Secret Handshakes Lead to Emotional Loyalty, Stronger Brand Connections

What do Freemasons, baseball teammates, and my four-year-old son and I have in common? Emotional loyalty and secret handshakes. In the world of branding, a secret handshake can represent any form of brand ritual, from your personal Starbucks order to the DoubleTree Hotel cookie to your barber’s perfect fade and line up.

Secret handshakes and other rituals like it have been a deeply rooted element of human behavior and emotional loyalty for a very long time. Brands can use this to help increase the perceived value of their product and give customers a chance to create a deeper emotional connection to the brand.

Secret Handshakes = Emotional Loyalty = Customer Action

Dr. Donald Calne, neurologist and author, famously wrote, “The essential difference between emotion and reason is that emotion leads to action, while reason leads to conclusions.” An example of marketers using reason is when a campaign highlights how many awards the company or product has won. At best, that may lead to a rational conclusion about a product, but it won’t be the impetus that drives consumers to act.

Emotion, on the other hand, can overpower reason and often does lead to action or purchase. An example is how a consumer’s desire for the Starbucks holiday cup leads to the action of a coffee purchase.

Emotional loyalty and repeat action drive significantly higher spending, deeper engagement, and powerful word of mouth, even if it doesn’t always appear to make rational sense. Similarly, secret handshakes (metaphorical or literal) may seem silly or illogical on the surface, but they can be an effective catalyst for customer action, and ultimately, loyalty.

Rituals Lead to Higher Perceived Value

Secret handshakes are just one simple example of rituals that are performed to symbolize personal or group connections. Rituals have been staples of human loyalty throughout our history, whether through religion, sports, or cultural traditions across the globe.

For marketers and brand builders, it’s important to understand why rituals have been so closely associated with loyalty and what it can do for their products. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School and the University of Minnesota defined rituals as “symbolic activity that often includes repeated and unusual behaviors occurring in fixed, episodic sequences.”

The study “found that participants who performed a ritual prior to consuming a product reported a higher perceived value of the good being consumed.” The study also looked at the effect of ritual behavior versus random gestures, and the rituals led to more favorable consumption. This implies that the intentional aspect of a ritual is important for driving the intended emotional effect.

Rituals Are About Me, Not You

The most difficult part about creating a secret handshake is authenticity. Brands can’t force users to buy into it because, in fact, the secret handshake is seldom about the brand itself. A study about rituals published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, argued that rituals function as a way for humans to regulate emotions, performance goal states (e.g., athletes preparing for a big game), and social connections, because “deficits in each of these states tend to increase ritualistic behavior, and enacting rituals can reduce these deficits.”

This illustrates that the benefit of performing a ritual is truly more about oneself, which makes it challenging to manufacture, but also why it’s so powerful when done right.

Use Consumer Momentum to Find Your Secret Handshake

The most effective way to find an inspiration for a secret handshake is to observe consumers’ behavior as they interact with your brand. First, identify how and where your product exists in close proximity to regulating emotion, performance goal states, or social connections. Second, look internally at how your leaders and employees consume your own product, as they may be some of the most emotionally loyal fans who may exhibit authentic ritualistic behavior.

Third, observe your consumers in the wild: in-person or on social media. Watch what part of the consumer experience they pay particular attention to and if they perform any rituals you can observe.

Lastly, talk face to face with consumers in focus groups to understand rituals they might already perform and if they use those rituals to regulate emotions, performance goal states, and/or social connections. You may find that your consumers are using your product in a way that you didn’t necessarily intend, or that they find extraordinary value in an aspect that you thought was relatively insignificant.

The makers of Oreo cookies likely didn’t expect consumers to be so passionate about their secret handshake, which is their preferred method of eating them. However, they’ve embraced it in many ways and have stoked the fires behind the consumer momentum, resulting in valuable customer loyalty.

Once a secret handshake is established over a long period of time, it can become more important than its origin story. One of the most memorable stage experiences of my younger life was performing at The Apollo Theater in Harlem, where the secret handshake is to rub the lucky tree stump before going on stage. At the time, I didn’t know the back story, but I didn’t dare step foot on that stage without rubbing the tree stump, and it enhanced the experience of the history, tradition, and clout of the stage.

Loyalty to a brand doesn’t necessarily result in a secret handshake. However, if you do have a secret handshake, that brand will likely enjoy your emotional loyalty. If emotional loyalty is one of your brand objectives, a secret handshake is a great way to increase the perceived value of your product and create a deeper connection with your customers.

Wade Sugiyama is Director of Strategy & Insights for HelloWorld

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