Lessons Learned from Coffee at 35,000 Feet

You know you have a problem when you order Guatemalan ‘cup of excellence’ coffee beans from a micro-roaster in Boston that are shipped to San Francisco (via Memphis), ground into a fine powder on an artisanal German hand grinder in Toronto and consumed with a bit of raw organic sugar from Costa Rica on a transatlantic flight to London.

Blame it on my food obsessed parents – a food entrepreneur and a Freudian Psychoanalyst – my hypersensitive palate, my extreme dislike of airplane (sewage) coffee, my caffeine addiction, my love of Turkish coffee, my random attention to detail or my affinity for ritual. You could laugh, roll your eyes, feel sorry for me or maybe, just maybe, want to try the same drink on your next flight.

Either way, you would hopefully recognize a larger theme at play: people are looking beyond products to style their lives with new rituals, methods and little eccentricities that will combat chronic commoditization and lifestyles devoid of deeper meaning. One could easily write off this idea as a trend centered on the current obsessions with nostalgia, DIY and craft everything. Others might say it is as simple as giving some deeper attention to customer experience and service design. But that would be oversimplifying the phenomenon and highlighting a misunderstanding in how and when rituals are organically created.
 We have much to learn from the early childhood formation of ritualistic behavior. For example, there is ample research around the healthy habits that children attain through consistent bedtime rituals. We also know that new rituals are often conceived during major life events or transitions, like the birth of a new baby or retirement. In the business world this has created an entire science around life event marketing: P&G with Pampers, Fidelity with student college funds, AARP with Medicare Supplement Insurance. Other companies have tried to build ritual on the backs of new products: Starbucks with Via instant coffee, Fitbit with their health-tracking device.

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While the formation of rituals is tightly connected to comfort and needs – known and unknown, met and unmet – our society has seen an explosion of rituals tied to discomfort, surprise, new social interactions and discovery. We lose interest pretty quickly on our over-Googled earth where everything is instantly uncovered. Businesses and brands that study these phenomena and truly embrace ‘ritual styling’ have an opportunity to create growth engines of the future.

A couple of weeks ago I was eating at a San Francisco restaurant called Atelier Crenn that has coined the term ‘poetic culineria’ as a means of describing their food philosophy. Their menu is more poem than list of food, so it might not
be your cup of tea if you like predictability and
 order. Atelier Crenn is among a handful of
 restaurants around the world that are trying to
 change the ritual of the restaurant experience
from simply filling the belly, delighting the palate
 and socializing with friends to incorporating
performance art, mystery, sculptural contem
plation, purposeful confusion and live archeology.
The heights to which Chef Crenn has taken her
 food-styling serves as powerful inspiration for
 how to engineer rituals for brands.

Take one of her desserts, best described as a study in grey. A small grey Japanese charcoal brazier (grill) is placed in front of each diner. The brazier is full of lump charcoal and looks as though it is about to be lit afire. A plate that looks like many other high-end desserts – except all the elements are grey to black – arrives and is placed on top of the grill. Grey ice cream, grey foam, black candied something, a grey cookie, grey powder and a grey sauce forms a beautiful, but concerning constellation on the plate. A waiter arrives and instead of lighting the charcoal, pours boiling water around it creating a dry ice smoke that smells like a smoldering campfire.

Our group was simultaneously wowed and slightly turned off, until we started eating the dessert: the most vibrant, concentrated fruit flavors I have had in a long time and, yes, the black candied something was caramelized eggplant. As I sat there, I realized why so many brands fail to create excitement and new ritual. Natural conservativeness, lack of divergent thinking and entrenched behaviors discourage the research and development of new consumer rituals that could materialize within and beyond their span of control. So, is it time for Fortune 500 companies to phase out the old school loyalty guys and start hiring Chief Ritual Officers? Consumers certainly seem to be asking for more than a pile of points!

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Many consumers feel as though their lives are out of control and can’t seem to find meaning and happiness. Obesity, eternal commutes, celebrity media, credit card hangover, fantasy gaming and a lack of real human connection are among the long list of contributing factors. While materialism will always have its place, a new industry centered on creating collective ritual is gathering steam. Events such as Burning Man, Bhakti Fest and the White Picnics are creating meaningful new rituals for many of us and offer rich cues for brands looking to do more with human experience and social meaning.

One of the most interesting places to establish new rituals is in the domain of new product trials. While Sampling Packs and Word of Mouth marketing have proven valuable over the past 20 years, corporations have to rethink how and where they get new products into the hands of consumers. Finding a more ritualistic, surprising way for consumers to try a product for the first time can power up new ways of consumers that did not previously exist or alter existing ones. Think about trying a new Lululemon yoga bar (designed to naturally relax muscles) that you mysteriously receive on your mat before a yoga class at your local yoga studio. Or what if kids received a bottle of the all-new Harry Potter Quidditch Juice (with hidden vegetable nutrition) while watching the movie. What if every Gap wool sweater came with a packet of P&G’s new anti-fuzz washing serum? What if emirates Airlines created First Class napping or dining pods replicating their private first class cabins in key financial districts around the world? How would a momentary escape ritual drive purchase behavior for the airline? I suspect we don’t need a quant survey to answer the question. While new channel and partnership rituals can be complicated and sometimes costly, they are critical in a world where mass advertising has merely moved from two old channels (print and TV) to two new channels (social and mobile).

In our business obsession with all things social and digital we sometimes forget all things real and ritual. It seems like a ripe moment to explore and style these deeper connections in brand and business ecosystems. If the ancient ritual of enjoying a warm cup of coffee can be re-styled at 35,000 feet, so too can almost any product or service.

This article originally appeared in MISC Winter 2013, The Style Issue.

the author

Scott Friedmann

Scott Friedmann is Chief Innovation Office at Idea Couture. See Scott’s full bio here.