What champagne is to weddings, what Gatorade is to workouts, and what your favorite Starbucks drink is to your stressful mornings, is what most companies hope to be.

These emotional, ritualistic associations are how brands weave themselves into the fabric of consumer lives. The National Football League is a multi-billion dollar business, but millions of fans, worldwide, tend to process it as a joyous Sunday pastime. They turn on their televisions and can almost forget that what they're watching is a product. Lego is also a multi-billion dollar business. But most people who use it feel like they're just playing and building

All of which begs this question: How can you go about creating joyous, ritualistic associations with whatever you're selling, so your customers feel more like hardcore fans, and less like paying customers? Branding expert Martin Lindstrom, whose book on the subject, Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends, is due out next week, has made a fascinating career out of answering that question. His client list includes McDonald's, Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, Lego, Cisco, the Walt Disney Company, Red Bull, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and Lowes. 

One of Lindstrom's hallmark ideas is that small data is just as powerful--if not more so--than big data. There's no substitute for the firsthand observation of customer behaviors. The reason? The emotions you witness can help you uncover the deepest feelings that your product triggers. And that can help you redesign your customer experience, with the aim of creating customers who are as psyched to buy your product as they are to sit down and watch their favorite team on Sunday. 

Not long ago Lindstrom used his small data skills to address a challenge that a beer brand called Devassa--owned by Kirin, the Japan-based beverage company--was facing in Brazil. It's a challenge that is likely familiar to you, if you've helmed a brand for more than a few years. Once a premium ale in Brazil, Devassa had become just another product in the beer section of the supermarket. So Lindstrom's mission was to restore Devassa to its upmarket status. 

His solution was to create authentic customer rituals around the drinking of Devassa. From his experience, he knew rituals are an essential component of beverage brands. The ritual around Corona is to use a lime. The ritual around Blue Moon is to use a lemon or orange. The ritual at Starbucks is the shared language of ordering drinks. "Rituals serve as an entry ticket to an exclusive universe consumers want to join, and the more often they repeat a ritual, the more of a hardcore fan they become," he writes in Small Data.  

So he and his team set out to create a ritual through which customers could become more hardcore fans of Devassa. They had one big advantage: Devassa also owns and operates standalone bar-restaurants in choice locations in Brazil. The ritual they developed involved three different flavors of powder: salty, lemony, and chocolate. Each powder was engineered to complement one of the seven different Devassa beers available in the Brazilian market. 

Here's how the ritual works: Wearing gloves, the Devassa bartenders carefully moisten the rims of the glasses before spinning them into the powder, giving the glasses a frosted-looking rim, like the salt around the rim of a margarita glass. 

The powder gave Devassa a ceremonial accompaniment, like Corona has with its limes. Lindstrom and his team also created a Devassa-branded floating bar, 200 feet off the coast of Copacabana, with deejays, surfboard-shaped tables, and cameras live-streaming the bar's happenings onto the web.  

While it's too early to assess how the new Devassa ritual, in particular, will translate into sales, it's not too early to learn from Lindstrom's wealth of experience in creating authentic customer rituals for consumer products. After all, there's a big risk--whenever a company tries to introduce a ritual--that doing so will backfire completely, after the consumers (correctly) perceive that the ritual is an insidious marketing ploy. 

Lindstrom has two golden rules for creating authentic customer rituals:

1. The ritual has to be part of something that already exists within the community. That minimizes the risk that consumers will view the ritual as the forced entry of a corporate raider. "I don't develop the ritual from scratch," says Lindstrom. "I see what has already appeared by itself." 

In the case of Devassa, Lindstrom says it took him and his team "about five minutes" of observing Brazilian beer drinkers to pinpoint rituals. For instance, when drinkers order upscale brands, they position the label facing outward, so everyone else at the table can see what they're drinking. 

They also noticed that Brazilians prefer their beer to be extremely cold--and that the temperature was more important to them than, say, the beverage's taste or hoppiness. This took the risk out of introducing the powders as a flavor element, especially after the powders were overwhelmingly popular in taste tests. 

What was more, Lindstrom and the team noticed the class-consciousness in Brazilian culture. For example, Rio's most popular beaches are reserved for tourists and the wealthy. So the idea of building the floating bar seemed like something Brazilian consumers would embrace. 

2. The idea must pass a four-part scorecard test for authenticity. Lindstrom and his team score the idea (from zero to five) on the following criteria:

  • Is it real? Customers should be able to feel, touch, taste, hear, or smell the impact of the ritual. For instance, Ford enhanced the engine sounds of the Mustang in the late 90s to give customers the more visceral experience they craved.
  • Is it relevant? You shouldn't be adding vapid bells and whistles; you should be enhancing the experience with extras that customers crave. Think of Converse upgrading the Chuck Taylor sneaker for the first time in 98 years, making the inside more comfy and durable, but not tinkering with the iconically colorful canvas exterior. 
  • Is it part of the product's storyline? The ritual should seamlessly blend with the product's use. Lego realized that kids loved to share stories of what they'd built--especially if it was not an easy structure to create. So the company reversed its thinking about how younger generations craved instant gratification. It re-engineered its bricks, previously made larger, back to their normal size, and even added more smaller bricks to the boxes. The instruction manuals became exacting and the construction challenges became more labor intensive. 
  • It is part of an existing ritual? As in the Devassa example above, the ritual must already belong in the customer's lives.

If the combined score of any idea is 11 or higher, Lindstrom is confident going forward. Devassa earned a four or five in each category, meaning the final score was well over 11. Which means it's likely only a matter of time before visitors to Brazilian bars will see those labels facing outward.