Somewhere in a drawer I still have a sociology degree. Please don’t ask. It’s a long story how I ended up studying sociology and even completing it. While most of the study was boring and a little insightful, there were some things that I did find fascinating. Like the role of certain societal constructs like traditions. I still apply this knowledge today and in my Public Affairs / political efforts. Many books and research papers have been written on the importance and the role of traditions, but none I think on how you can create traditions to position yourself in the political arena.
Traditions are institutions
Traditions are institutions. I am sure the academic will find it blasphemy that I narrow it down to this, but for now, that is all you need to know. Just like institutions, they inhibit their own rules of procedure and their own mannerism. Traditions organise tribes and produce expected outcomes. Traditions create trust among tribe members and in general create a moment of tranquillity. They signal who is in, and who is out. But they also make rules and beg commitment and command respect. And in some instances they also create FOMO.
To see how powerful traditions are look no further than to our northern ex-Europeans; The British. And I don’t necessarily mean the monarchy. I was more thinking of something more playful like “The Social Season”. The season is a series of social events which include amongst others The Royal Ascott, the Henley Royal Regatta and Wimbledon. The individual events have traditions within traditions. For example, at the Royal Ascot, there is a strict dress code, and at Wimbledon, each year more than 38.4 tons of strawberries (1.92 million strawberries to be precise) and 445kg of raspberries are picked and consumed. Why? Because strawberries are Wimbledon! You don’t need to be an anarchist to find both the entrance fee and the rules a bit silly, yet these events manage to attract thousands of people each year.
You don’t need to be Wimbledon
You don’t need to organise Wimbledon in order to create your own tradition. Some organisations have mastered the art of creating traditions at a fraction of the cost. The Province of Zeeland for years organised the National Oyster Fest. In a similar fashion, the Metropol Region of Amsterdam organises every year the State of the Region. In Brussels, there are tons of traditions. Such as the bi-annual Oktober Bier Fest organised by the Bavarian Representation. Or the Dutch Permanent Representation organises every year the Haring Party, where people mingle while smelling like fish. It is indeed one of the best relationship events in Brussels.
Small and intimate
I myself also liked to go small. Intimate events create relationships and are cost-effective. So a couple of times a year I organized the “Friends of Zeeland” party. Inviting people with Zeelandic heritage and people who were fond of Zeelandic food and culture. When I just arrived in Brussels I also organised a string of “Young and European” parties, where I invited all the trainees, interns and juniors. It’s already 15 years ago, and maybe I can start organising “Old and European” parties. One of the traditions I cherished most was an annual agriculture event in a small town called Heikant. There were only 15 seats available for the most prominent policymakers in the field of agriculture. Set in a black Zeelandic barn, the event started off with a lunch with local produce and followed a pattern where interaction and free thought were the key ingredients. What was also key was that people needed to make an effort to get there. Because of its remoteness, you need to travel at least two hours wherever you are coming from.
The ingredients of making your own tradition
- Add value. This is by far the most crucial element. The added value should come from access to a special network, unique insights and inspiration and fun. It also helps when the food is good.
- Make it somewhat exclusive; it doesn’t need to be super exclusive, but people need to feel privileged that they got an invite.
- It needs to be multi-annual and consistent; you need three events to make something a tradition. Preferably spread over more years. For consistency’s sake, you can’t change the name of the event or tradition.
- People need to make an effort. The organisation of Ascott makes you wear a certain type of clothes, and with the Heikant agriculture meeting, we made people travel for two hours. That is they buy in. People that have invested in a relationship (money or time) are less likely to opt-out.
- Throw in some big words to create gravitas; “Annual” or “National” or hey why not > “Royal” 😉
- Make it fun and playful: Grown-ups like to feel like kids again. It’s nice to have small elements of play.