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?

Inaugural Consumption Blog

This is an inaugural missive of what I hope will become a regular commentary on consumption and marketing issues. (Some of you know I’ve been using this domain for family travel blogs for the last year or so. Those are still here, just filed away).

For this first entry, I’d like to reflect on being a professor of marketing, while simultaneously being a person who believes strongly we should consume less. It’s a conundrum, for certain. This conundrum will flavor this blog.

Sometimes I introduce myself as “the anti-marketing marketing professor.” But that’s a joke. I honestly believe that teaching and learning the art and science of marketing is a worthy endeavor, and that organizations that get marketing right are much better off than those who do not. That marketing helps companies, but also helps our economic system to flourish, and that marketing, done well, should inform and help consumers too.

While perhaps not as obviously, I think we would all be better off learning to be better consumers. What does better mean in this context? I don’t just mean smarter deal shoppers, although that is part of it. I don’t just mean being more aware of contextual influences on our purchasing behavior, although that is part of it. I don’t just mean being reflexive consumers, stopping to wonder whether we truly have a need, although that is part of it too. And I don’t just mean being cognizant of the social and cultural system at play that influences our consumption in direct and indirect ways, although that is part of it too. I mean all of it. At once. And the difficulties inherent in trying to do that. All the time.

So, expect this blog to be more about consumption and consumers than anything else. I hope to fashion a mix of research insight, commentary on current marketing and consumption trends and happenings, and maybe even some consumption-related advice. We’ll see as it evolves. Feel free to comment, to vent, to argue, and of course, to share!

The End of the Journey

For those of you reading these blog posts for the last 11 months: thanks! All good things must end, though.

I suspect this will be the last travel-related blog from us. Starting in about September, I’ll refresh the look and feel of the site and turn it towards marketing and academic content. So, just to warn you: the cute pictures and kid blogs will end (although I will find a way to keep all the trip content tucked away somewhere on the site).

Speaking of cute pictures…

Even after 2 solid months of family time, they still cuddle!
Even after 2 solid months of family time, they still cuddle!

We ended our crazy, wonderful year with a few days in Bruges. If you’ve seen the movie “In Bruges” you know that some people may find it a little boring. We did not. We had a great stay there, just wandering the canal streets and cute alleys. We also went to a very interesting style of history museum, Historium, complete with a virtual reality trip back to the medieval times. Oh, and I did I mention that Belgium has great beer?

So many beer choices...
So many beer choices…

Bruges is a place I would love to return to: for the food, the atmosphere, the beer, the cycling opportunities, the beer…

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I’ve been delaying writing this final blog for several reasons. First, it’s hard to figure out how to sum up our year (more on that below). Second, the Semester at Sea students have done such an incredible job posting short videos of their experiences that a combination of old school words and still pictures just doesn’t seem sufficient. And finally, because I’ve been reading some of the travel blogs from some of the excellent writers that were on the ship with us, and again, I feel completely inadequate! But alas, I will try to describe the past year. I will try and avoid words such as “best,” “worst,” and “favourite,” as those words don’t do justice to any of the experiences. Here goes:

Our year can best be imagined as a series of waves that sometimes overlapped, and sometimes crashed into one another. When two positive waves, such as those created by new friends and fantastically interesting experiences, collided, it created almost pure joy. One example would be my very vivid memory of driving in the rain in Vietnam, having experienced Hanoi and Halong Bay, and watching Joe play a new “game” with his friend Summer Genovese. The game was who could do the best work in long division problems! As I said: pure joy.

When two negative waves, such as those created by extreme uncertainty and high stress, collided, it created misery. Mid-December, as we were temporarily homeless, terrified by the seeming indifference of the Indian visa authorities as they told us our visas wouldn’t be ready in time (they were), and leaving a bunch of my “trip clothes” behind in my sister’s (sold and about to be packed up) house, was a very bad time. But our friends and families came to the rescue; perhaps they don’t even realize how much. So thank you Nick and Lauren Teevan, Matt Thomson and Allison Johnson, and Doug and Joan Cotte. Your assistance last year got us through a very bad time.

The year itself came in three chunks, of course: Sedona Arizona, Semester at Sea, and Europe. For two thirds of those chunks, the kids were alone with Dan and I. That was a challenge for them, so we were thrilled that they connected with a great group of “ship kids” as we sailed around the world. In addition, Joe’s “big sisters” Ashleigh and Panache, and Jack’s “big brother” Jared, were an awesome addition to the family. And Jazmine, who we all adored. For all of us, I think Semester at Sea was the “main course” of the year, for many reasons. Europe presented challenges (constant movement, lots of planning, trying to find family rooms and food kids would eat) but also cultural touchstone moments, for all of us.

Travel is intimidating, humbling, and fantastic. I know the boys have imprinted experiences (good and bad) that won’t leave them, for better or worse, ever. Eleven months, 19 countries, many more cities. Planes, trains, buses, cars, ships, and some boats… When can we do it again?

Joe’s Last Post Animals Around the World

Hi, I will be back in London in 3 days 🙂

To celebrate I will be doing a list of where I went and the animals I saw over the last 11 months:

1 Hawaii: I saw not a lot of animals but I saw a cut cat purr

2 Japan: are you kidding? We saw awesome cute ducks I told you about last January

3 China: some really cool birds

4 Vietnam: newborn puppies in a truck (to be eaten) 😦

5 Singapore: tons of birds at the Singapore Bird Park and animals at the Night Safari (remember?)

Singapore Bird Park
Singapore Bird Park

6 Myanmar: a big ox that I got to pet and feed for sure

Ox in Myanmar
Ox in Myanmar

7 India: Indian elephant (when you ride on the top of them it looks like a butt)

Indian elephant
Indian elephant

8 Mauritius: a cool fish (it had a spike-like thing)

9 South Africa: giraffe you know, the thing with a blue tongue and a long neck

South African giraffe and her baby
South African giraffe and her baby

10 Namibia: big strong seals, and also small, helpless baby seals

Namibian Seals
Namibian Seals

11 Morocco: tamed monkeys with clothes on and tamed snakes

Dancing snake, Morocco
Dancing snake, Morocco

12 London: the Canadian goose and Mallard ducks (end of the ship trip)

13 Greece: cats

14 Rome: cats

15 Siena: cats

16 Cinqe Terre: cats



17 Venice: no cats

18 Austria: no kangaroo (get it…Austria/Australia…)

19 Germany: the tender wild beer

20 Langais, France: Oscar the rescued dog (is that a show?)

Shaun and Patrick's dog Oscar
Shaun and Patrick’s dog Oscar

21 Brittany: cool dog that had small eyes, and claws on its legs (French Shepard)

23 Normandy: 3 cats; one fat white cat, one regular white cat, and a black baby cat

Normandy cat
Normandy cat

24 Paris: a nice, pretty, lost white cat

25 Bruges: swans (that cute white thing with long wings)

One of many Bruge swans
One of many Bruge swans

26 Amsterdam well… we only saw 2 animals so, magpies. So this the last time rattling on about the adventure, because when I wrote this I was coming home to Canada (Toronto).

Good bye!

Jack’s (Last) and Most Sarcastic Blog to Date

So: the last city in Europe. I don’t count Amsterdam because we stayed close to the airport and didn’t see the city. I am currently writing this on a plane listening to Taylor Swift. So that means I’m writing what I want to write even though I promised I’d write about the stuff after Rome to fill in space for a wanting audience. Well I don’t care.


So here’s our two-day trip in Bruges. I think we shouldn’t have gone to Normandy so long; Bruges was far better. My aunt Judy says some people say Bruges is boring and to them I say, “Boo you.” The first day we checked in to a hotel. Wow, really Jack, I did not see that coming, you live so dangerously (sarcastic comment of the day).

The bear in our B&B's lobby
The bear in our B&B’s lobby


The first full day we went to a place called “Historium”. It is an interactive experience telling you a story of Bruges in the 15th century. Then after the main attraction they added a virtual reality experience. In it you sail to Bruges in a trader ship. The way you had to enter Bruges then was to stop at a large canal and hop on a bunch of small boats to deliver your goods.


Then we went to the market in the center square. There was a huge piece of modern art there. I usual hate modern art! I mean loath, hate, despise. I’m on a level where if I could rule the world I would outlaw modern art and any one who owned it would be sentenced to life in prison. So now that you now my view on modern art I have to say the guy that made this is awesome. It’s this massive glass thing that I don’t understand the meaning of. But the thing that makes it cool is that inside one of the glass panels is actually a one-way mirror. Joe and I went inside. So what we did is that every person that stopped to look at it got a magically knocking sound in his or her head.


Look at this!
Look at this!

The next day we just walked around. We stopped at this brewery that’s been working and run by the same family since 18XX. We ate lunch there. It was pretty good. Then we walked close to canals just exploring. We saw a bunch of swans and ducks. Then we took the train to Brussels to catch a train to Amsterdam. Then we got on a shuttle to the hotel. The next day we got up early to catch a flight back to Toronto. So now I’m writing my blog on a plane.  

View from the top of the brewery
View from the top of the brewery
One of many Bruge swans
One of many Bruge swans
Stalking baby ducklings
Stalking baby ducklings


June's chronicle of Semester at Sea 2022