Black Finland

Some time ago, even if the topic was not familiar to me, I always got all the Asian masters students to mentor. I asked why and the response was that “you are so good with Asians”.

Poor students! They did not get the person most knowledgeable with their thesis topic but a person who had lived in Asia. They were treated as if they needed special assistance because they were Asians. During the same time, professors were explaining that they cannot hire foreigners, as foreigners do not know how to write a Finnish application.

Not surprisingly, according to an EU survey two years ago Finland was the most racist country in the European Union. A survey from 2019 provides similar results. Participants of Hanken Business LEAD experienced discrimination both in working life and generally. All these participants are highly educated, have a lot of working experience internationally, and are flexible personalities given their multicultural background. Yet, they have hard to get employed, even job interviews. Other sources evidence that people who have generations after generations lived in Finland, like Romans, are as well discriminated to the extent that by changing their names they get better treatment in recruitment situations.

While writing an article about our findings from the survey, we, the team of four different nationalities, realised that so much focus is put into immigrant integration and in consequence training and schooling of “the others” in Finland. However, less effort is given to Finnish institutions like employing companies and their staff to train them to meet talents from other countries. Sometimes, taking an intern with other than Finnish background is only a corporate social responsibility gesture rather than a serious intention to really employ an immigrant, refugee or a person from an ethnic minority.

Our own perceived superiority makes us teachers rather than learners.

The world is more global today than probably ever before given that we can be global even digitally. We travel more and have information available 24/7 on our devices. However, we still tend to stay in our own villages of similarity unable to learn from our experiences of others.  Our own perceived superiority makes us teachers rather than learners.

The anecdote of Asian students from my personal life just illustrates how well-meaning intentions can be discriminating or how structures prevent entry of the other. Such cultural and structural inequalities go unnoticed most of the times. “Black lives matter” demonstrations are good ways to remind us all that the world still needs improvement; however, it is not enough. Political leaders need to unfold structures that prevent inequality like some American universities that started recruiting anonymously and increased female recruitments to about 50% of all employments. Extra training and support programs only remind the minorities that they needed to change. However, the majority can learn as well, and many times it also should.

Pia Polsa
Associate Professor in marketing

Sources:

EU (2018) Being Black in the EU. Second European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union.

Business LEAD program: https://www.hankensse.fi/programmes/integration-program-business-lead

Photo: Pia Polsa

The rise of Femtech in a gender biased technology sector – cure or symptom?

Our culture puts high hopes on the role of technology in improving our lives. New solutions, devices and applications enter the market constantly, and many of their creators are seen as trailblazers, paving the way to a better future, with more well-being. The development and emergence of new technologies is almost seen as a force of nature – it’s coming, and it will make everything better.

We might think that technology is neutral, that it’s neither good nor bad, because it doesn’t have a will of its own. This is true to a certain extent, but it omits the human element. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, first we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

A lot of research has been dedicated to this question of how technology is shaped by society, and how it in turn shapes society. In the age of Silicon Valley and amidst general techno-optimism, it’s good to remember that technology is always a reflection of its creators, and the culture they are part of. Technology is designed by specific groups of people, in order to serve interests of specific groups, as the organization scholar Wanda Orlikowski argued already back in 1992.

With this realisation in mind, it’s good to stop and think about two questions: who are the ones developing tech products, and what problems are they solving? Once these questions are asked, we can start to think about the follow-up question: what’s being left out? The structures of society have led to a skewed gender divide in the technology sector, on two fronts. While women account for only less than 25 percent of tech jobs in the U.S., the small but growing amount of female entrepreneurs face also greater challenges in obtaining funding.

A couple of years ago The New Yorker wrote about an American start-up that had designed a smart breast pump. It could measure the milk nutrients, was comfortable to wear, and had a huge market potential. When the founder of the company met with venture capitalists for funding, the response surprised her: the men sitting in the board room didn’t even want to touch the device, calling it ”disgusting”.

In the end this device, with a huge market potential, got only a fraction of the funding that for example the infamous Juicero received from enthusiastic VCs. (For those unfamiliar with Juicero, it was a juice press that used pre-juiced fruit packets sold by subscription. The catch – the packets could just as easily be pressed by hand, with the same result).

A study made in Sweden showed that venture capitalists talk very differently about female entrepreneurs than male ones.

This story is not unique. It’s an example of the gendered nature of the tech industry. A study made in Sweden showed that venture capitalists talk very differently about female entrepreneurs than male ones. The study showed that when investors talked about women, they used language with qualities opposite to those that are valued in entrepreneurs. As a result, female entrepreneurs risk receiving less venture capital.

But many entrepreneurs and investors are now telling us not to despair. During the past couple of years, there has for instance been a huge surge in interest towards Femtech, i.e. technologies that focus specifically on female health. Femtech appears now more often in media than before, and there are even dedicated venture capital companies that focus solely on femtech solutions.

Clearly, progress is being made. This is all good and well, but, perhaps ironically, the term Femtech as such tells us a lot about the biased nature of the technology and innovation landscape. It implies two categories of technology: the Common, and the Other, echoing the thoughts of Simone de Beauvoir.

Femtech is an important first step towards more equal technology, but we could ask ourselves if just Tech without gender descriptors would be better. In the end, it’s questionable whether Silicon Valley can solve this gender divide by itself. The business and technology world is only a product of our society at large. This is where change needs to happen.

Hannu Tikkanen

Hannu Tikkanen is a doctoral candidate in marketing at Hanken. He is interested in understanding the roles of technology and societal norms in management of well-being.

References

Malmström, M., Johansson, J. & Wincent, J. (2017) Gender Stereotypes and Venture Support Decisions: How Governmental Venture Capitalists Socially Construct Entrepreneurs’ Potential. Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, vol. 41, no. 5, pp. 833-860

Orlikowski, W. (1992) The Duality of Technology: Rethinking the Concept of Technology in Organizations. Organization Science, vol. 3, no. 3, pp. 398-427

The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-arent-mothers-worth-anything-to-venture-capitalists

Statista: https://www.statista.com/chart/4467/female-employees-at-tech-companies/

Photo: Unsplash

The many faces of customer orientation

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the role of customers in business. It has become dramatically clear to many that without customers there is no business. Now when everything is upside down it is timely and relevant to reflect on this old but fundamental issue. Not that managers would not know it, in principle.

It has for decades been suggested and widely accepted that companies and other organisations should be customer oriented in order to be successful. But what does it really mean to be customer oriented and how is it visible to customers? Is it easier said than done? And what is customer orientation, by the way, in times of change like the extreme disruptive pandemic we are experiencing? Let us imagine three faces or mindsets of customer orientation.

1. Customer orientation as rain dance

Most companies claim to be customer oriented. It is clear that it is supposed to be a mindset applied throughout the organisation that is implemented in actions. What it means in practice is not always clear inside the company, or outside of it. But it sounds good and feels mandatory to say.

Customer orientation is like a rain dance. Rain dance is an ancient practice in hope of inducing rain. Whether it solves the draught problem or not is not the issue, the actors tend to really believe that it helps and is worth the effort. Or perhaps a more relevant metaphor in these times, customer orientation is like a face mask. The real face remains hidden to the customer.

2. Customer orientation as collecting data

Often customer orientation is explained as knowing the customer and staying close to the customer to stand out as different, compared to competitors in the industry. This means collecting data about customers’ needs and wants and monitoring their satisfaction with the company. Listening to the customer is obviously not always easy or successful which is demonstrated by even big companies losing customers and going bankrupt. Not to talk about start-ups that never get flying.

On the other hand, there are those that claim that you should not rely too much on what customers say in your attempts to be customer oriented. There is a danger in being customer-led, it is argued – customers do not know what they need – instead you should be guided by your own visions. As evidence, there is a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

In fact, it has not been verified that he actually said that, but he could have. He created the successful Ford Model T, and the rest is history – in terms of car production processes. But perhaps he was no visionary in terms of putting customers first. Asking customers, he might have discovered that they did not long for faster horses as he presumed but to get rid of the daily chores of keeping a workhorse. What he created was a mechanical horse that you do not need to attend to many hours a day – unless it is your hobby.

Anyway, data is not enough, not even big data unless it can be interpreted and converted into understanding and actions. This puts the stress on asking the right questions – those that reveal customers’ logics rather than enforce the company logic.

3. Customer orientation as customer orienteering

In times of change and disruption, customer orientation becomes a different challenge. Instead of thinking about customer orientation as a characteristic of a company, it might be better to focus on what it might be as an activity. In the Swedish language “kundorientering” (customer orientation) has both meanings. But as an activity “orientering” (orientation) has also another meaning, it refers to a sport that in English is called orienteering.

Orienteering stems from 1886 in Sweden where it was used in the military with the meaning of crossing of unknown land with the aid of a map and a compass. It later became a competitive sport for military officers and civilians. Customer orienteering could be used as a metaphor for finding the direction or location of customers in dynamic and emerging markets. The manager’s mindset is the map and the compass is a set of tools and methods that indicate the direction. Both need to be reviewed and reflected on, in times of change. Mindsets are, however, not easy to change.

Customer orienteering could be seen as finding new ways to understand customers’ changing logics and position oneself in the pattern of customer activities and aspirations. Rather than focusing on industry issues and differentiation in relation to competitors, the issue is to be relevant to customers, whatever that is in changing business landscapes. The pandemic is an extreme example of that. To navigate forward it might help to think about customer orientation as customer and market orienteering.

Tore Strandvik

Tore Strandvik is Professor Emeritus of Marketing at Hanken. He has in his research over the years focussed on managers’ and customers’ mindsets. 

Is the human service employee really human?

All of us have heard this several times: robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will replace many of us, and this also goes for service employees who used to have face-to-face interaction with customers. Much research has already been carried out on what the new interfaces should be like to make us humans feel comfortable in our roles as customers. So far, one result is particularly dominant: the more the interface can be made to resemble a human, the more comfortable we feel.

Such results stem from studies in which researchers have measured customers’ perceptions of humanness of robots and other agents as well as customers’ evaluations of them. And the typical result, “what-is-humanlike-is-good”, is one main reason why most AI-powered virtual agents are designed so that they have a humanlike face, a name and a gender, and that they can talk to us in a conversation mode. In other words, human attributes have become a gold standard for what the new, virtual entities should be like.

If real humans are assessed in the same way as robots and virtual agents, in terms of perceived humanness, one may perhaps think that humans would receive “full” humanness scores. A human is a human, right? However, after having seen the results of copious studies in which participants were asked about how they perceive various humans in terms of humanness, and after having made some studies on this issue myself, I have so far not found one single study in which real humans received full humanness scores. In other words, perceived humanness is a variable, not a dichotomy, and it rarely reaches its highest possible value when people are asked about the humanness of other people.

Perceived humanness is a variable, not a dichotomy, and it rarely reaches its highest possible value when people are asked about the humanness of other people.

The main reason is probably that being human means having many characteristics related to an inner life – such as having agency, an ability to experience emotions, and having a feeling for what is right and wrong – and these characteristics will never be fully accessible to others. So, no one can know for sure what it is to be me, and I cannot fully know what it is to be someone else. This is indeed an essential part of being human – and a timeless source of pleasant surprises and disappointments.  

In any event, studies showing that real humans are typically denied full humanness by others are often made under the label of dehumanization. This is a malicious form of perceptual bias because it can lead to many horrible outcomes – such as genocide, torture, slavery, rape, and various forms of other anti-social behaviors. The main idea is something like this: if another person is not a full human, well, then we have a green light to do whatever we want with this person.

Lately, I have had a chance to see what happens if you move beyond those groups that are studied in the dehumanization literature (homeless, migrants, drug addicts etc.). More specifically, my idea was to examine customers’ interactions with service employees through the lens of perceived humanness, and I wanted to know what would happen when customers are explicitly asked to assess service employees in term of perceived humanness.

So, for example, in one experiment I was inspired by the current corona pandemic and the new norms for behavior it has generated. The design was such that the participants were encountering a female grocery store employee who existed in two versions. In one version, she violated the norms for what is appropriate social behavior during a pandemic by coughing into the air and by neglecting social distancing; in the other version, she followed the norms. With this design, then, the participants were randomly allocated to encountering one of the two employee versions, and after the encounter I asked questions about their reactions.

Not so surprising, the norm-violating employee was dehumanized – in the same way as migrants, garbage collectors, and homeless people have been in other studies. This part of the results should be seen in the light of people’s general sensitivity to whatever is signaling disease; if there is a suspicion that someone is infected, we typically react with avoidance and disgust (and dehumanization). More surprising, however, is what happened to the participants who were exposed to the norm-complying employee – because this employee was dehumanized, too. Presumably, one reason is that decades of exposure to the idea that “the customer is king” can devaluate those who have a service role.

The take-away, I believe, is this: So much attention has been devoted to making non-human entities more humanlike that we may have forgotten that we humans typically are subject to a humanness deficit in the eyes of others. And this is far from optimal when a “what-is-humanlike-is-good” mechanism is operating. The service firm in which human employees will still interact with (human) customers, then, should be mindful of what is boosting the perceived humanness of human employees.  

Magnus Söderlund
Professor of Marketing and Head of the Center for Consumer Marketing (CCM), Stockholm School of Economics
Senior Fellow Researcher at CERS, Hanken

Photo: Unsplash

Reality of social distancing and lockdown in low-income settings

The only known planet for human to survive naturally is experiencing a huge challenge posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the challenge is still far away from similar past challenges in terms of its effect on human survival, it has already made considerable damages in terms of loss of lives, and deceleration in economic and societal progresses.

As a creatively adaptive species, we human beings have responded to this challenge by taking measures such as social distancing and lockdown. These are not something new as nations and societies during past pandemics applied these measures to prevent the spread of a pandemic of such a massive scale. However, population density and divide between various income segments within and between countries have increased substantially since the last known pandemic.

While most of the high-income countries have the advantages of low population density and high support from social and governmental institutions to cope with current pandemic, the reality is completely different for low-income countries that are blessed(!) with large populations. The reality for a large section of people in these low-income countries is such that they must make a choice between dying of the disease or hunger. Why is the situation like this?

The reality for a large section of people in these low-income countries is such that they must make a choice between dying of the disease or hunger.

One of the key reasons is the inadequacy or absence of safety net programs for supporting low-income or vulnerable groups in this exceptional period. Though the governments of these low-income countries are trying to provide relief to these large population segments, the one-off assistances do not reach them in many cases due to the presence of corruption at the operational or field level. These factors together force low-income people to go out of their homes to earn something for their survival. This also means that social distancing is practically impossible in an already densely populated country.

Typically, low-income settings are associated with low education profiles of the inhabitants. This means that the lexicons such as social distancing and lockdown, and their meaning and gravity are profoundly fuzzy to these segments of the population. So, they go out and flock together in public places with the main motive to earn their livelihood.

Another very interesting paradox that has caught my attention is that in some cases factories in low-income countries have resumed their operations suddenly in the midst of government-declared lockdown or restrictions. Consequently, workers are forced to march back in thousands to the industrial parks or cities to join their workplace in the fear of losing their jobs. While factory owners and industry associations in these low-income countries are trying to save their foreign customer base, the workers are being exposed to life-threatening practices and conditions. In these cases, too, essentiality of earning livelihood dominates social distancing and lockdown.

Is there any way out from this scenario? Well, if challenges are there, so are their solutions. It applies not just to the ongoing pandemic, but also to the current realities in low-income settings. It may be a high ask to instantly bury the deep-seated bureaucratic controls and corruptions prevailing in these settings. What is more needed now is the coordination among public, private, and non-governmental institutions to develop sustainable assistance programs and implement those programs with compassion and responsibility. People living in low-income segments will follow social distancing and lockdown only if they know what these really mean, and more importantly, if they receive some form of financial assistance from the social and governmental institutions.    

Arafat Rahman
Doctoral Student

Photo: The Daily Star

Pandemics, environmental crises and consumption: Lessons to learn

In Finland, we consume on average almost four times the amount that is environmentally sustainable. Calls for changing our consumption patterns in response to the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and other environmental problems have for years resulted in only little change. The current global pandemic appears to have succeeded where threats of environmental crises have so far failed.

An old car in the middle of a corn field, a very dark sky above

Our consumption patterns have changed drastically almost overnight and are currently quite radically different than just a few short weeks ago. Our consumption spendings have decreased by a quarter, flights in Europe have decreased by 85%, and the demand for oil is plummeting as mobility decreases. These changes are already having positive environmental impacts, showing in reduced pollution and expected to reduce global CO2 emissions.

The current consumption changes are of course likely to be only temporary, as most of us are eagerly awaiting to get back to normal. Unfortunately,  the climate crisis is here to stay and requires a more permanent change to our consumption patterns. In our efforts to mitigate climate change and other environmental problems, can we learn something from the current crisis?

If the current crisis has taught us one thing, it is that waiting until we are in the middle of a crisis to make changes is not a good strategy. The drastic reductions in consumption that we are seeing at the moment are neither socially nor economically sustainable. Many are losing their jobs, companies are struggling to stay afloat, and the national debt is expected to skyrocket. Since our economies and societies are built around high levels of consumption, sudden disruptions to this trajectory are disastrous.

Changes to our consumption patterns require accompanying changes to how our societies are structured. It requires rethinking and restructuring of the economic system. The current pandemic has shown us that, in the face of crisis, political decisions that dramatically change our everyday lives can happen very quickly when needed. But it would be in all of our best interests not to wait for environmental problems to keep worsening and instead make efforts to tackle them before we are in the midst of the crisis. Acting before the storm hits.

Maria Sandberg
Doctoral Student

Photo: Willgard Krause, Pixabay

Muovipussit minimiin – mitä teki kuluttaja, hyötyivätkö yritykset?

Olemme hukkua muoviin! Sosiaalinen media on täynnä kuvia muovilautoista valtamerissä ja muoviin sotkeutuneista linnuista. Silti jokapäiväinen elämämme on täynnä muovia pakkausten sekä muovipussien ja -kassien muodossa. Jotain tulisi tehdä, ajattelemme.

Maailmassa kulutetaan 500 miljardista biljoonaan muovipussia vuosittain, mikä tarkoittaa 1,4–2,7 miljardia muovipussia joka päivä tai miljoona muovipussia minuutissa. Luvut ovat pöyristyttäviä, ja siksi eri toimijat ovat tehneet aloitteita muovipussien kulutuksen vähentämiseksi. Eri valtiot ovat reagoineet tähän globaaliin ongelmaan joko kieltämällä muovikassit täysin, tekemällä niistä maksullisia, solmimalla yksityisiä sopimuksia tai käyttämällä kaikkia näitä keinoja. Suomessa toimiin on ryhdytty vapaaehtoisten Green Deal -sopimusten kautta (ks. Kuva 1).

Kuva 1: Kansalliset toimet muovikasseja vastaan

Ympäristöministeriö toteaa sivuillaan, että ”Green deal on vapaaehtoinen sopimus valtion ja elinkeinoelämän välillä. Tavoitteena on yhdessä edistää kestävän kehityksen tavoitteita etsimällä ratkaisuja ilmastonmuutoksen hillitsemiseksi ja kiertotalouden edistämiseksi.” Muovikassisopimus on ratkaisuista ensimmäinen ja solmittu Suomen ympäristöministeriön ja Kaupan liiton kanssa vuonna 2016.

Vuonna 2018 suomalaiset kuluttivat vuosittain 68 muovikassia henkeä kohti. Tavoitteena on, että Suomessa käytettäisiin vuosittain enintään 40 kassia henkeä kohti vuoden 2025 loppuun mennessä. Tähän mennessä 27 yritystä on sitoutunut sopimukseen; mukana on suuria vähittäiskauppoja, kuten Kesko ja S-ketju.

Jo nyt media on raportoinut hienoista tuloksista muovikassien ja -pussien vähentämisessä. Mutta mitä hyötyä yritykset kokevat saavansa tällaisesta sopimuksesta ja miten kuluttaja reagoi, kun hänen kassinsa maksaa tai sitä ei olekaan saatavilla? Tästä ottivat selvää Hankenin gradunkirjoittajat Daniela Karjalainen ja Theresia Lundberg.

Yritykset, jotka osallistuivat Karjalaisen ja Lundbergin tutkimuskyselyyn, olivat sitä mieltä, että muovikassisopimuksen tekemisestä oli enemmän hyötyä kuin haittaa. Kauppojen sitoumukset ovat kuitenkin hyvin erilaisia vaihdellen työntekijöiden koulutuksesta muovikassien hinnoitteluun tai niiden poistamiseen valikoimista kokonaan. Kaupat kokivat vapaaehtoisen sitoumuksen joustavuuden merkittäväksi hyödyksi, ja sen avulla ne voivat välttää tiukempia lakeja.

Toinen tärkeä etu oli, että tiukan paikan tullen sitoumukseen voitiin vedota. Osa yrityksistä oli saanut sitoumuksen myötä myönteistä julkisuutta, osa taas ei. Muovikassien maksullisuus ei ollut niinkään tuonut taloudellisia etuja vaan vähentänyt kassien sisäänostoja. Sitoumuksesta koettiin saatavan hyötyä lähinnä asennemuutoksen myötä sekä madaltuneena kynnyksenä tehdä vastaavia sitoumuksia myöhemminkin.

Green Dealin haitoiksi yritykset kokivat neuvotteluiden ja raportoinnin kustannukset. Koska kilpailijatkin lähtivät mukaan, sopimuksen allekirjoittamattomuus koettiin riskinä, samoin kuin se, että jos mukaan ei lähdetä vapaaehtoisesti, viranomaiset voivat säätää tiukempia lakeja. Vähemmän merkittävinä haittoina koettiin liian matalat tavoitteet, tietovuotojen mahdollisuus sekä pitkäaikaisten kannustinten puute. Yritysten ehdottomasti suurin huolenaihe oli asiakkaiden mahdollinen kielteinen reaktio. Yritysten kokemat hyödyt ja riskit näkyvät koottuna kuvassa 2.

Kuva 2: Yritysten hyödyt ja riskit vapaaehtoisesta muovipussisopimuksesta

 

Miten kuluttajat sitten kokevat muovikassien ja -pussien puuttumisen kaupoista? Eivät aina positiivisesti. Kuluttaja on tapojensa orja ja hakee helppoa arkea usein unohtaen hyvät aikeensa. Kuluttajan sosiaalinen ympäristö ja hänen identiteettinsä vaikuttavat siihen, poimiiko hän muovipussin käteensä vai ei. Vierailla ihmisillä ei ole hänen valintaansa suurtakaan merkitystä, mutta myyjät voivat vaikuttaa. Siksi on ollut tärkeää, että vähittäiskaupat ovat kouluttaneet työntekijöitään kertomaan asiakkailleen muovipussien haitoista.

Tutuilla ihmisillä, kuten ystävillä, sukulaisilla ja perheellä, on huomattavasti suurempi merkitys kuluttajan valintoihin kuin täysin vierailla ihmisillä. Sosiaalinen ympäristö ja sen osa-alueet vaikuttavat kuluttajan valintoihin, mutta on myös muita tekijöitä: tavat, tunteet ja konkreettinen tieto. Muovikassin hinnalla voidaan vaikuttaa sekä tapoihin että tunteisiin, mutta hinnalla saattaa olla myös negatiivinen vaikutus. Kuluttaja kokee, että jos hän ostaa tuhannella eurolla tuotteita, hän on oikeutettu ilmaiseen muovikassiin, on se sitten ympäristöystävällistä tai ei.

Toisaalta muovikassi voisi olla niin ruma, ettei kuluttaja kehtaisi ottaa sitä edes ilmaiseksi. Vaikka tietoa muovikassien haitallisuudesta on ja internet pursuaa kuvia muovikasseihin kuolleista merenelävistä, kuluttaja on tapojensa orja. Kassi tulee otettua mukaan kaupasta ja kestokassi tai vanhanajan kauppakassi jää usein kotiin odottaman tapojen muuttumista. Näitä kuluttajan kokemuksia kuvataan alla kuvassa 3.

Kuva 3: Tekijät, jotka vaikuttavat kuluttajan muovikassipäätökseen   

Pia Polsa
Apulaisprofessori


Lähteet

Karjalainen, D. (2020) Vilka är fördelarna och riskerna för finska företag med frivilliga miljöavtal? Pro gradu. Svenska handelshögskolan.

Lundberg, T. (2020) Hur kunde konsumenter motiveras att använda färre plastpåsar? Pro gradu. Svenska handelshögskolan.

Roach, J. (2003) Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment? National Geographic. Osoitteessa: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/09/0902_030902_plasticbags.html. Haettu: 11.10.2019.

Spokas, K.A. (2008) Plastics: still young, but having a mature impact. Waste Manage 28 (3), 473–474.

Clean Up Australia (2015). Report on actions to reduce circulation of single-use plastic bags around the world: August 2015. Clean Up Australia, Sydney.

Ympäristöministeriön Green deal -sopimukset (2019) Osoitteessa: https://www.ym.fi/fi-FI/Lainsaadanto/Green_deal_sopimukset. Haettu: 7.4.2020.

Sitoumus 2050. Osoitteessa: https://sitoumus2050.fi/#/. Haettu: 7.4.2020. Osoitteessa: https://yle.fi/uutiset/3-10972737. Haettu: 7.4.2020.

How will the COVID-19 impact consumer behavior in the long term?

Research institutions are proactively conducting research to inform us of fast-changing trends due to the pandemic. Research results confirm that people have already changed their shopping behavior in fundamental ways: stocking up on products they wouldn’t otherwise stock up on, purchasing products they wouldn’t otherwise have purchased, shopping online when they would usually shop in store, and shopping in new stores.

During the crisis, we do our best to stay healthy, keep the social distance instructed by the authorities, adapt our shopping habits and may try new brands, services and products that are available in stock out situations. How lasting will this change be? Are consumers going to go back to their normal routines after the crisis, or will this have a permanent effect on purchase patterns and behavior overall? Let’s see what information is available today to ease our headache!

What do sales data tell?

The immediate short term changes in consumer behavior are evident, based on sales statistics, and even visible to the eye while observing the empty shelves in the grocery stores: People are stocking up on rice, pasta, porridge, bread, soap, minced meat and toilet paper. In an uncertain situation facing social pressure, it is understandable to buy larger amounts of groceries in preparation for home quarantine. According to AppAnnie statistics, there has been strong growth in downloads of games, as consumers turn to mobile to stay entertained and pass the time while under quarantine.   

What do consumers say?

There are already national research results describing early signs how the shopping behavior has changed and will change in the future. In China, consumers have reported that their purchase of the following items has increased and will increase even after the corona virus outbreak is over: epidemic prevention (air purifier, disinfectant, and masks), cosmetics, drugs, food and beverage, household cleaning, medical/ life insurance, and nutritional supplements.

Consumption of the following items is estimated to increase after the outbreak: gym, hair salon/manicure, personal care, out of home dining, out of home entertainment, travel, wealth management and stocks. In contrast, after the outbreak consumption of luxury items and online entertainment will decrease. New phenomena found were that people have taken collaborative initiatives making group orders with neighbors. On the positive side, 84% of respondents have tried at least one new service for the first time during the outbreak. These results are based on 1.000 respondents nationwide in China, including 200 responses from the worst-hit Hubei Province in February 2020 (Kantar[i]).

What do researchers predict?

Harvard Business School published some predictions on the 16th of March[ii]. Researchers are experts in their own fields and predictions of the impacts of COVID-19 vary. As experts in the public health and finance fields, Dr. Macomber and Dr. Allen predict that in the long term more money will be spent on fans, filters, ductwork, chillers, heat exchangers, and dehumidifiers—and on the energy to run them. He also thinks that information who enters the building and when is collected in the future with facial recognition and infrared cameras. He speculates further that time series data will be collected from your temperature and what was in the breaths you exhaled, captured over weeks and years. Air quality data is collected collectively from handheld sensors and sent to third-party rating databases via mobile phones. Sure, but if consumers know that this type of biometric data is collected automatically e.g. in certain hospitals, housing or even elevators in the future, it surely affects where consumers choose to go and not to go.

What do simulations tell?

Simulations on how viruses spread provide estimates and visualizations that help us get a grasp of how quickly the health situation can change affecting the whole society. Similar simulations regarding changes in consumer behavior haven’t been published yet. It may be difficult to build reliable predictive models or simulations due to many uncertain factors as well as the fact that there is no historical data on a global level of similar situations in the past. However, germ games or other types of visualizations help us to discuss alternative futures. In these uncertain times, scenarios can elicit imagination and may help us be proactive.  

Keep your eyes and ears open!

We can all help by observing and documenting weak signals of peculiar changes in the market. Now, people are e.g. posting pictures of their toilet paper mountains in the social media and creating new networks to support others. What do you think will be the next thing or a change in human behavior that will have an impact when we look back a few years from now? Hopefully understanding the reasons behind conscious and even subconscious behavior will help us survive, support each other, and become more robust to similar crisis situations, in the future.

Minna Pura
PhD


[i] Kantar (2020). Coronavirus. In: https://www.kantar.com/inspiration/coronavirus?utm_campaign=Profiles%20%2F%20Research%20Services%20-%20Other&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=84705822&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-_lUnzZUsZ5nQ_qvvlk0rvUwQo_oIPGAykuqokiFBZSz1s2GcATWzR5QlPtO9tLxYGvGjPr4yCt4hGF08UWS7vI8aw3fA&_hsmi=84705822. Retrieved 16.3.2020.

[ii] Harvard Business School (2020). How the Coronavirus Is Already Rewriting the Future of Business. In: https://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/how-the-coronavirus-is-already-rewriting-the-future-of-business. Retrieved 13.3.2020.

Photo: Unsplash

What is a tastefully decorated home?

Fiskars scissors, Moomin mugs and an Aalto vase? Maybe also striped towels from Marimekko and a stool with legs of bent plywood (be it Artek, or a replica). How about white kitchen cabinets, grey floor tiles in the bathroom, and one of those woven seagrass baskets, the ones with handles? A eucalyptus branch as decoration? The list continues, I keep on checking “yes, got it” item after item, amused at the realization that my home is indeed quite the cliché of Scandinavian modernism.

Such “Which of these items do you have in your home” lists have been circulating in both social and traditional interior decoration media. Apart from being just fun online tests, they also – in the eyes of a consumer researcher – illuminate some intriguing consumption phenomena. How come so many of us have all these same possessions in our homes? Even when we think that we make unique and personal choices and devote time and effort into making decisions about what we think looks good in our homes, the outcomes are surprisingly conformist. Why is that?

As a researcher, I have been trying to understand how we consume objects in the home through the concept of taste. That is, how we make judgements about aesthetic objects, what we prefer and what we find appropriate for a specific situation. What we find as tasteful versus bad taste. But to understand consumption, should we settle with the thought that “there is no accounting for taste”, that people’s tastes for consumption objects are just different and subjective, and thus rather impossible for a marketer to grip?

Not according to sociologists and culturally oriented consumer researchers, who claim that taste is a product of socialization, a practice, and a way for us to express social distinction through what, and also how, we consume. For instance, interiors that consist of just the “right” items can be judged as impersonal and catalogue-like, if they are not skilfully spiced up with the occasional second hand bargain or other item giving just that right personal tough, signalling the consumer’s ability to constitute a carefully curated combination of décor resources.

The social nature of taste practice is particularly visible in today’s media landscape where taste is to a lesser extent than before dictated by cultural authorities such as traditional lifestyle media like interior decoration magazines. Rather, various online platforms (Instagram, Pinterest, blogs and Facebook groups to name a few) have changed the field of taste-making, influence and persuasion, and allowed for the emergence of different taste regimes. Within such regimes, a specific aesthetic orientation – such as “Scandinavian modernism” I mentioned in the beginning, becomes collectively negotiated and reproduced by its members, through their choices of material objects for their homes (the “must have” products), in their doings (the ways to combine objects), and in the meanings they assign them.

Having done netnographic research of such consumption practices, one of the interesting things has been to notice how members often explicitly negotiate what “belongs” within the interior décor style in question and what doesn’t, which seems to support the theoretical idea of taste indeed being a social practice, where symbolic boundaries determine who does and does not belong to a group or class. For instance, if members post pictures from their homes with elements that are less aligned with the general understanding of Scandinavian modernism, like more colourful or decorative elements, the posters oftentimes do this in an almost apologetic manner (“This is not very Scandi-modern, but…) and at times, if members express willingness to sometimes see pictures of “something else than these white homes”, they may be hinted towards other aesthetic communities, such as groups for retro style decorators. In this sense, these ongoing and social taste practices give rise to very distinct market segments of home décor and furniture customers. And understanding these in sufficient depth is crucial knowledge for the marketing manager in this field.    

Anu Norrgrann
Assistant Professor

Further reading

Arsel, Z., & Bean, J. (2013). Taste regimes and market-mediated practice. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(5), 899-917.

Arsel, Z., & Bean, J. (2018). Social distinction and the practice of taste. In Arnould, E.A. & Thompson, C.J. (Eds) Consumer Culture Theory. London: Sage, 276-294.

Syrjälä, H., & Norrgrann, A. (2019). “When your dog matches your decor” Object agency of living and non-living entities in home assemblage. Consumer Culture Theory (Research in Consumer Behavior, Volume 20). Emerald Publishing Limited, 39-54.

Photos: Anu Norrgrann

The traditional internet forum: old but not forgotten

Our online activity is evolving and new forms of social media and online communication and interaction are constantly developing. Recent trends include, for example, continued growth of messaging platforms, the rise of augmented and virtual reality, TikTok’s rising popularity among Gen Z users, and increasing social (media) commerce. So, a lot of new exciting things are happening all across the Web. There is one type of online space, however, that seems to be largely forgotten: the traditional Internet forum.

Internet forums, or online message boards, have been around as long as the World Wide Web itself, but have seen a decline in popularity over the last decade or so. The main reason is of course the rise of social media. Much of the discussions online around shared interests, topics, or questions are now taking place on, for example, Facebook. So, why bother about Internet forums? Well, I think a lot of interesting stuff is still happening on the traditional Internet forums. In fact, I think many online message boards offer things to people that social media cannot, or at least struggles with.

Compared to social media, Internet forums typically have a superior level of organization, structure, searchability, continuity and last but not least, anonymity. And all these characteristics of the Internet forum can be really helpful and valuable for anybody in search of information about, or an interest to discuss, a certain topic or question. Some Internet forums have evolved into encyclopaedias of collected wisdom and knowledge and stretch as far back in time as 20 years. These forums also continue to be gold mines for marketing researchers and companies trying to understand consumers’ opinions, preferences, activities, and experiences.

A great example of an Internet forum that still sees a lot of activity is MacRumors. MacRumors has a very active community of Apple users that discuss everything from purchasing decisions to technical aspects across the entire array of Apple products. This particular forum has been around since 2000 and also features a great archive of old discussion threads. It is interesting to go back and read these old discussions and see, for example, how wrong initial consumer reactions can be.

As many of you might know, Steve Jobs introduction of the iPod in 2001 not only saved Apple from bankruptcy, but also set the company on a trajectory towards becoming the consumer electronics giant we know today. However, in a thread labelled “Apple’s New Thing (iPod)” a few loyal Apple fanboys of the day were quite sceptical of this new product:

This isn’t revolutionary!

I still can’t believe this! All this hype for something so ridiculous! Who cares about an MP3 player? I want something new! I want them to think differently!

Why oh why would they do this?! It’s so wrong! It’s so stupid!” – WeezerX80, posted October 23, 2001

No ***** Way

All that hype for an MP3 player? Break-thru digital device? The Reality Distortion Field is starting to warp Steve’s mind if he thinks for one second that this thing is gonna take off.” – nobody special, posted October 23, 2001

Of course, there were also a few positive reactions in the same discussion thread of the forum:

not that disappointing

The reason why everyone’s disappointed is because we had our hopes up for this incredible device that would do everything you could possibly use the word “digital” in and most of the things you can’t. The truth is that is really is revolutionary. 5 gigs? Where do you see 5 gigs in an Mp3 player?

If Apple had gone with something completely and utterly new, it would probably go down the hole that the cube and the newton went down… they were ahead of their time, and suffered because of it. Apple can’t have another disaster like the Cube, so they decided to stay just a bit ahead of the game. As long as apple markets it effectively, I think it’s gonna do really well.

The product really looks great, give it a chance guys!” – greatm31, posted October 23, 2001

Wow! Great Job Apple!

This is not like any other MP3 player on the market, imagine being able to store several days worth of music at once! The iPod will be great for travelers, students, heck anyone who is really into music.” – schmoe, posted October 23, 2001

Now, the really exciting thing is that we could, in the same way, backtrack the buzz and customer sentiment on this forum following literally every product launch made by Apple since 2000. It might not give us insights as to which products will fail or succeed in the future, but could definitely further our understanding of topics such as customer loyalty, e-word-of-mouth (WOM), customer feedback, customer acceptance of innovations, customer buying behaviour, customer engagement, customer perceptions, emotions and attitudes. Internet forums in their traditional forms might slowly be dying, but they arguable still have a lot to offer to observant marketing and consumer researchers.

Gustav Medberg
Postdoctoral Researcher

P.S. For anybody interested in qualitative marketing research online, I recommend learning more about the method “Netnography”.

References

https://forums.macrumors.com/

Heinonen, K. and Medberg, G. (2018), “Netnography as a tool for understanding customers: implications for service research and practice”, Journal of Services Marketing, Vol. 32 No. 6, pp. 657-679.

Kozinets, R.V. (2019), Netnography: The Essential Guide to Qualitative Social Media Research, 3rd Edition, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA

Photos: Unsplash