The Politics of Consumption


Batten Bulletin: June, 2011

Marketing strategists have long counted on the fact that our consumption decisions are driven by a complex array of factors. When we buy, say, a can of coffee or a jar of mayonnaise, we’re also buying the associations that have been branded into the offering. And we may even be making a political statement.  

In a new cross-disciplinary research project, Darden associate professor Rajkumar Venkatesan and UVA assistant professor of politics Sonal Pandya are studying the purchasing behavior of U.S. consumers during the 2003 dispute between the United States and France over the decision to invade Iraq. Their preliminary findings suggest that nationalism can play a role in purchasing decisions, and they raise fruitful issues for both marketers and political economists about consumers’ perceptions, the drivers of consumer behavior, and the role of marketing strategies in public policy.

In the very first stages of this research, Venkatesan, Pandya, and Iowa State political science professor Robert Urbatsch have used weekly sales data to examine the market shares of various brands of coffee, mayonnaise, and deodorant in more than 2,500 supermarkets in 48 U.S. cities and regions.  The data show that during periods of strong anti-French sentiment in the United States (measured by numbers of uses in the media of the term “freedom fries,” which was associated with the movement to boycott French goods), the relative shares of products that seemed to be of French origin decreased. This phenomenon was generally most pronounced in areas where George W. Bush beat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election—areas likely to have a high proportion of Iraq-war supporters. In fact, the researchers note that the decline in the share of French-seeming products may have lasted into the 2004 election season.

Venkatesan and Pandya’s approach is innovative on multiple dimensions. For instance, whereas other researchers have used survey data, which have inherent limitations, to explore how people might express nationalist sentiments in their economic choices, Venkatesan and Pandya are working with fine-grained sales data, which reveal consumers’ actual behavior. Moreover, other attempts to demonstrate changes in economic activity during the 2003 dispute have relied on trade and investment flows between the two countries, even though the products most likely to be boycotted, the two researchers note, are low-cost consumer goods that are generally not exported. 

Perhaps the most significant feature of Venkatesan and Pandya’s approach is their expansion of what constitutes a “French” product to include products from non-French companies that have been branded to appear French. Other researchers looking for changes in purchasing patterns during the dispute have examined only goods produced by French-owned firms and are therefore relying on the sort of corporate data that consumers do not generally take the time to gather, especially for low-cost and high-frequency purchases. A product’s true country of origin is not necessarily a clear-cut matter: A French company may own a brand’s trademark and license a company in another country to produce and sell the product. Yoplait yogurt is an example of just such a cross-border licensing agreement.

Venkatesan and Pandya are developing a more-detailed picture of consumer behavior by looking at products that consumers are likely to perceive as French. To that end, they have used orthographic approaches to identify the letter combinations most often associated with the French language, such as “eux” and “uis.” Words containing those combinations, as well as actual French words, are often used in a brand name to connote “Frenchness.” The researchers have also assessed perceived brand nationality using a measure based on the address of the trademark owner, and they’ve used a survey tool to gauge perceptions of various logos and product names. Preliminary results, they write, show that “sometimes consumers may be inferring country of origin from brand names more than from actual corporation locale.”

The branding implications are clear: The use of national identity as a branding strategy can be risky. U.S. marketers that had consciously adopted French-sounding brands to associate themselves with French quality and luxury found themselves in 2003 saddled with other, unforeseen associations. Some companies, such as restaurant chain Au Bon Pain and French’s mustard, embarked on expensive ad campaigns to emphasize their American origins, the authors report.  Others may have tried to prevent sales declines through pricing and promotions.

Questions about what drives consumers’ behavior occur at the intersection of marketing and public policy, the researchers note. As a political scientist, Pandya has studied people’s economic choices, which, she says, are not necessarily economically rational but may instead be expressions of political opinions and broader world views. “In 2003,” Venkatesan concurs, “people were acting out their patriotism through their consumption choices.” What can we learn from the episode of disadoption about what it might take to get consumers in large numbers to adopt socially beneficial goods such as energy-efficient appliances? Could a boycott against environmentally harmful products be an effective approach?

In the next stages of this research, Venkatesan and Pandya plan to study the media’s influence on people’s purchasing decisions during the 2003 episode. To what extent were the media exposing the American public to ideas about France and French products? By looking for uses of terms such as “freedom fries” in various media markets, they hope to distinguish between people who were making individual choices to boycott French goods and those who may have been responding to messages from media outlets.

They also intend to delve more deeply into examinations of consumer behavior by designing experiments, through the new Behavioral Research at Darden (BRAD) Lab, to test how people perceive products that seem linked to issues of national security. They also plan to expand the number of product categories under consideration—they have scanner data from 31 product categories and approximately 14,000 products—and look more closely at extremely fine-grained sales data that can yield information about customer demographics, patterns of household consumption, and store and merchandising information. This will allow them to explore with even more nuance the link between marketing strategy, consumer behavior, and political and national issues.

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