Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Meeting of The Walmarts, The Whole Foods, And The CSA’s Of Academia:Transformative Consumer Research Shapes New Paradigm

TCR: The Health Track
Be Do and Let Go

Driving back from the second Transformative Consumer Research (TCR) Conference at Villanova University, still buzzing with the excitement of a new paradigm that is emerging in marketing academia, I felt that the conference was like a meeting of the Walmarts, the Whole Foods, and the CSA’s of marketing academia. Before I explain what I mean by that I want to commend the leadership behind this conference for stimulating a new vision for consumer research. The conference brought together consumer researchers and practitioners from diverse backgrounds with the purpose of stimulating research and actions to alleviate the most pressing social and economic problems around the world. The sponsors of the conference, the Halloran Philanthropies and BeDo, posed three questions to the researchers:

1) Where are you now?
2) Where do you want to go?
3) How will you get there?

In the spirit of the questions posed by the sponsors, I am writing my thoughts to provoke readers to reflect on the following questions:

1) Who are you?
2) What impact do you have on this world?
3) What impact would you like to have on this world?
4) How will you have the desired impact on this world?

The purpose of writing this is to inspire self-reflection as researchers and the stimulation of a new marketing paradigm that is consistent with the purpose of TCR and Halloran Philanthropies of building “the world we all want.”

This conference to me was transformational because for the first time it brought together such a diverse group of people to engage in a dialog to better the world. Most marketing conferences are brief one-way presentations of a research project, followed by quick transitions in small clusters to bars for drinking. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against drinking, but I have always missed the two-way dialog between researchers passionate about a project that impacts the world in positive ways. The second unique feature in this conference was the bringing together of people who are doing similar purpose-driven work but would not have met in conventional conference style settings. Please also read what Craig Lefebvre, a colleague at the conference, also wrote to this effect.

Speaking of diversity, I use Walmarts, Whole Foods, and CSAs as metaphors to reflect the diversity among consumer researchers with respect to their purpose, research output, and impact in the real world. I use the metaphor of Walmarts to represent the high turnover but low impact researchers; In the Whole Foods,’ category, I include the academics who have created a balance between turnover and research that is meaningful, but is exclusive and limited to niche areas; And then there are the CSA’s, which metaphorically represents researchers who have high impact through meaningful research and high involvement in the classroom, but low turnover. I do not intend to see these as mutually exclusive categories but allowing for overlaps. There are advantages and disadvantages to each group and the TCR promises a new mindset that integrates the benefits of each group without the limitations. Each of these groups and the integrated paradigm are discussed next.

Wal-Mart Goes Green

The TCR conference drew many consumer researchers with impressive resumes including a long list of articles published in top marketing journals. This group of researchers comprised well-trained researchers trained by other well-trained researchers who have learned the skills and procedures for turning around research articles expeditiously, mostly using experimental design. Are these research articles read by anyone other than the elite circle of researchers themselves and whether they impact the world in any way are questions that may not be of interest to this group, as I discovered in my conversations with some of them. And if their work is not guided by the desire to make a difference, I wondered about their motivation to be at the conference. My conversations with some of my colleagues in this group reminded me of Wal-Mart’s growing interest in green and organic product lines. Certainly, when a retailer as big as Wal-Mart turns its attention to green and organic offerings, it has wide spread implications. This will force many big suppliers’ like Kellogg to create new organic lines and it will also bring down prices because of the economies in production and distribution afforded by Wal-Mart. Yet, as pointed out in a New York Times article, some organic food advocates fear that Wal-Mart is adopting organic product lines without embracing the principles underlying organic foods, which can have negative repercussions in the long run. For example, large-scale organic farmers will not use the crop-rotation practices of the small farms, hurting the fields and reducing the health benefits of organic food. Similarly, how the entry of consumer researchers into transformative research areas will impact academia and the world it seeks to change, without a change in their inner purpose and philosophical underpinnings of research and their role as academics, is something left to speculation.

Whole Foods No Longer Unique

With Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic array, Whole Foods is losing its unique positioning as a retailer of organic foods. Especially, in a recession Wal-Mart’s price advantage makes it more attractive. Whole Foods has been retaliating with cost-cutting initiatives and changing people’s perceptions that the store’s nickname shouldn’t be “whole check” (Business Week 2009). This phenomenon can be transferred to consumer research metaphorically to reflect an increasing focus in areas of research that are beneficial to society and are no longer niche areas. This has drawn more good researchers into public policy areas, which has improved the standards of research as reflected in journals like Journal of Public Policy and Marketing. So far policy researchers had been doing a good job of creating a balance between research that is meaningful and the quality of work, but with more people entering this area, there are more people with higher research standards and how the traditional policy researchers will defend their area of expertise remains to be seen.

What is a CSA anyway?

CSA stands for community supported agriculture. Over the last 20 years, CSA has become a popular way for consumers to buy local, seasonal food directly from the farmer. It typically involves an arrangement in which consumers pay the farmer in advance for their share in the produce which is harvested once a week for pick up during the season. A recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune (2009) cites food activist Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, as saying, “We need more highly skilled small farmers in more places all across America - not as a matter of nostalgia for the agrarian past, but as a matter of national security.” I see a need for more consumer researchers passionate about making a difference in the world. Like CSA’s, these researchers work in complete harmony with their values, which are consistent and fully integrated with who they are. Their work is an outer manifestation of who are inside. They use a mindful approach, which is an authentic expression of who they are and not a strategy to get publications, and as such reflects in all aspects of their life. A potential shortcoming of this approach is that such researchers often work alone because it was hard to find other researchers who are equally impassioned by the same social cause. In the past, these researchers have encountered more challenges in publishing in the main marketing journals, because of they lack managerial implications, but this is changing rapidly.

Transformative Consumer Research: A New Paradigm in Marketing Academia

I believe this is a good time in history to stop and look at ourselves as academics – are you a Wal-Mart, a Whole Foods, or a CSA? As a Wal-Mart you have a lot to be proud of in terms of the sophistication and skills acquired to carry out research efficiently. But can these be used effectively to create the world we want without changing our inner worlds? As a CSA, your inner worlds are in complete alignment with the vision of a new equitable world, but alone it is hard to make a difference at the level we want. As a Whole Food you can only push your boundaries so far in doing research that is meaningful but in niche areas that cannot change the world at large. Each one of these groups has unique strengths and limitations.

What is needed is a new paradigm that combines the strengths of each group and this is possible through innovative thinking and a new mindset. A good example in the real world is that of Equal Exchange which has revolutionized the way coffee is traded. It has demonstrated through effective partnerships with farmer cooperatives that business can be profitable, equitable, and sustainable. The TCR initiative is a step in the right direction in that it has brought together the Wal-Marts, the Whole Foods, and the CSA’s to collaborate in ways that were not imagined earlier. Through dialog, common ground was shaped to take the first steps in using research skills and strengths of each group to move forward together towards a more equitable world for all.

My vision of transformative consumer research involves effective collaborations of diverse groups of researchers and non-researchers who are inspired to change the world. Such collaborative work will change the world through innovative research, education to spark wisdom and not mere knowledge (Also see David Mick), and effective implementation of the research in the real world. The new paradigm will be defined by passion, purpose, transparency, and innovation.

What is your vision of transformative consumer research?

Please take a few seconds to answer the poll questions who are you today and who would you like to be in the future. A quick reminder, Wal-Marts are those aspiring high turnover in good journals and not interested in impact; Whole Foods aspire a balance between turnover and meaningful research; CSAs have impact on society and meaningful research as the highest priority.
The poll can be found on the right side of the page when you scroll up to the title.

1 comment:

  1. Based on some comments I have been receiving via emails, I realize that I may have excluded another category of researchers. This category includes researchers who are contributing to our understanding of consumer culture. They are primarily driven by intellectual pursuits that may or may not have a direct impact on changing the world. What should we call this category - The Nordstroms?