Bolder Thinking Blog

Holiday season 2020: Strategic ritualization perspective

October 29th, 2020 | Behice Ilhan

2020 has been a whirlwind. All the anchors and constants that we knew to ground our lives have been dismantled or at least shaken. The holiday season in the US with its highly symbolic, routinized, and ritualized practices has long been one of those constants that helps people anchor in a version of normality. The pandemic, the corresponding social isolation as well as the enduring social distancing period have already changed our lives, experiences and practices.  We expect that several of these cultural shifts will persist to shape and re-define the Holiday experience in 2020.

Similarly, the Holiday season has always been a prominent period for brands and the marketplace. Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas/Holidays are three big marketplace and consumption rituals in the US. Consumer culture and marketplace activities surrounding these events cut across several categories. The performances of brands during this period have a significant role in meeting company’s annual performance goals and act as a benchmark for the planning and budgeting of the upcoming year.   

Elements of rituals

Consumption rituals are dramatically scripted, symbolic, performative  and expressive behaviors that occur in a fixed and episodic sequence and tend to be repeated over time. The consumption ritual experiences rely on four tangible components: 1. Ritual artifacts [the products]; 2. A ritual script [how the product is used]; 3. Ritual performance role(s) [who does what?]; 4. A ritual audience [who watches?]. In this blog, we will use this social anthropology framework to provide some strategic foresight about the upcoming Holiday season: 

Ritual artifacts [Products; WHAT?] We don’t expect any changes in the products that are conventionally used as elements of these consumption rituals. For example, we will still have candy for Halloween: turkey, cranberry, and/or pumpkin for Thanksgiving, etc. We don’t expect any demand or supply shocks in any of the associated categories or products. The pumpkin brokers are reporting a strong supply and demand for the product. The persisting demand for the pumpkin for this Halloween is a manifestation of several trends that accelerated during the pandemic. Pumpkin becomes the medium for increased home time and decoration for our Zoom calls where we can quickly express our tastes, identities, and playfulness. Pumpkin carving as a DIY project and its Instagrammable aesthetic also support this growing demand for pumpkins for Halloween. I expect the same strong demand for the ritual artifacts of Thanksgiving and Christmas, especially the ones supported by the similar trends of cocooning at home and digital displays in social media or Zoom. 

POV1a: Unlike the roses in this year’s Mother’s Day, we don’t expect any demand or supply shocks in any of the associated categories or products in any of these rituals in 2020 (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas/Holiday 2020).

This is important as this was not the case for the previous marketplace and consumption ritual, Mother’s Day. Flowers are a prominent product of the rituals of Mother’s Day. This Mother’s Day, the fresh flower market had experienced both demand and supply shocks as a result of the pandemic. The demand for roses fluctuated and seismically decreased as less and less people shop from retails and shop less for non-essential items like flowers. The demand shock deepened with the cancellation of events, flower themed parties or most importantly weddings. The demand shock led to supply shock because “since mid-March, U.S. farmers and major import countries like Holland, Ecuador and Colombia are struggling to harvest.” The shrinkage in supply had been furthered as “flower suppliers are uncertain how much to produce going forward in order to avoid having to donate or destroy all the unsold petals.” 

POV1b: We expect the elevated demand for comfort and nostalgic food and drinks during the pandemic to persist through the Holiday season. We will see “longing” and “family” themes as part of food and drinks features, product claims, and communication. 

The social distancing and hesitation to travel might cause many to celebrate the Holiday season away from the loved ones. That longing for home and for family time will manifest itself in the marketplace as a desire for nostalgia. We will see “longing” and “family” themes as part of food and drinks features, product claims, and communication. Particularly, the multi-sensory emphasis of home about the smell, sound, taste will be an important aspect of branding communications. For all these reasons, we expect the elevated demand for comfort and nostalgic food and drinks during the pandemic to persist through the Holiday season.

Ritual script [The way products are used; HOW?] The pandemic, the corresponding social isolation as well as the enduring social distancing period will drastically change the scripts of the products used in these consumption rituals. For example, this Halloween, trick and treating by knocking doors (that is a script about what you do with the product) will not be a common practice like the traditional Halloweeens in the previous years. Some cities have canceled trick-or-treating, some have allowed trick-or-treating during certain time slots. To navigate the social distancing for the trick and treating, several DIY candy delivery solutions are available: zip lines, candy schutes, candy drones etc. In each of these scenarios, the scripts about collecting, giving away, and sharing candy are different. 

POV2: In 2020, we will translate the existing Holiday ritual scripts into experiences in new spaces and places that are safer and socially distant – like cars, digital, and/or virtual spaces. We will have new physical, digital, and/or virtual places and spaces for the new scripts:

Cars. Mars Wrigley has mentioned that “there will be trick-or-treating as well as “trunk-or-treating”— when families park in a common area and kids go from one decorated car trunk to another, collecting candy.” Walmart will also hold socially distanced Halloween activities – including trunk and treating – in their parking lots. 

Home. As home becomes the hub of our several routines and rituals, many of these festivities and scripts will be coming inside the four walls of our homes. The brands are also helping to support these in house scripts by giving ideas how to trick and treat at home, for example. 

Digital & Virtual. During this holiday season, we will see several of the ritual scripts entailing the virtual and digital spaces. For example, Mars Wrigley will have a virtual Halloween hub with online trick-or-treating, games and ways to purchase candy. In Mars Wrigley’s Treat Town, consumers can share virtual candy credits while trick-or-treaters can virtually “visit family and friends to collect the credits redeemable for real-world treats via online and real-world retailers.” The Animal Crossing’s Halloween activation can “collect seasonal furniture, grow pumpkins, collect candy and eventually trick-or-treat on their respective islands for a virtual spooky experience.”

Ritual performance [Roles, WHO DOES WHAT?] – There are several performances in consumption and marketplace rituals. Who cuts the turkey? Who accompanies kids to the trick and treat? Who hosts the Christmas dinner? These are all examples of ritualistic performances of the holiday season. The pandemic, the corresponding social isolation as well as the enduring social distancing period will change the performances in these three upcoming holiday events. 

POV 3: To assess the changing ritual roles in the Holoda, we need to look at the performance of three parties: consumer, retailer, and the marketplace. 

Consumers will perform the new scripts on social media. This Halloween, we will see many virtual trick and treat and costume parties on TikTok, Snapchat, and/or Instagram. If travel impacts the gatherings for the families, especially during Thanksgiving and Christmas, many of the roles in the previous holiday gatherings will need to be performed separately. If your mom always cooks the stuffing, you will need to learn quickly to do it yourself and/or for your family. 

The brands can help consumers by preparing kits to cook the essential food elements of Thanksgiving, for example, in a pack. These kits or smaller pack sizes will be helpful especially for people who will cook holiday food for the first time because they cannot unite with their families for Thanksgiving or Holidays. Several of the consumer performances like gifting will be driven by the digital tools or through ecommerce sites. Exchanging Amazon wish lists or virtual Christmas trees for gift exchanges will be common practices. 

POV3a. Consumers will take their mimetic holiday performances to social media or on digital platforms.

Retail has been significantly impacted from the pandemic. This year, retailers have decided to stop their performance in some of these events. Walmart, for example, will not open their stores for Thanksgiving day. Retailers always had a very prominent performance in all three of these events – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Chritsmas/Holidays. The retail calendar for merchandising, category management and promotions revolve around these events. These events in retail also facilitated foot traffic to the brick and mortar stores. The absence of foot traffic will impact the impulse purchases and also the extra demand the Holiday promotions is expected to create. 

POV3b. Retailers will be absent or have limited presence in the brick and mortar to perform their conventional roles during the Holiday season.

Marketplace in the US has an annual pace. The existing annual pace of the marketplace in the US starts with Valentine’s Day, goes on with Easter, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, 4th of July, Back to School Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and closes with Christmas. The retail as well as the consumption rhymes with this pace. The new digital events like Amazon Prime Day are starting the Holiday shopping at an earlier date. Similarly, retailers are reporting that Halloween spending and decorations has started very early – as early as July – this year. 

POV3c. Marketplace pace is evolving with some new digitally born and digital dominant rituals like Amazon Prime day or Ali Baba’s singles Day.

Ritual audience [ATTENDEES, who watches?] Rituals have symbolic meanings. Rituals are ceremonial and performative practices done in much scripted order. It has to be done in a certain way, with certain types of product and mostly to an audience or community. During the pandemic, our socialization has been in the ensembles we have formed. During the holiday season, we will also socialize in our micro tribes –  by recruiting people to our consumption ensembles for the holidays. We will include people that adopt similar levels of hygiene, quarantining and social distancing practices to ourselves. The majority of holiday gatherings will be smaller and will entail a lot of coordination and  ensemble policing.

POV4. During the holiday season, we will also socialize in our micro tribes –  by recruiting people to our consumption ensembles for the holidays. 

What does it mean?

Resilience. Rituals are rare. Rituals are resilient. Performing a ritual once in a different way will not cause that particular ritual to dissolve. Past Easter, participants could not go to churches. This does not mean that the long-standing Easter ritual and how it is normally performed will change next year. Similarly, the changes in the holiday events will not be about the products – food, drink, gifts, trees – used in these events but rather in (1) the ways those products are used (ritual scripts) and/or (2) the performances of  the consumers and other market agents involved.  

Mindsets [Scarcity mindset and self-sustaining consumption systems] The pandemic and the corresponding recession possibilities have put consumers in a scarcity mindset that has forced them to reassess their consumption practices and expenditure habits. Consumers are slowing down and even stopping their consumption in some categories. Consumers have started to control every stage of their consumption: lower or stop their acquisition (eg; no buy challenges), extend the lives of products they already own (eg; reuse, repair, repurpose), reducing their demand for new products (eg; swap markets, DIY, starting their own garden), and eradicating waste (eg; #zerowaste movement). By doing all those, they seek to create a sufficient, regenerative, and restorative ecosystem that is sustainable at the micro (individual consumer or nuclear family/household level). The scarcity mindset will impact the amount of money spent for gifts or celebration budgets for the Holidays. But, there is a friction dynamic as this scarcity mindset will also be balanced as consumers will seek normalcy through holiday shopping or sustaining rituals. 

Transformation. We are adjusting the Holiday season for the limitations of 2020. This is not a complete transformation of the Holiday season. The transformative aspect is happening on the “annual pace of the marketplace” level. The hub that is orchestrating the consumption and retail activities is digital and not the retail brick and mortar any more. The real transformative aspect about #holiday2020 is happening around the annual pace of the marketplace. The annual pace of the US marketplace is evolving with some new digitally born & digital dominant marketplace rituals like Amazon Prime Day or Ali Baba’s Singles Day. The holiday shopping starts earlier and the changes are shaped by global dynamics. This will impact the media spend and retail/ecommerce strategies. This transformative aspect is causing some fluidity across Hallloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas as elements of these separate rituals have started to bleed into each other. For example, we have started to see an increasing popularity of the Halloween trees this year. 

Behice Ilhan

Behice Ilhan

Dr. Behice Ece Ilhan is the Senior Trend Strategist at Mintel. Behice provides futuristic perspectives and opinions on trends and their impact on the brand landscape, which she utilizes to strengthen engagement with CPG and agency clients on storytelling and positioning strategies.