Making sense of symbolism and ritual
People do not buy and use services simply for functional reasons, or even just for emotional reasons. There is more to people than that. Much of human behaviour comes about because people want to make their daily lives meaningful. So, they look for products and services that give them the sense of meaning they are looking for. We call our research technique that captures this sense of meaning en-symbol.
Visual meaning, symbolism and ritual
Rituals. People use rituals to create meaning. Large scale public rituals like Christmas create and express shared values about 'who we are as a family'. Small-scale rituals can do the same such as a practice known as 'heirloom transfer' in which people give special possessions to family members. Greeting and farewell rituals are essential for good customer service because they make the experience meaningful.
Symbols. Researchers and marketers usually differentiate between a product's (or brand's) rational features and its emotional benefits. For us, the distinction should really be between rational features, emotions and symbolic benefits. Emotions are things like joy and fear. For example, some people feel safer when they are in a large 4-wheel drive than in a smaller sedan style car. That sense of safety is an emotional benefit. When a product or brand is used partly or wholly to communicate something about that person, then the product or brand is working as a symbol. We have developed a framework as the basis for our research into symbolic products, with some examples below.
- Status symbols: Someone may buy a 4-wheel drive because it conveys that they belong to an aspirational generational cohort or social 'tribe' (or because they think it does). Fellow members of the tribe know this code well and easily decode the symbols they see among their peers or wannabe peers.
- Low-cost symbols: While status symbols like the 4-wheel drive tend to be expensive, many low-cost products - even water - can be used symbolically. The water bottle you are seen with can convey much about your personality to others who share your values, though people outside this social circle may be oblivious to its meaning. Often these low-cost symbols tend to be more transient, as they more easily-replaced by something else. People may also use a cluster of products all conveying the same message.
- Private symbols: Some symbols are public - you telling others that you belong. Others are private - you are telling yourself that you belong, or are worthy, or are 'young for your age' for example. If part of a product or brand's appeal is that it reflects well on your self-image, then it is a symbol for you. The 'for you' part is important as you do not need anyone else to decode it. These symbols can become obsolescent as you change and what matters to you changes.