Daily Rituals of the World

Daily Rituals of the World

A recent study by ad agency BBDO Worldwide offers marketers insight into the everyday routines of people across the globe

Human beings are creatures of habit—the morning coffee with two sugars, the post-lunch brush and floss, the bedtime yoga routine with lights dimmed. Advertisers, on the other hand, often try to break those habits by wedging new products and services into various parts of the day.

Now comes ad giant BBDO Worldwide with its latest weapon to help clients get an edge: An extensive global study of daily rituals. Unlike habits or routines, which may be ingrained but carry no emotional meaning, a ritual is described in the study as "a defined series of actions that helps us transform from one emotional state to another."

Many of those actions involve favorite things, naturally, and BBDO's hope is that the data will help clients insert their products into those rituals. "We didn't have categories or brands in mind," says Tracy Lovatt,director of behavioral planning at BBDO North America. "We wanted to study the power of rituals in our lives."

The study comes at a time when ad agencies are struggling to find new ways to reach customers, and emphasize the value of their work to clients. "This is another example of how the richest source of insight comes from observing behavior," says BBDO President and Chief Executive Andrew Robertson.

Making Meaning

But rituals are something many associate with rites of passage—marriage, death, even the transition to a new season. BBDO, in contrast, came up with five that occur every day in every part of the world: "preparing for battle" (the morning ritual), "feasting" (reconnecting with your tribe over food), "sexing up" (primping), "returning to camp" (leaving the work place), and "protecting yourself for the future" (the ritual before bed).

Each label is meant to suggest a defined emotional state that permeates each set of behaviors. The notion resonates with anthropologist Norman Stolzoff, founder of Ethnographic Insight. "The idea that the day could be carved

up into meaningful times is clever," he says. "Rituals form meaning."

As part of the study, researchers asked more than 5,000 people in 21 countries how they behave during these five transitional periods of the day. While people in every culture report engaging in rituals for similar reasons, they approach them quite differently. About 41% of Chinese respondents said they schedule sex, for example, while only 3% of Russians do—and 7% of Americans.

Nightly Lockdown

Fully 44% of Brazilians read in the bathroom, according to the study; in Saudi Arabia, 10% of respondents do. More than half of all Indian respondents surf the Web before leaving the house, while less than one-third of Americans or Canadians do. About 80% of Saudi Arabians pray or meditate before work; in Germany, 3% of respondents do.

The rituals that are easiest to understand occur in the morning and evening. Marketers have long appreciated the value of getting a foothold in the tightly scheduled morning ritual, when people tend to stick with a routine and a particular set of products. BBDO participants reported doing an average of seven activities in under an hour, from brushing their teeth and drinking coffee to checking e-mail (participants between the ages of 60 and 70 reported the highest rate of e-mail use).

BBDO dubbed the period before bed "protecting yourself for the future." That's because the survey found people in self-preservation mode, as they went about locking windows and doors, applying wrinkle cream, and selecting clothes or "armor" for the next day. It's a brief period, but also the perfect time to find customers at their most vulnerable. As BBDO's Robertson, a former insurance salesman, puts it: "If there was some way to be in the home as people are going through lockdown, you could probably sell a lot of insurance."

Broad Categories

When it comes to rituals in the middle of the day, the survey's results are less conclusive. That might have to do with the categories BBDO settled on. Feasting, for example, is described as

"pleasurable and indulgent…the ritual that reunites us with our tribes." But the frequency with which people feast vs. simply eating something to stave off hunger isn't clear, and anyone who has organized a midweek meal with busy kids knows that "indulgent" may not be the best way to characterize the mood.

Everyone, too, understands the elaborate preparations that go into "sexing up." But the category is a catch-all for everything from teenage girls e-mailing each other to find out what they're going to wear, to people scheduling sex. "Returning to camp," meanwhile, can mean anything from sharing martinis with friends to staring zombie-like at the TV with a bag of chips in hand. Watching TV also creeps into both the morning and evening rituals, as do other habits—this perhaps means the same activity serves different purposes at different hours of the day.

Even so, marketers may find BBDO's results help them tailor their approach to consumers. For instance, cultures in which a high proportion of people eat on their way to work, such as China, could be more open to portable breakfast food than those that don't, such as Spain. While everybody showers or bathes, a shower gel aimed at Polish consumers might emphasize relaxing qualities, as 84% of them shower at night. A more invigorating message might work better with the 92% of Mexicans who shower or bathe in the morning. Knowing that women in Colombia, Brazil, and Japan apply makeup in their car at twice the global rate could prompt a new approach to the design and marketing of cosmetics.

Breaking the Code

The challenge is that most consumers are loyal to particular products and patterns, making it tough for marketers to become part of a ritual if another brand is already there. Americans, in particular, said they use the same products every morning, though they're more flexible about what they use at night. Russians are less predictable—only half of them use the same products as part of their morning ritual, and 19% of them use the same products before going to bed. If there's one constant around the world, it's this: Almost everyone gets irritated when their rituals are disrupted.

How will clients see the work? BBDO has presented the findings to several so far, and some were willing to share a few comments with BusinessWeek. YUM! Brands (YUM) Chairman and CEO David Novak, who calls his company "maniacal about insight-driven marketing," says the study will "provide a fresh, new lens to uncover those insights that lead to positive and lasting changes in consumer behavior." Pepsi-Cola North America (PEP) Chief Marketing Officer Cie Nicholson called the study "intriguing, because we can learn how to build our brands' share of life, not just share of market."

For Scott Aakre, a vice-president at Hormel Foods (HRL), the Holy Grail is to "find a way to break the code and fit into one of these five universal routines [so] we might be able to build lifelong relationships between our brands and consumers." That's a tough challenge. But if he doesn't do it, he can always head home, change into his pajamas, curl up on the couch, and find comfort in the little rituals of his day.

Diane Brady is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.

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