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Customer rituals causing more harm than good?

14th Jul 2010
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Brands should be wary of differentiating themselves by using default rituals such as singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to customers as such activity can badly backfire, according to research.

A study undertaken among 150 college-age consumers that was led by Cele Otnes, a marketing and business administration expert at the University of Illinois, revealed that although such rituals can be memorable and provide some customers with an incentive to return, others are completely turned off by them.

Some respondents indicated that being forced to participate in activity such as line dancing or elaborate ceremonies after buying a car violated their sense of privacy and left them feeling hemmed in, embarrassed and even resentful.

"Those are really strong negatives. While rituals can make some consumers embrace the business, there’s also a huge risk. People use words like ‘annoying’ or ‘irritating’ to describe the experience and some say it definitely makes them rethink whether they’ll come back," she warned.

"As a result, businesses should consider carefully whether to embed such rituals into their sales and services practices or whether to make them optional. In truth, all rituals are optional, but customers may fear there’s a cost to them if they try to get out of embedded rituals. For example, opting out could be considered rude and jeopardise the service they receive," Otnes said.

But there were also downsides to making rituals optional too. Although giving customers choice meant that each person could stay within their comfort zone, it could also devalue efforts to build a unique brand image.

"Which solution is best depends completely on the business. How much do you care about repeat business? Do you rely on a local market or are you in a tourist area, where customers don’t necessarily come back regularly," Otnes said.

One way of getting round the problem was to obtain feedback from customers to gauge their response to a given activity. This included asking such nuanced questions as whether serenades were too loud or if cooking food at restaurants Teppanyaki-style was too smoky.

"Businesses should not just be on autopilot when they’re creating rituals. They really need to understand the difference between optional and embedded, and the potential consequences of forcing customers to sit through certain rituals," Otnes said.

The study was co-written by doctoral students Elizabeth Crosby, Mina Kwon and Sydney Chinchanachokchai.


Replies (2)

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By twilliams
15th Jul 2010 16:53

'being forced to participate in activity such as line dancing or elaborate ceremonies after buying a car'

erm... am I missing something here?

Has anyone ever heard of this or is this a wind-up? 



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By Walker1202
16th Jul 2010 09:45

I have seen restauranteers sing happy birthday to customers before, but i have yet to see a business make their customers line dance. Having said that, if anyone could let me know which firms are doing this then I'd love to know! I'll dust off my stetson and get over there!

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