A Semester at Sea Field Class

This week was the first of my “field classes” where we take our students for 8 hour experiential education experiences in ports. I was privileged to take my Marketing 300 students to the Corinth area of Greece.

You may know of Corinth from the story of Sisyphus, or from First Corinthians, or even from Ricardo Montalbán’s description of the “finest Corinthian leather” (you have to be my age or older to get that reference). There is still an incredible fortification/ancient city and fort there, which I snapped a picture of from the bus. Not great, using an iPhone at great distances and from behind glass 😦

The fortification at Corinth

But we were in the area to visit two very successful companies, and learn about their marketing strategies. First up was Skouras Wines, where we were able to get quite close to the wine production process (I posted a short video below the pictures showing some of the bottling and packaging process). We also learned quite a lot about marketing this very successful brand outside of Greece.

After that we moved to Markellos Olive Oil, a fourth generation family business making high quality olive oil. Virtually all the product is exported, and we were shown the production process (although it wasn’t running, as the season is over) and then heard a lecture about the company’s B2B strategies. Then, some yummy tastings!

Finally, we ended our day with a delicious lunch at Almyriki restaurant and headed back to the ship. Oh, and on the way we stopped at Corinth Canal, a 4 mile long canal cut by the same builders as the Suez Canal.

The Corinth Canal

An excellent learning experience, in simply gorgeous surroundings.

Thanks again to Markellos Olive Oil and Skouras Winery for sharing their expertise with us!

Adjusting to Ship Life

On Semester at Sea, the faculty and staff always board the ship a few days ahead of the students to get used to the ship, go through orientation, etc. This voyage, we just stayed docked in Naples as we did this. Once we embarked, we could not leave the ship again due to COVID protocols (I suspect this is going to be my most common phrase in the next four months), so it was a bit odd sitting still, so to speak.

Our cabin on the MV Odyssey

My classroom on board

The technology on this newer ship is much better, but the satellite internet speeds on the ship still preclude any streaming services. But I have to say that I am looking forward to a few “Zoom-less” months. And the coffee is about the same as last voyage, so I am glad we brought our own! And thanks to Rebecca Cribbs, we can keep it warm as we move about the ship!

Christmas present mugs!

But once the students joined us, along with multi-generational life-long learners, we set sail. Not everyone who planned to could join us, as some tested COVID positive in their home countries, some independently in Italy, and some who tested positive right in the boarding terminal and were whisked away to government quarantine. Those voyagers will join us in Greece. On the way to Greece, we had wonderful views of Mt. Etna

Mt. Etna

We’ve had our first ship-wide COVID tests, and a few more cases were discovered each time. They are now in isolation cabins on the ship. In Greece, we have to do rapid antigen tests every single day that we leave the ship. Here in Greece, there are indoor and outdoor requirements are for full N95 masks. I am really anxious about testing positive in any given port, and being left behind. So, we are doing what we can to stay safe. And I know the SAS people are doing their very best too!

I am currently sitting in a lovely apartment in Athens, sipping wine after climbing all over the Acropolis today. Yesterday, I took my students on a Field Class, where we visited a winery and an olive oil company. More on that visit in the next post!

Naples and Area

Welcome to our newest adventure! Our entire family, along with the wonderful Rebecca Cribbs, arrived in Naples, Italy Dec. 21. We have explored the city, spent a day at Pompei, and also toured the Amalfi and Sorrento coasts. It’s been an adventure-filled 10 or so days, with lots of pizza. lots of climbing, and lots of fantastic Italian wine. And in a first for all of us, we ate Chinese food for lunch on Christmas Day, and pasta for dinner!

After much drama and stress using remote tele-health COVID testing, Jack and Rebecca return to Canada Sunday January 2, and we head to the ship for the Semester at Sea program. I’ll be teaching undergraduates international marketing and consumer behavior, with experiential elements designed around the countries on the itineraries.

#adulting

An American senator, Ben Sasse, stole my thunder. Well, okay, not really. But I’ve been observing the hashtag #adulting for a while now, and wondering what it really signified. While I mused in my head, Ben Sasse wrote a book about it.

I’ve just read that book “The Vanishing American Adult,” and while it really isn’t about that hashtag trend, he uses that example to kick off the book. As I read, I found myself thinking things like “exactly” and “hell, yeah” and “I wish I had done that with my kids.”  (The fact that I, as a liberal Canadian, was astonished to agree on many issues with a religiously observant, home-schooling, conservative Republican senator reflects on the deep assumptions of “us vs. them” in our culture right now… a topic for a later blog).

I disagreed with many things, but agreed with far more. My quick summary won’t do it justice (you should read it) but the gist of it is that by “saving” our kids from hard work, letting them primarily spend time with their own age group (both in-person and online), travelling with them as consumers/tourists vs. travellers, buying them too many things, and allowing them to go through life without reading important books, we are doing them a grave disservice that will negatively impact them, but more importantly, American society. I think in Canada as well, we need to better raise citizens, not consumers.

So, what does this have to do with consumption research? Back to the hashtag. What does the repeated use of the #adulting hashtag mean? Is this a continuing trend of infantilizing young adults to see themselves as less than full adults? If so, does this mean they continue to consume as adolescents, with all sorts of macro implications (short-term vs. long-term savings and spending patterns, home ownership, etc.)? Is it shorthand for “I am being ironically adult, and actually don’t intend to grow up at all?” I don’t know. Maybe I will study it more systematically… maybe you should. But at the least, you should read the book!

Failing to See

Okay, so it has been far too long since I’ve written in this space. I blame it on a busy administrative role, and, truth be told, obsessive Facebook use concerning the American election. Enough; back to thoughts.

I was jarred into actual novel new thoughts by reading a colleague’s paper recently. My next-door neighbor at the office, Tima Bansal, has published a new paper with her students Anna Kim and Michael Wood. It is called “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Importance of Scale on Organizational Attention to Issues,” and you can find the paper here.

In the paper, they ask important questions, such as why financial institutions simply missed the signals of the impending financial crisis altogether, or why many organizations fail to recognize the possible impacts of climate change on their operations. They propose that one important reason why organizations miss these sorts of issues is because the scope or extent to which organizations pay attention is disconnected from the scale at which processes, such as climate change, or the financial crisis, actually occur.

There are many other valuable insights in this critical-realist approach to studying organizational attention. But what caught my attention (pun intended) were the obvious parallels to how we study consumption and consumers. As marketers, and academics who study consumers and marketers, we too are “bombarded by numerous external and internal signals that give information about potential issues” (page 5). Big data anyone? But we can’t pay attention to all details all the time. So, if we focus on large macro cultural trends, which play out over a long temporal scale, we can fail to notice very serious signals happening at a much smaller scale within our consumer base. Or, if we focus on the micro signals thrown up by mass datasets of behavioural data, we certainly may fail to see larger social and cultural trends. We must understand that real events and trends are actually happening in the world, even if we fail to see them. A firm may not recognize a massive cultural shift that will have important marketing implications for them, but that lack of recognition doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Another implication of this work for me was a theoretical rationale for my own innate unease with generational analysis (millennials, boomers, etc). Focusing on that scale often leads to overlooking what seems (in hindsight) as obvious differences within the cohorts. But that is a topic for another day.

Read this paper; it is dense and difficult, but thought-provoking, as all good scholarship should be!

 

Paid Caregivers and the Family

When is a paid caregiver, for your elderly parents or your children, part of the family? When is s/he not a part of the family? Why?

These are the sorts of questions examined in recent research I published in the Journal of Marketing Management with Aimee Dinnin Huff and Michelle Barnhart.  We investigated this topic within families using individual caregivers (not daycares, or seniors homes) for childcare or elderly care. Our methods included in-depth interviews with formal family members, care recipients (elderly consumers) and paid caregivers.

Our research really makes three main points. First, we show that the traditional separation between production and consumption doesn’t always work for caregiving as a service. Second, we outline the very difficult position caregivers may end up in, stuck in a sort of no-man’s land between “family” and “not-family.” And finally, we show that the ways in which family members “do family” demonstrates and strengthens dominant cultural values. In addition, our findings strongly suggest that longevity in the family–caregiver relationship is a critical element in family well-being and caregiver job satisfaction.

We also put out a call to other researchers of family issues, namely:

…consumer researchers designing studies of family consumption should broaden their conceptualisation of family to account for the various, perhaps non-traditional constructions of family possible under the particular circumstances of interest.

The article is provided for free until July, so if you are interested, go ahead and download it from the link above; and happy reading! I’d be happy to hear what you think.

And by the way, the article’s unique identifier is: DOI:10.1080/0267257X.2014.933865

Consumer Engagement and Deception

I was struck suddenly by a disconcerting connection between two ideas I’ve been reading and thinking about lately. I am finally reading a book I’ve been meaning to for years (it was published in 2009) entitled “Deception in the Marketplace: The Psychology of Deception Persuasion and Consumer Self-Protection” by the always thoughtful and excellent academics David Boush, Marian Friestad, and Peter Wright. At the same time, I am working with a young research assistant on the topic of consumer trust and engagement with brands, particularly in the social media space.

Here’s how the connection happened. On the same day I was reading that when learning about products, consumers tend to pay more attention to objective reviews from outside their social group than reviews from their friends I was reading a discussion of the rise of new forms of deception, which followed the rise in online and other technological advances. I came across the following by Boush et al, page 189.:

“When a marketer uses a deception tactic in a new-to-the-consumer communication medium, the consumer may not initially be effective in detecting and coping with that tactic in this unfamiliar context, even if they have dealt well with it in a more familiar context.”

The authors go on to discuss an example of a consumer who may be wary and well-protected against experts depicted in TV ads, but who may be more gullible and less suspicious when encountering a self-identified expert online. That seems to me to be an argument against trusting online bloggers and product reviews, which seem to be the dominant way many consumers now assess products.

Personally, this resonates, and is a little disconcerting. For example, if I were to see a TV ad where the spokesperson said “I am an expert at baking, and I can tell you that this is the best bakeware I’ve ever used” I know I would indeed, have my persuasive defenses up. This tactic would trigger what Friestad and Wright call Persuasion Knowledge. But if I were to read a review showing the same text verbatim, from an Amazon.com rater/user, I think I would be more likely to trust that. That’s odd. And I am in no way a member of the younger, more digital generation. As their online engagement with brands is often (likely) higher, generally, where does that leave their skepticism? Is it higher, as they have greater online persuasion knowledge, or lower, as they haven’t yet learned to see a possible link between increasing engagement online and a higher capacity to be deceived by a marketer online?

This troubling line of thought may make it into my next research project. Let me know your thoughts, that is, if you trust me enough to engage!

Brands and Consumer Engagement

I’ve just finished a new HBR article by Doug Holt, entitled “Branding in the Age of Social Media.” It’s excellent, and I won’t rehash it here; you should read it. But the reason I mention it now is because Holt is grappling with something I’ve been thinking about as well: why brands have been very bad, generally, at building engagement on social media. There are some obvious reasons. As he points out “What works for Shakira backfires for Crest and Clorox. The idea that consumers could possibly to talk about Corona or Coors in the same way that they debate the talents of Ronaldo and Messi is silly.” Well, actually I personally could talk a lot more about beer than I can about soccer stars or celebrities, but point taken.

Consumers in general don’t take to Facebook and Twitter to discuss brands. Well, unless they are vociferously complaining about those brands. And while they may watch a brand-sponsored video, they share them less, generally, and discuss them less. This isn’t to say that content such as brand advertisements isn’t shared quite a lot, it can be. But far more consumers go to sites and social channels to talk about things they like to do, watch, etc. and far less to sites where they can discuss laundry brands, soft-drinks, etc. But isn’t this as it should be? Do marketers actually expect to attract even avid brand fans to the company’s social sites as part of their lives? Holt gives plenty of examples that seem to demonstrate that marketers do indeed expect that. But that search for the holy consumer engagement grail has never really made much sense to me.

In the offline world, I may talk with family and friends about comedy I like, books I like, music I hate, the fact that I don’t get visual art, politics, how our kids are doing in school. I may even ask or give recommendations on brands in those, or any other, product-market space. We don’t spend a ton of time chatting about products and brands. Okay, so maybe we talk about beer brands… But in my personal time online, why would it be surprising that I spend most of my time “talking” with family, friends, and the wider world about books, music, politics, and children, and very little, if any time, about brands. I mean, I drink Coke Zero, but it never occurred to me, ever, to visit the Coke social sphere online. I watch John Oliver on his Youtube channel, but watching Youtube content from a product brand doesn’t occur to me unless I need examples for class. This seems to me to be as one would expect, which is also Holt’s point. So, how do we advise marketers? Should we be the one to break it to them that their investments in a brand-focused social world for consumers likely won’t work? Shouldn’t they already know this?

Consumer Behaviour Symposium

Last Friday I hosted consumer behavior researchers from local universities (generally, from University of Michigan to Queen’s University, and all points between) at our annual Consumer Behavior Symposium. It’s the 9th year Ivey has hosted this group, and its continued vibrancy is a wonderful thing. In the heart of winter, it’s always gratifying to take a mental break and treat my brain to the cutting edge ideas of other researchers. It’s also fun to see the breadth of our field on display in the same room, at the same time. From predicting market behavior with neural activity with Carolyn Yoon, to studying the political and market forces influencing multiculturalism policy with Ela Veresiu, there was indeed something for everyone.

We had an “outside” guest this year, in “friend of Ivey” Nelson Amaral from American University in D.C. His work on luxury and counterfeiting was really interesting, and shed some light of how consumers think about the tricky concepts of “fake” and “real.”

We also were treated to three presentations that broadly dealt with consumer interactions, and their influence with, and on, other consumers. Sean Hingston taught us about inferred contagion, something I hadn’t really considered before. Matthew Philp talked to us about how consumers can “gift” an identity when choosing presents for others, which can actually change how people identify themselves. And Cindy Chan showed us data that demonstrated that consumers are more likely to rely on other consumers’ reviews for products (material purchases) than for experiences.

Finally, Ivey was well represented by the broad, policy-based presentation on saving and spending money by Rod Duclos, and the fascinating work of Peter Nguyen and Shane Wang on partitioned product categories and their influence on consumer judgment.

Towards the end of the day, we all made the quick walk over to the Psychology department, where we participated in a sort of keynote address by Sheldon Solomon, who was visiting Western from Skidmore College. Consumer researchers have adopted his Terror Management Theory, and so it was interesting to hear his broad talk on the genesis of these interesting ideas. Solomon’s style, which is part liberal arts lecture and part Dennis Miller style stand-up comedy (full hour, no notes, no slides) was a hilarious and informative way to end a day of thoughts, sharing, and researcher camaraderie.

And then most of us went to dinner, but I never report on those shenanigans…

Consuming Fiction

My husband and I both read a couple of novels over the recent holidays. Turns out, the fact that we both read some novels, and routinely do, makes us unusual. Well, it makes him, especially, unusual. I just finished reading John Irving’s “Avenue of Mysteries.” The main character, a novelist, talks about women being the main readers of novels, something I hadn’t really thought about before. So I did a little digging, and found that this isn’t really a new insight, but something I just hadn’t come across, or at least recalled hearing about, in the past.

In 2005, Ian McEwan wrote: “when women stop reading, the novel will be dead.” A 2010 Harris Poll reported a gender gap in fiction reading too, with 84% of US women who read books (at least one in the past year) reporting reading a fiction book, versus 73% of the US men who read books. You can read about that survey here. But why do women consume more fiction than men do?

In 2000, Steven J. Tepper reported that some of the gap between male and female reading incidence, of any material, can be explained by parental encouragement (with females more likely than males to be encouraged to read as children). Pertaining to fiction reading only, he found that the gender gap disappears once childhood socialization into the arts more generally was accounted for. I found some other findings fascinating here too; for example, Tepper reports that reading skill actually inflates the gender differences in reading at higher levels of reading proficiency. And finally, he reports that the gap isn’t just due to more free time (less full-time work), because when work status is kept constant, the gender gap for fiction are drops just a little bit. He concludes the story is a socialization and gender stereotype one: men who crossed gender boundaries in other aspects of leisure, and were encouraged to do so by parents, were more likely to become readers of fiction later. The gap hasn’t really shrunk much: a 2014 study found that 69% of U.S. men reported reading at least one book in the last 12 months, versus 82% of U.S. women. Fiction reading, as an activity, seems to be gendered. Hhhmmm.

Which brings me to the consumption of fiction and marketing to those consumers. (I won’t discuss the extensive coverage of the quality of fiction, and the role of author gender in literary awards; that is a huge ongoing debate). Although dated now, this NYTimes article is characteristic of the coverage of the fiction market, with its conclusion that fiction must appeal to women readers to sell well, and publishers and literary agents are quite aware of this. These commentators argue that not only do the novel’s themes need to appeal to female fiction readers, and that female authors have a large advantage, but also that successful novels must have strong female characters in order to be marketable. But this seems curious to me, as all the data I’ve found so far seems to indicate that the gender readership gap in fiction, with women reading far more fiction than men, has been around for more than a century, or more. And 100 years ago, women fiction readers could not have only been reading female authors and books with strong female characters, because there were fewer of those then.

I am certainly not against strong female characters, and my favorite authors include men and women, but I enjoy good stories, well-written, regardless of the sex of the characters. I think the data point to a much larger cultural shift at play in fiction marketing, which seems at odds with cultural shifts in other domains. As we so rightly “de-gender” toy departments and McDonald’s Happy Meals (a friend recently asked for the “boy toy” only to be told there are no such things in Happy Meals anymore) we seem to be deliberately gendering fiction, to boost sales. What’s going on?

June's chronicle of Semester at Sea 2022