groups, brand image, and other staples of modern advertising all
sprang from the work of a group of Chicago social scientists.
These pioneering market researchers used tools from psychology,
anthropology, and sociology to study a once-neglected topic: why
people buy stuff.
ACCORDING TO EXPERTS, "is
not a prestige item." There's nothing distinctive or exclusive
about it. Cheap and widely available, it does not require stylish,
single-task glassware, like Champagne flutes or brandy snifters,
but can be consumed from plastic mugs, recycled jelly jars, even
straight from the can or bottle.
beer drinkers, social scientists agree, "do not fall all
over themselves" to imitate high society. They rarely dress
for the occasion. They may not even wear shirts. They drink beer
to quench their thirst, to relax, to grease the wheels of social
interaction and unleash spontaneity.
"marks the absence of power relations, authority, or social
striving," says the foremost study of the subject. Beer advertisements
that cater to status seekers-depicting sophisticates in elegant
settings and formal attire, sipping this chilled, golden beverage
while basking in the good life-evoke only hostility among beer
drinkers. "Oh, the Ritzy Bitches like beer" is a typical
response, or "I'll bet one stinking glass of beer costs half
a buck in a place like that."
the price reveals, this is not a recent study. But what students
of consumption now call the "use code" of beer hasn't
changed much since a cluster of curious Chicago social scientists,
assisted by a handful of graduate students and 350 hard-drinking
Chicagoans, probed the beer-buying world in the early 1950s.
researchers belonged to a small firm called Social Research, Incorporated-SRI
for short-housed in the Hyde Park Bank building on 53rd Street.
They veered off from the University in 1946 to form the company
almost by accident, when a series of coincidences and opportunities
made a venture into the commercial world seem like a very good
the next two decades SRI helped to revolutionize the field of
market research, transforming its assumptions, methods, goals,
and consequences in ways that quickly redirected the world of
advertising and slowly, very slowly, made consumption-"the
most studied single phenomenon in American life," according
to Andrew Abbott, AM'75, PhD'82, chair of sociology at Chicago-a
focus of purely academic inquiry.
SRI team did it by applying social-science techniques to what
was then a neglected topic: why people buy stuff. The researchers
were among the first to adapt tools developed by anthropologists
for the study of primitive societies and use them to investigate
modern industrial communities. They borrowed personality tests
invented by psychologists to probe the meaning of purchasing decisions.
And they applied evolving notions of social status, mobility,
and class aspirations to understand what buying, owning, and displaying
consumer goods meant. In its short life SRI left a lasting impact
on theworld of market research, influences still felt in everything
from the absolute devotion to "brand image," to reliance
on focus groups, to academic study of the meanings of consumption.
research, up until the end of World War II, consisted almost entirely
of crunching census data to determine how much of a given product
how many customers might buy. Shaped by the Depression, the field
used simple demographics to gauge often-limited demand for specific
products and to measure response to advertisements. As production
capacity and buying power increased, researchers began to look
for ways to stimulate new rather than measure existing demand.
"Our problem," summarized a senator from Wisconsin,
"is not too much cheese produced, but rather too little cheese
consumed." One component of the post-war effort to peddle
more cheddar was to shift research away from how much consumers
could be expected to eat toward what made them hungry-and how
to make them hungrier-a field that was dubbed motivation research.
is a completely different kind of research," noted the introduction
to SRI's Study of Consumer Attitudes on Beer and Beer Advertising.
"Instead of counting noses, this is diagnostic research.
The analyst is trained to look for basic attitudes, just as a
doctor looks for symptoms." As social scientists, SRI looked
for the social meanings of beer. "The attitudes of different
class levels toward beer," was its driving focus, along with
"the impact of typical beer advertising on different classes."
new approach-finding the unconscious, intuitive, emotional factors
that drive consumption at each class level and grafting the most
alluring of those factors onto the product-caught on. By the mid-1950s
most major advertising agencies had hired motivation-research
consultants or had recruited teams of "whiskers" from
academia. "More and more advertising and marketing strategists
are adapting their sales campaigns to the psychologists' findings,"
noted the Wall Street Journal in 1954. "Top-drawer
advertising agencies," echoed the trade magazine Printer's
Ink, "favor the increased use of social sciences."
commercial success of motivation research soon provoked a backlash.
In 1957, journalist Vance Packard sounded a very public alarm
in The Hidden Persuaders, a book that plumbed the moral
depths of depth analysis and mass marketing while selling more
than 500,000 copies, enough to make it No. 1 on nonfiction best-seller
lists for six weeks.
use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has
become the basis of a multi-million dollar industry," Packard
told his readers. "Large scale efforts are being made, often
with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our
purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of
insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences."
These "awesome" psychological tools and "ingenious"
anthropological techniques have been designed by a "breed
of persuaders known in the trade as the depth boys," he warned.
"Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more
than we realize."
research was selling us not just goods but also political candidates,
social attitudes, career and personal goals, or states of mind.
"We move into the chilling world of George Orwell and his
Big Brother as we explore some of the extreme attempts at probing
and manipulating now going on," Packard wrote, a world where
the consumer, the citizen, and the voter "more and more is
treated like Pavlov's conditioned dog."
caricature of the depth boys even made it into the movies. Putney
Swope, Robert Downey's 1969 dark comedy about the advertising
business, opens with a presentation by Dr. Alvin Weasely, billed
as "one of the most respected motivational researchers in
the world." He has been called in to help a Madison Avenue
advertising agency boost sales for an unpopular brew by explaining
the unconscious motives of beer drinkers. "Beer," Weasely
pronounces, "is for men who doubt their masculinity. That's
why it's so popular at sporting events and poker games. On a superficial
level," he continues, "a glass of beer is a cool, soothing
beverage. But in reality, a glass of beer is pee-pee dickie."
filled with the unexpected, SRI's own in-depth consumer studies
of everything from soap to soap operas, department stores to lumber
yards, and alcohol, tobacco, and fast cars, were never that shocking
or implausible. Its researchers were grounded by a commitment
to serious social research, access to the latest tools of academic
social science, and the bias of the founders toward social class,
not psychological factors, as the basis for understanding consumer
late-1940s and 1950s were an odd time to fixate on social class.
"The prevailing post-war view," said Kim A. Weeden,
assistant professor of sociology at Chicago, speaking at a campus
conference last fall about SRI and the history of consumer research,
"was that class divisions in America were gradually disappearing."
Many social scientists believed that, with increasing affluence,
the different classes were converging in their culture, lifestyle,
values, and standard of living, but, said Weeden, "there
were of course exceptions."
the most noticeable of the exceptions was a social scientist named
Lloyd Warner-SRI's founder and by all accounts its generative
intellect. Warner, who joined the U of C as a sociology professor
in 1935, had taught SRI's other two founders, Burleigh Gardner
and William Henry, PhD'44. An anthropologist by training, he'd
spent three years as a graduate student doing field work in Australia,
scrutinizing the social structure of an aboriginal tribe. But
he grew less interested in "primitives" and increasingly
convinced that the tools of social anthropology might better be
applied to modern American society-an idea that would not become
popular until the 1970s.
platform," recalls SRI colleague Lee Rainwater, AM'51, PhD'54,
"was that all human life partakes of the same basic species
behavior." If so, then the tools used to understand sacred
tribal rituals or daily routines should work just as well to understand
the Fourth of July or breakfast cereal. When Warner returned to
the U.S. in 1929 to take a position at Harvard, he decided not
to finish his dissertation on kinship among aborigines thousands
of miles away but to focus instead on the social systems of a
nearby small town.
quickly became involved in his "Yankee City" project.
With 18 fieldworkers, mostly volunteers, Warner spent four years
(1930-34) studying Newburyport, Massachusetts, using versions
of the methods he had mastered while working with a primitive
tribe: observation, close analysis of social networks, and unstructured
interviews that allowed the subjects to wander wherever their
result was five books, the Yankee City series. The first volume,
The Social Life of a Modern Community (1941), emphasized the
role of social class as the basic structuring principle of urban
society, as powerful as kinship among Australian tribes. Unlike
the Marxist view, Warner's definition of class was based less
on how people got money and more on how they spent it. The means
of production had given way to the meanings of consumption.
Yankee City," notes Michael Karesh, AM'95, whose well-researched
sociology master's thesis on SRI has triggered a revival of interest
in the group, "different social classes were distinguished
not simply by income but by different goods, behaviors, values,
and points of view. To achieve upward mobility an individual not
only had to earn more money or buy better goods, but perceive,
value, and use goods in a different way. The shiny new Cadillac
of the upper-lower class was no substitute for the history-laden
house and furniture of the upper-upper class. To Warner, these
symbols marked the various social positions in a way that both
sustained the social structure and, for some individuals, allowed
mobility within it."
his small-town studies and later in a study of Chicago financed
by the Chicago Tribune, Warner split the population into
six classes-from upper-upper to lower-lower-a rough formula followed
by most sociologists. Although his work created only a "respectful
stir in academic circles," wrote Packard, it churned merchandising
circles to a frenzy and "came to be regarded as a milestone
in the sociological approach to the consumer."
first Yankee City volume appeared, Warner had been lured away
from Harvard by Chicago's greater enthusiasm for interdisciplinary
work. He was followed by Burleigh Gardner, a country boy from
Texas who had come to Harvard to study anthropology and wound
up working on the Yankee City studies. Described by Packard as
a "mop-haired, slow-speaking, amiable man," Gardner
was ill at ease with scholarly pretensions and preferred life
on the fringes of academe. But in 1942 he was enticed into teaching
in Chicago's newly created Committee on Human Relations in Industry.
reeling Gardner in, Warner stepped halfway out, to consult for
a new company, the Office for the Study of Social Communication.
Despite its scholarly name, the OSSC was started by a greeting-card
magnate to learn more about his customers. Warner and another
former graduate student, William Henry, adapted a series of the
"projective" tests then in use as a way to ferret out
the card consumers' unconscious motives, dividing buyers into
12 distinct personality profiles.
those studies were finished, the OSSC dissolved, but in 1946-this
time with backing from Sears, Roebuck-Warner and Gardner formed
their own consulting group, SRI, to help companies investigate
employee and customer attitudes. They brought in Henry, who had
joined the Chicago faculty in 1944, to run the psychological testing.
Gardner, who had quickly tired of academic politics and meetings,
resigned from the University to become SRI's executive director.
was the ideal arrangement, argues Karesh. Informally connected
but formally separate from the University, SRI could "acquire
the latest conceptual and methodological tools in the social sciences
and apply them to commercial ends."
company quickly made a name for itself in the emerging field of
consumer motivation research, pulling together Gardner's interest
in commercial applications of social science, Henry's expertise
in psychoanalytic testing, and Warner's faith in the crucial importance
of social class.
"senior consultants," Warner and Henry spent most of
their time on campus, and Gardner devoted himself to courting
new clients and writing articles for advertising periodicals.
The quotidian work was done by the firm's junior members, grad
students from human development and sociology who needed the money
at a time when there was little funding for graduate study in
the social sciences.
of the first students on board, Harriet Moore, became director
of research, supervising staff training and study design and providing
"much of the intellectual force in [SRI's] day-to-day operation,"
according to Sidney Levy, PhB'46, AM'48, PhD'56, another insolvent
grad student who arrived at SRI in 1948. By the early 1950s, the
core staff was in place. Moore, Levy, and Lee Rainwater, who came
in 1950, formed a close trio. Key members Ira Glick, AM'51, PhD'57;
Richard Coleman, PhD'59; and others soon followed. The professional
staff never grew very large, however, topping out at 17 in 1957.
period, said Levy, was "the most exciting and intensely absorbing
in my life. We lived SRI from breakfast until bedtime, brooding
over methods and data gathering and seeking penetrating insights."
of the excitement," notes Karesh, "followed from the
feeling on the part of those involved that they were part of a
pioneering team composed of brilliant minds exploring new intellectual
terrain." Because Gardner had a tendency to accept assignments
without knowing whether SRI could perform them, its members had
to be especially creative. "New concepts and methods were
generated internally," says Karesh, "or borrowed from
the University and then combined and applied in novel ways."
did the first qualitative study for the Coca-Cola company,"
Levy recalled, "on why people drink soft drinks; the first
qualitative study for AT&T on the meaning of the telephone.
For the Wrigley Company we studied what baseball meant to Cubs
fans. A study for FTD, the flower delivery system, analyzed the
poignancy of flowers as symbolic of the life cycle, representing
and celebrating its beauty and fragility and the inevitability
basic approach, said Levy, began with the so-called depth interview,
a free-style open-ended conversation. Sometimes SRI researchers
also interviewed two of three people at a time, or even larger
groups, a technique now known as focus groups. "Within this
more or less non-directive approach we embedded various projective
devices," he recalled, including variants on such clinical
techniques as the TAT, the Rorschach, sentence completion, word
association, draw a person, "and even the curious Szondi
test," now discredited, in which an individual was shown
eight photographic portraits and asked to choose the person he
would most, and least, like to sit next to on a long trip. The
twist was that each picture portrayed a person with a major psychiatric
disorder. A subject's selection was thought to reveal something
about the chooser's psychological needs.
hallmark of SRI was its compulsion to assess the social status
of every subject. "We took pictures of people's houses and
living rooms," said Levy. "We sent interviewers to spend
whole days observing. We classified all our respondents so we
could examine the effects of social class on consumer behavior.
And we taught our clients about social stratification and the
structure of American society."
WAS NOT THE NATION'S
first motivation research firm. There was a rival New York academic
group, the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Led by Paul Lazarsfeld,
a psychiatrist and mathematician from Vienna, BASR was closely
tied to Columbia University. Lazarsfeld, arguably the field's
first scholar, began writing about the psychology of market research
as early as 1934. But he got there "too early" for commercial
success, suspects Karesh. The research tools and the market weren't
ready. BASR survived into the 1960s but never developed SRI's
commitment to clients or freedom from university bureaucracy.
It didn't help that its best-known project was the Edsel.
of Lazarsfeld's students had better timing. Ernest Dichter came
to the U.S. from Vienna in 1938. In 1946, after a series of jobs,
he started his own consumer research firm, the Institute for Motivation
Research. By the early 1950s the firm's success could be seen
in its glitzy headquarters, a 30-room, hilltop mansion just up
the Hudson from Manhattan. By 1956 it had conducted more than
500 studies, and by 1964 more than 2,500. Dichter, "a jaunty,
exuberant, balding man," who called himself Mr. Mass Motivation,
was the prime player in Packard's book, bragging that he maintained
a standby "psycho-panel" of several hundred families,
"whose members have been carefully charted as to their emotional
Chicago version of Dichter was Louis Cheskin, director of the
Color Research Institute of America. Cheskin claimed to have begun
motivational research in 1935, when he backed into the field from
the area of package design, where he emphasized the role of color.
(We have him to thank for tinted toilet tissue.) His most famous
contribution was the sex change he performed for Marlboro cigarettes.
The brand was originally designed to appeal to women, with red
paper to mask lipstick smears. But far more men smoked. So Cheskin
designed a manly package and helped devise an ad campaign based
on "man-sized flavor," featuring rugged men, mostly
cowboys on horses. The men all had tattoos, to lend them a "virile
and interesting-past look." The ads still run. And Cheskin
Research, now headquartered in Redwood Shores, California, still
Dichter and Cheskin were all business, most staff at SRI, despite
the income that came with commercial success, remained scholars
at heart. "As social scientists," recalled Levy, "we
were not content just to write proprietary research reports for
our clients. We thought about the larger implications of our specific
research projects," publishing regularly and presenting at
combining commercial and academic pursuits, SRI managed to unite
two formerly unconnected words into a phrase that ultimately defined
consumer research, and has shaped marketing ever since. Levy officially
coined the term "brand image" for an article he and
Gardner wrote in 1955 at the request of the Harvard Business
Review. They defined it as the "sets of ideas, feelings
and attitudes that consumers have about brands." But the
term also took in consumer impressions about who might be expected
to buy the product and what buying it told the world about the
product or brand exists in people's minds as a symbolic entity,"
recalled Levy, "an integrated result of all their experiences
with it in the marketplace." This meant that advertisements
could no longer just be about the merits of a product or about
price but had to enhance the product's aura. They were "an
investment in the long-run reputation of the brand." Like
a good Chicago student, Levy traced this notion back to three
sources: Plato's concept of an idealized form, William James's
musings on the social self as a consequence of recognition by
others, and his own study of the pert and perky personality of
Betty Crocker, a kitchen-bound homemaker who existed only as a
picture on General Mills packaging.
first SRI report to mention brand image was "Automobiles-What
They Mean to Americans," a 1954 study commissioned by the
Chicago Tribune and instantly scooped up by contemporary
marketing journals. This was SRI's optimal subject. "The
American prizes his car above every possession," proclaimed
Pierre Martineau, director of research at the Tribune and
a fervent advocate of motivation research. "No other consumer
good at the time," argues Karesh, "was more heavily
laden with symbolic qualities."
report was the first study to delve into what a product revealed
about those who bought it. "We fit people into slots by the
kind of cars they drive," notes the report. "The automobile
has come to be one of the most important ways we have of revealing
characteristics and feelings and motives. The car tells what we
want to be-or think we are."
researchers found that a product's personality could be just as
important as performance or price. In fact, very few consumers
in the study, mostly lower-class men, had any real interest in
the technical aspect of new cars. Rather, the buying process came
down to "an interaction between the personality of the car
and the personality of the individual."
researchers presented personality profiles for 18 domestic cars,
assessing the social status associated with each and combining
that with personality factors tied to make, color, and accessories,
rating cars for prestige and ability to attract attention-and
how they did so. Was a car overtly ostentatious, fairly flashy,
slightly stylish, or consciously inconspicuous?
the Cadillac, "America's dream car." Cadillac conferred
the highest status, offered the most luxury, was seen as the best
built of any U.S. automobile. On the down side, many people resented
it as too snobbish or snooty. It was the car for new money, for
those who needed the status boost, especially "people of
deprived origins." The truly rich, SRI reported, the upper-upper
class, wouldn't go near it; they drove beat-up old station wagons,
displaying their indifference through deliberate downgrading.
were socially a notch below Cadillac but for those on the way
up. They were seen as reliable, sturdy cars for substantial people.
Fords were for the young, singles, hot rodders-fast, flexible
and rugged, chic, modern, and a bit showy. Plymouths were sensible,
inexpensive, small, with neutral styling. "Plymouth receives
very little criticism," noted the report, "but neither
does anybody get wildly excited about it." Shortly after
the study came out, the Chrysler Corporation, Plymouth's maker,
overhauled the image of all its cars.
to the press from studies like this and a flurry of customers
inspired by The Hidden Persuaders, SRI was extraordinarily
busy throughout the late 1950s. In 1960 the firm was able to return
Packard's favor; it made one of his most ominous predictions come
get some publicity," recounted Lee Rainwater, "and to
satisfy our own curiosity, and to overcome the prejudice against
a Catholic in the White House," an SRI team analyzed the
1960 presidential candidates Nixon and Kennedy. They found that
Kennedy had one serious weakness, the perception that he was too
immature, too subordinate to his powerful family.
key to changing this perception, they decided, was to build up
JFK's stature as the head of his own independent family through
the popular image of his spouse. The Democrats had to show that
Jacqueline Kennedy was a capable, intelligent, accomplished wife
and mother. Warner drew up a memo that sketched out ways to do
this and took his proposal to friends in the Kennedy campaign.
They went over it in detail with Mrs. Kennedy, then arranged for
her to do a series of televised interviews. Kennedy, of course,
won by a narrow margin. How much difference SRI made will never
be known; there was no funding for a follow-up evaluation.
SRI's work largely remained outside the academic pale. Graduate
students could not get credit for their SRI research, no matter
how clever, or use SRI data for scholarly analysis. And interest
in the cultural properties of consumer goods was still seen as
"intellectual slumming" by serious scholars, said anthropologist
and consumption scholar Grant McCracken, AM'76, PhD'81, author
of Culture and Consumption (as well as a work with a less
intimidating title, Big Hair). Studying what people buy
was seen as applied rather than pure research, tainted by contact
with the business world, an elitist bias that has "kept social
scientists away from consumer research for decades."
a while, SRI brought both sides together, but not for long. Several
staffers, those who never finished their dissertations, were devoted
to commercial work. A few left to start their own firms. Others,
like Warner, retained a primary commitment to scholarship. Lee
Rainwater and Richard Coleman managed to produce scholarship while
at SRI but were increasingly frustrated by the confidential nature
of most of their applied work.
left in 1963 to teach sociology at Washington University in St.
Louis, joining Harvard in 1969. Coleman quit SRI in 1969 for the
Joint Center on Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard, moving on to
teach marketing at Kansas State University. Originally captivated
by commercial work, Levy migrated to the academic camp and joined
Northwestern's marketing department in 1961, becoming its chair
social-sciences funding increased in the 1960s the firm's supply
of student talent dwindled, and in the 1970s newer, computer-driven
quantitative techniques triumphed over SRI's highly interpreted
qualitative studies. By the mid-1970s the firm existed in name
only and motivational research had lost the limelight. It had
answered the questions that it could, then gave way to other forms
of consumer research.
interest in consumer motives never wilted, however, and interest
in consumption research slowly crept into favor in academe. The
Association for Consumption Research, the first organization of
academic researchers in the field of consumer behavior, was founded
in 1971. Anthropologists began to take Warner's lead by studying
their own societies, and the social sciences as a whole began
to acknowledge consumption as a legitimate topic-although they
maintained their distance from applied or marketing research,
a stance that often forced them to reinvent established techniques.
and academic interest in social class also began to rise in the
1970s, but it focused more on poverty and extreme wealth, people
at the fringes rather than the middle majority, and thus had less
impact on marketing. Richard Coleman humbly noted at the SRI conference
that his 1983 article, "The Continuing Significance of Social
Class to Marketing," was ironically the last article ever
published by the Journal of Consumer Research to feature
social class as a major variable.
Warner's six-category system of class now seems somewhat simplistic.
"Where," wondered Coleman, "would most Americans
place the high-income nerds of Silicon Valley?" Today researchers
stress the emergence of overlapping or competing hierarchies.
Just as there are now several hundred television channels catering
to very specific interests, instead of the former big three networks,
there are multiple vertical as well as horizontal social clusters,
each with its own internal rankings. "Class takes a back
seat to racial identities, gender, ethnic heritage, or religious
identities," said Weeder. "Labor is out, feminism is
the car market is "no longer that useful in studying social
class," said Coleman. "Now, what people want has very
little to do with class. It has to do with whether one wants to
feel sybaritic or sexy or whatnot."
a practitioner," said Leo J. Shapiro, AB'42, PhD'56, founder
of a market research firm that competed with SRI, "and I
am about as pure a practitioner as you will find," he told
the conference, "I can tell you that Lloyd Warner's concepts
and techniques were adopted commercially and used by practitioners
and academicians, but they are no longer relevant." That
is not because they don't explain things about society or help
us anticipate the future. "They are no longer relevant because
they have been displaced by more economical techniques."
research by practitioners, he explained, is not about discovering
profound insights. It is about finding some tiny new thing that
gives the client a competitive edge, "a little bit of truth
that will let him get his money back." Why use something
as stunningly complex and costly as class if you can plug in a
much simpler variable and get similar results?
much simpler-and thus more efficient-variable is knowing who the
people are who buy what you sell. This information is increasingly
available, thanks to the spread of catalog shopping, electronic
transactions, loyalty incentive cards in stores, and the Internet.
"The ultimate unit for analysis is not the person,"
said Shapiro, "but the act."
each act is being recorded. "There are data sets that include
every single electronic act of consumption for the last several
decades," noted Abbott. "Let me assure you," said
Jonathan Frenzen, AB'78, MBA'82, PhD'88, clinical professor in
the Graduate School of Business, "Big Brother is watching,
and he is watching increasingly effectively." Once you purchase
clothes via catalog, he emphasized, the vendor knows your address,
your VISA number, exactly what you purchased, and your measurements.
on the Web reveals even more, he added. Marketers can track your
click stream, "where you go and how long you pause on each
page." Amazon.com, for example, uses a technique called collaborative
filtering to chart your purchases and then suggests other books
that are somehow related, items already purchased by people who
look, at least to Amazon, a lot like you.
works. Two weeks before a book on healthy eating by the University's
Michael Roizen was published, Amazon e-mailed everyone who had
bought the doctor's previous book on healthy aging, or any similar
book. Without a single ad or book review, even before the book
was released, it was a top-five seller for Amazon. "This
kind of behavior," predicted Frenzen, "is soon going
to follow you to the browser in your car."
an odd way, such focused data gathering may lessen the hovering
menace of Big Brother's constant attention. While SRI's researchers
wanted to know everything about a few representative customers,
current commercial consumer research concentrates on very specific,
isolated acts of millions of essentially classless and faceless
might be one more reason that consumption has remained so long
outside the academic universe. The consumer research industry
collects staggering volumes of information, figures that may be
extremely important if you're paid to sell a product but, details
that, said Frenzen, "may be viewed as being simply too trivial
for academics to worry about."
social science has been slow to embrace commerce since the emergence
of firms like SRI, commerce has fallen head over heels for social
science. "Ten years ago I told Andy [Abbott] there was more
social science done outside academia than within universities,"
said Eric Almquist, head of the customer management team for Mercer
Management Consulting. Today market research is a $14 billion
industry. By 2003 the total will reach $21 billion.
science is central to business," argued Almquist, "and
growing even more central. Winning and losing in market capitalization
is increasingly determined by how well companies anticipate changes
in the marketplace, a social science issue."
recently completed a study that looked at sudden drops in corporate
share price. Over the last five years, 10 percent of the Fortune
1000 companies lost more than one-fourth of their shareholder
value within a month. "These are what we call value collapse,"
Almquist said. "Customer research turns out to be the single
biggest thing companies
could have done better to avoid this catastrophe." Rubbermaid,
for example, lost touch with one customer: Wal-mart. For Readers'
Digest the major problem is age. Their consumers are aging
"faster than time," explained Almquist. "They have
own firm uses modern economic techniques such as discrete-choice
analysis to measure effects created by brand image as defined
by Levy and Gardner in the mid-1950s. "We've been trying
to push their insights further," Almquist said, "and
to link brand image to demand curves." Researchers now can
decipher exactly how much a brand's image is worth, how that image
shifts demand toward or away from the brand. If the brand's appeal
goes up, the company can raise the price, or sell more goods.
best example is motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson, which, according
to Almquist, has the world's strongest brand image. While a Harley
costs $18,000, the Japanese equivalent runs about $6,000. Yet
Harley, at three times the price, "does not have the quality,"
said Almquist. "Harleys have more problems. They require
more service. You have to wait six months to get one." But
if you're serious about the biker lifestyle, freedom, the open
road, and bugs in your teeth, you do not buy the Japanese knock-off
because it is not a Harley-Davidson. You don't see many people,
he added, with Yamaha or Suzuki tattoos.
men and women of SRI were exploring uncharted terrain when they
began their work," said Andreas Glaeser, assistant professor
of sociology, at the November conference. Decades later, "academic
cultural analysts have finally begun to take up some of their
concerns": the use of commodities as cultural symbols, the
global impact of brand names and logos (which have become more
readily identifiable than most religious symbols), and the absolute
requirement for multi-national companies to study culture and
this should have been apparent 50 years ago, Glaeser concluded,
in SRI's study of beer. "In the parlance of contemporary
consumption research, SRI was investigating the practices of beer
consumption while investigating the semiotics of drinking,"
Glaeser said. "SRI identified the major dimensions of the
use code of beer...teasing out, for example, the social resonance
of clinking beer glasses...and made concrete suggestions to their
clients on how to construct brand codes in accordance with use
codes, all this without using a language of identities, practices,
and semiotics, long before the academic world picked up an interest
in a related set of topics."
only that, he might have added, but SRI also said it in a way
clients and consumers easily understood. "Beer," SRI
pronounced, in the parlance of people who drink the stuff, "is
not a prestige item."