home life is a routine. The wine helps us to relax. The few minutes of peace centers us and ultimately lets us move forward with the rest of our day. Here wine has a very clear transition and utilitarian value.

Taking a sip of wine during a Christian Communion ceremony is very different. One does not value the wine for its physiological or transition effect, but for its symbolic value as the blood of Christ. The wine, and the actions, symbols, and roles, that go along with it, strengthen one’s Christian identity. One drinks the wine as part of a broader performance that is acted out, rather than simply undertaken.

The effect of the wine, and its potential value and power are vastly different in a ritual versus in a routine. When an object becomes ritualized its value increases exponentially.

Take the American Flag. In a non-ritualized sense, it is simply a piece of cloth with thirteen horizontal red and white stripes, and a blue field with fifty white stars on it. It has very little value. Once this piece of cloth became ritualized however, its power became virtually limitless. The mere raising of it can unite millions and send thousands off to war, while burning or stomping on it can raise the ire of just as many.

It is precisely this type of power that brands have the potential exert over people once they properly ritualize and incorporate themselves. Starbucks, as we shall soon, has done an exemplary job of attaching their brand through a ritualized experience. So good a job in fact, that the coffee and food it serves may be barely relevant to its success.

Zain Raj in Brand Rituals presented a conceptual model that demonstrates the logic behind the need to develop ritualized brand experiences.5


 5 Raj, Zain (2012). Brand Rituals. Mill Valley, CA. Spyglass Publishing.

In Raj’s model, habits are the least mindful and least enriching experiencing. They are transaction based, meaning the customer will buy whatever is most convenient and cheap. In the old marketing model, this is where the offer plays an important role and data reigns supreme. While giving someone an offer to buy your product might work short term, it does little in terms in terms of generating a long-term or deeper relationship. Treating your brand experience like a habit can keep you in the never ending cycles and struggles of either discounting your brand or relying on product innovation. It won’t foster brand attachment.

Having a cup of coffee every morning is a habit. Your functional need is to get some caffeine into your system and wake up. You might have coffee in your office or pick some up at Dunkin Donuts or a local coffee shop on your way to work. You might even have an energy drink instead of coffee. Since most any brand can fulfill your functional need, whichever brand is easiest and/or cheapest will most likely get your business.

Routines are different. They are more mindful and and enriching than habits, and as the model indicates, they are product, not transaction, centered. Remember, routines are behaviors designed to help us transition from one activity to another so they require some form of consistency.

Instead of just wanting any form of caffeine or any cup of coffee, you want a latte every morning. You may not be able to make a latte at home or at work, so you will go somewhere they are sold. For brands that offer lattes, their competition will be reduced. Still, just about any latte that meets your taste requirements will do, so once again, an offer or innovation from a competitor might steal a customer. The competition would naturally respond with an offer, and the downward cycle of price cuts and disrespect for the brand will begin anew.

Rituals are brand-centric, meaning the customer seeks the brand experience first and the product second. Once ritualized, your brand will provide the most enriching experience and will be able to attach itself to your customers. You’ll be able to generate new behaviors. Instead of just wanting a cup of coffee to get you going in the morning, or a latte to do the same, you have to have a Starbucks Venti Latte, and most importantly, all the behaviors that are associated with buying and drinking it.

You’ll go out of your way to get it, you’ll pay more for it. You’ll need to go through the ordering process, and competitors offers won’t lead you astray from Starbucks. You might even feel a sense of separation anxiety if you haven’t performed your Starbucks ritual. Starbucks, without you realizing it, has become incorporated into your identity by fulfilling your need for ritualization.

Ritual Beings

As stated above, rituals are the evolutionary mechanism that we have developed in order to attach ourselves to others, institutions and brands. The desire to partake in rituals has become hard-wired into our psyche and is just as elemental to our existence as other behavioral instincts such as nurturing and self-preservation.

Over the millennia, we have created thousands of different rituals. There are however, six broad genres that all rituals fall into and that every brand can utilize to create their own unique brand ritual. The six genres are:

  1. Calendrical – These rituals give meaning and definition to the passage of time. Their underlying message surrounds the constant renewal of life. Examples include New Year’s, July 4th and Passover. Calendrical rituals are particularly useful in categories like financial services and pharma, where adherence plays a large role in a brand’s success.
  2. Rights of Passage – These rituals mark a person’s transition from one stage of social life to another. Their common theme is fictional death and rebirth. Examples include birthdays, graduations, marriages, and initiations. Rites of passage rituals are very potent in luxury and lifestyle categories.
  3. Exchange – In these rituals people make an offering in exchange for being in a better relationship with another party. They expend a resource for a reciprocal action. Examples include sacrifice, communion, and gifting. As we’ll soon see in this article, Starbucks’ genius power lies in the utilization of this type of ritual. In the second article in this journal, a closer examination of this ritual will demonstrate that shopping isn’t shopping, and that the great opportunity for retailers and brands is out there to be taken.

The desire to partake in rituals has become hard-wired into our psyche and is just as elemental to our existence as other behavioral instincts such as nurturing and self-preservation.

  1. Affliction– In these rituals, people attempt to rectify a state that been disordered or disturbed. Examples include healing, protecting, and purifying. In the third article of this journal, we will show how these kinds of rituals can produce attachment for insurance companies.
  2. Feasts, Fasts, and Festivals – These are communal displays of commitment and adherence to common values. These rituals are extremely valuable in building solidarity and are especially important in today’s social media world.
  3. Political – These rituals construct, display, and promote the power of institutions, groups or individuals. Examples include inaugurations, shareholder meetings, and the State of the Union Address. Political rituals hold a great deal of persuasive power and have been used to great effect by clients in beverage alcohol and digital content.6

6 Bell, Catherine (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. New York. Oxford University Press.

Starbucks Re-Envisioned

As we turn our attention back to Starbucks, we will see that the key to their success, as previously noted, is not their coffee, food, passion or values, but the brilliant ritualization of their brand experience.

The way ritualization works for most brands is that a particular ritual process and corresponding communication and behavior is matched to an underlying desire specific to the consumption or brand interaction occasion. For example, if a spirits brand is trying to sell to men who drink alcohol during an occasion in which they want to demonstrate their masculinity, they would incorporate their brand experience within a ritual designed to prove dominance or masculinity.

Starbucks’ situation is a little different. For they tapped into something that was not only needed during a coffee house occasion, but something that filled a ritual void from a much broader societal perspective.

Human beings utilize exchange rituals in order to try and be in a better relationship with another party. They typically expend a resource, devote it the other, and then typically consume the resource as a symbolic joining of the two parties. From a psychological perspective, it gives participants a strong feeling of belonging.

Starbucks integrated a specific type of exchange ritual classified as a communion ritual. One doesn’t have to be a ritual expert to see the similarities between the Starbucks experience and a Communion rite at a Catholic Church. Delving in to all the actions, roles, and symbols associated with a communion ritual, and showing the corresponding actions, roles, and symbols at Starbucks is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s just take a coarse look at a few of the corresponding characteristics to show the similarities between the two.


So why did a communion ritual work for Starbucks? The answer is two-fold. Coffee houses have traditionally been seen as places to spend quality time and bond with others, ultimately helping to reinforce a sense of belonging much as a local bar or community center would do. So a ritual that creates a sense of belonging was a perfect fit. There are, however, scores of different rituals that create a sense of belonging. Why did a communion ritual work so perfectly?

This answer requires the broader societal view. There is an anecdote in the world of politics that states that you can tell whether a certain precinct will vote Democratic or Republican based upon the number of Starbucks in that precinct. The more Starbucks, the more likely the precinct goes Democratic. The underlying rationale for this is that Democrats tend be more secular and Republicans more religious.

But what does Starbucks have to do with being or not being religious? Communion. Over the millennia, people have traditionally satisfied their hard-wired need to participate in communion rituals through their religious institutions. Secular people by definition don’t attend religious services regularly so their need has to be satisfied elsewhere. Enter Starbucks: perfectly positioned to fill the societal-trend-based need for a communion rite along with the occasion-specific-need for belonging.

Starbucks real genius rested in their ability to create a culturally relevant communion rite that satisfied their potential customers true unmet need: participation in a communion rite. All the passion, great coffee, and shared values in the world could not create the level of attachment that Starbucks has developed with its customers. It is its ritual connection that differentiates it from competitors and continually drives attachment.

Every time a customer goes to Starbucks and participates in the ritual, it reinforces their attachment to Starbucks. People often say they are addicted to Starbucks, and it’s true. Only it’s not the coffee or sweets they are addicted to: it’s the ritual.

And like all well-ritualized institutions, Starbucks can produce attachment and satisfy the ritual needs through alternative venues. Hence, as long as Starbucks communications and behaviors are consistent, its customers can get a similar satisfaction using the drive-thru lane, buying Starbucks at the store, or even using a Starbucks K-cup at home.

Starbucks real genius rested in their ability to create a culturally relevant communion rite that satisfied their potential customers true unmet need: participation in a communion rite.

Ritualizing Your Brand

All brands can produce attachment through the ritualization. It doesn’t matter whether the brand is a physical good, a service, an experience, or an organization. Ritualization is a universal need, and attachment is its universal result.

Every ritual, no matter the genre, no matter how complex or simple, has a definitive process and corresponding symbols and roles that can be likened to a consumer/participant journey. Failure to incorporate the underlying ritual into your brand experience creates dissonance between expectations and results, ultimately reducing customer satisfaction and the chances for attachment. Conversely, incorporating the underlying ritual into your brand experience eliminates dissonance and strengthens attachment. The keys to producing attachment and increasing the value of your brand lie in the following:

  1. Applying the correct ritual genre and process to satisfy the most important consumer desire.
  2. Aligning the ritual process to the consumer/participant journey.
  3. Inserting the brand in its proper role at crucial points along the process.
  4. Creating experiences, communications, and programs that satisfy the ritual need at each step along the process.

Seventy-thousand years ago the dawn of marketing began in a group of caves that overlooked the southern tip of Africa. Our ancestors could hardly have known the evolutionary leap that was occurring; nor, could they have had any notion of the resulting power of their invention. Today, the power of ritualization is a well-established fact. For those who have yet to utilize it, the ultimate opportunity awaits.