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MRX Lab Podcast

Exploring new & novel conversations from the fringes of the insights industry.

Episode #10 -The Effect of the Sacred and Profane on Consumer Behaviour

In this episode of the MRX Lab podcast from FlexMR, we look at the forces of sacred & profane consumption, and their effects on consumer behaviour. We ask what relevance these marketing and branding theories from the late 1900s have to modern researchers and examine the ways in which our investigation of behaviour can be shaped by such a lens.

After defining the sacred and profane, we discuss the role of brand cathedrals, consumer rituals and other parallels that can be drawn from both the secularization of religion and the sacralization of the secular. But most importantly, we consider how to adapt research based on rituals and why understanding this context matters.

As one early academic paper put it; two processes at work in contemporary society are the secularization of religion and the sacralization of the secular. Consumer behaviour shapes and reflects these processes.

In simple terms, sacred consumption happens when we set apart, objects, events or times and treat them with more reverence and awe than the mundane. Sacred consumption generally occurs when a purchase or experience is infrequent. The purchase of jewellery, especially wedding or engagement jewellery, is a prime example. But we might also treat holiday shopping, Black Friday or even vacations with a similar reverence. Vacation time is a particularly interesting example; where we tend to travel on sacred time. Think of how you might seek out authentic experiences, spend more time relaxing than normal or consider experiences you would never try at home whilst on holiday. These are all hallmarks of sacred consumption.

The profane, meanwhile, refers to objects, experiences and consumption that is considered mundane, everyday and ordinary. Brands are much more likely to be in this camp; part of a daily or weekly ritual rather than have dedicated time carved out of our schedule for them. Breakfast, commuting, grocery shopping, much of the retail landscape in general – all constitutes profane consumption.

But, there is evidence to suggest that the typically high wall in this dichotomy is breaking down. Some brands have, either by active efforts or chance, ended up moving from one side to the other. These tend to be those that we might consider to have ‘cult-like’ followings. Apple, Nike – even Kraft Mac and Cheese – may once have been considered mundane parts of everyday life, but now have fans who will carve out time to interact, to invest, in these brands.

An important lesson for marketers is that rituals tend to revolve around an action – not a product or brand. For researchers, this is also important to consider; as understanding the ritual within which a product, service or experience that a brand may play a part provides critical information. A holistic understanding of the ritual and the forces that shape it is needed to inform decisions around what behaviours to influence, what messages to send and even what a product or service should offer.


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