Can brands create social change at lightspeed?

A case for collective rituals

Consumer goods brands are facing sustainability challenges of great magnitude. Beyond product re-engineering, brands require consumers to take action to accelerate the change: eating less meat, using less plastic, switching to re-usable containers, using dry cosmetics and detergents etc. And all these changes are currently happening too slowly, because the threat is not visible enough to impose an external constraint on consumers.

Behavioural science tells us that although we rationally know the importance of acting on these sustainability matters, we downplay the impact of each of our behaviours or defer our effort to the future. Seeing change as a loss, we are often not ready to compromise on quality, pleasure, or price (that we sometimes can’t afford). And even if we are willing to change, we are also passive prisoners of our own habits.

But to be able to effect change, we must overcome our biases and barriers. Does behavioural science have suggestions about how to overcome them?

Unexpected lessons from Covid

Covid has shown that we can all readily adopt individual behaviours that we were reluctant to consider in the past such as working from home, shopping online or taking virtual gym classes. The context forced change upon us all. Some of these new behaviours were also spontaneously performed together with other people, as a group: behaviours such as sharing a drink on Zoom, joining livestream entertainment with friends, paying collective tribute to frontline and health workers.

These collective behaviours help social groups to cope with changes of magnitude and can be called group rituals. People in the same community tend to adopt these rituals at speed, creating change at a pace that compares to nothing else, let alone if you were to nudge one individual at a time.

Could the power of these collective rituals in generating mass social change at lightning speed be harnessed by brands to solve sustainability challenges?

We believe so, and here is what brands need to do.

Understand what group rituals are

Group, or collective rituals are made of synchronized and shared behavioural patterns, which often emerge when facing an external challenge (threat, goal…). They are often invoked to reinforce a group identity: remember the Haka dance New Zealand teams perform before a rugby match? Rituals have a strong uniting power that brings benefits to the group first. By contrast, individual rituals are personal tactics that allow individuals to cope with their own individual stress or limitations.

Anthropologists (Watson-Jones & Legare, 2016) have documented the role of collective rituals in groups and societies that share the same beliefs, be they religious, political, or entrepreneurial. Collective rituals provide many benefits to the community: they tighten bonds, reassert shared values, and promote coordination. They install meaning while giving a sense of control over events, boosting members’ motivation. They help evolve social order (remember essential workers?), and they encourage solidarity and collaboration (“we will go through this together”).

A utilitarian view of rituals would highlight that they are effective at strengthening resilience (e.g.: to promote good hygiene practices or food habits in a community, as scripted by some religions) as well as resistance (e.g.: to defend identity and values in some ideological or tribal groups, as we have recently seen in the attack on the US Capitol). Hence rituals have no intrinsic moral value but to serve the community that designed them.

What behavioural science reveals about their power to scale-up social change

Why are collective rituals adopted in such a rapid way? Because they rely on an emotional contagion phenomenon, where the co-presence of people plays a major role (Randall, 2004). Participating together in a shared ritual feels like you are becoming part of a greater social body pursuing its own goals. By participating in a group experience, individuals can feel the collective energy of the group, which in turn fuels their own confidence to step up for action. Anyone that has participated in a football match, a concert, or has experienced the bravado of mass online gaming could easily relate to this collective emotional experience.

Beyond this physical rush they provide, collective rituals also have the organic power to change social norms. Social norms are informal rules that govern behaviours in groups and society, and that define what is considered typical and approved by the group. Social norms are strong drivers of our behaviours because everyone wants to belong. We act in a certain way because people we value behave that way (descriptive norms), or because they expect us to behave that way (injunctive norms). By design, collective rituals allow visible and synchronized rallying of people whose opinion matter, accelerating adoption of new behaviours in their existing communities (cf #MeToo or #BLM)