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Conversational Capital: Rituals

Posted on October 30, 2008 and read 1,990 times

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As some of you might be aware, Sid Lee, the on-fire Montreal ad agency, has produced a book entitled “Conversational Capital”, and has asked us at ihaveanidea (and by extension our own readers) to give it the once-over. Read it, poke and prod at it, find truths in it, find faults in it, whatever. Kind of like a giant focus group made up of the most finicky people on the planet – advertising folks. Since I’m probably the most voracious reader of the entire ihaveanidea team (“adult literature” doesn’t count, Ignacio) I jumped at the opportunity to deconstruct this book.

I just finished my copy of Conversational Capital over the weekend, and after reading the book, I can confidently say that most of the fascinating material stems from Sid Lee’s direct experience with one of the biggest conversation-generating successes of the last twenty five years: Cirque du Soleil. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or the ears of the hippo – depending where you live).

By studying the activities of category-leading brands such as Cirque du Soleil, Apple, adidas, Red Bull, IKEA, and other cases, Sid Lee came up with a series of observations that can help marketers generate and spread positive word-of-mouth for their brands. These insights are presented in their book (as well as on the book’s blog) through the Eight Engines of Conversational Capital – a series of lenses the authors describe the “experience amplifiers” they use at Sid Lee to drive positive word-of-mouth consumer support for their clients.

But really, what’s the difference between Buzz and Conversational Capital? According to Sid Lee, it’s the difference between noise and resonance.

As professionals, we all know that Buzz can generate a lot of noise and attention, but in most cases it does very little to ultimately change the nature of the consumer experience, to change consumer behavior. Buzz depends on media for its impact, it often has a short lifespan and Buzz will do almost anything to get your attention regardless of the expense to the brand, financial and otherwise. Conversational Capital on the other hand is embedded in the experience itself and relies on peer-to-peer conversations to work. It’s about meaning, integrity, and interaction.

The basic trick with Conversational Capital: inject intensity into your products and services and turn them into experiences that truly matter to consumers.

The authors suggest that using each or any of the eight Conversational Capital engines in a consumption experience will make that experience more resonant, richer, more relevant, and more memorable.


As part of our full review of Conversational Capital for ihaveanidea, here now is an explanation of the first of the Eight Engines described in the book – Rituals.

Rituals are indispensable to creating and formalizing meaning for people. The mere presence of ritual makes an experience deeper in meaning. This is true for consumer experiences too.

In their book, the authors describe how a lime wedge inserted into the neck of a bottle of Corona, gives the experience of quaffing beer a slightly more exalted feeling. Using the word quaffing to describe drinking does that also I suppose, but I think you can see what they mean.

As humans we use rituals to denote events and relationships as important or sacred. People ritualize fertility, birth, death, graduation, marriage, and all sorts of events. By sharing rituals together, people bond socially and they elevate the experiences to special status. Rituals are immensely important for individuals and groups.

INITIATION (a subset of Ritual)

Initiation has been a part of human experience since as far back as history can remember. An initiation experience creates a clear line between the ordinary and the magnificent – something more meaningful and memorable than the daily norm.

When products and experiences include an initiation, they become more memorable because they assert richness not found everyday. These initiations turn the everyday into the meaningful.

Often, these initiation rituals involve some discomfort, if not outright pain. And that unpleasantness creates dramatic tension and the conflict that builds the story. According to the authors, a direct correlation between the quality and memory of an experience and the work it took to fulfill that experience in the first place exists. The experience is earned.

Two Ritual examples from the book

• Buy an item from IKEA, and there’s initiation built right in. First, you have to decode IKEA’S language and learn to distinguish a Jerkker from a Lesvik or a Minnen. Then, you have to pass the “waiting-in-the-warehouse” test. Finally, IKEA forces you to unpack components and build your own furniture—the final step in your initiation as an IKEA customer.

• UPS envelopes are sealed with string. It’s a small gesture, but tearing the string makes the experience of opening the package more formal, important, and fulfilling.

Reebok Pump

Some people might remember when Dee Brown won the 1991 NBA All-Star Weekend dunk competition while wearing a pair of Reebok Pumps, famously pumping them before a spectacular slam dunk. The Reebok Pump is a line of shoes that became extremely popular in the 90s. They were the first shoes to have an internal inflation mechanism. And as Dee Brown demonstrated, the act of “pumping up” is a ritual to those who wore the shoes.

Reebok Pump it up Basketball shoe Commercial

In 1995 CCM sold a hockey skate with The Pump, they were ridiculed for poor durability by serious hockey players and quickly discontinued. The Pump didn’t get on the ice again until 2006, when Reebok (who bought the hockey company CCM) released a complete new line of skates that use The Pump as a customizable heel-fit mechanism. NHL hockey stars Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin and Alexei Kovalev currently wear Reebok skates featuring the pump.

Even WWE wrestler John Cena wears Reebok Pumps as part of his hip-hop schtick. The wrestler would often stop to “pump up” when he was gaining momentum towards the end of matches.

Cena pumps his Reebok

Pizza Crush with Reebok Pump Cleats

4 and a half stars

Conversational Capital: How to Create Stuff People Love to Talk About, is a book about engineering word-of-mouth into brand experiences.

Authors Bertrand Cesvet, Tony Babinski and Eric Alper began by deconstructing the drivers of word-of-mouth. What they’ve put together in this book is a collection of insights and observations about how positive word-of-mouth is generated and how their concept of Conversational Capital turns marketing on its head.

The books website – – is an open invitation to take part in the process of defining what is out there that truly has the power to make our consumer relationships and experiences richer (there is also a lot video and links on the website).

Jay Thompson
VP of Stuff




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