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

My Friday Bun Experience

It is a rainy Friday morning in January, with heavy grey skies. The wind rips my clothes and the rain feels like needles against my face. It is one of those days you’d rather not have gone out at all. I am on my way to a business meeting, and I‘ve got a few minutes to spare. What to do?

Conveniently, there is a café just around the corner. Their ad board by the entrance stating their promise catches my eye: “With us, Friday feels a bun crumb better off”. I wonder what it means, but at least there is a promise of a Friday feeling embedded. Cosy and homey comes to my mind.

Weekend … Friday! The best day of the week. A Friday promise always feels nice. Surely, I am worth a bun! It is Friday after all, and the workweek is almost done. Early weekend celebration. And I’ve got time. I step inside and immediately sense a nice and warm atmosphere. I feel instantly better. Maybe a bun crumb better off. Lounge music is playing quietly and some of the customers are working with their laptops, while sipping their coffees and munching on their … Friday buns.

The employee at the counter greets me friendly, and smiles. “Would you like to start your weekend with a nice cinnamon bun,” she asks me and chitchats something nice about the (awful) weather. A cosy vibe settles over me. I go for the bun. Indeed, now I feel many bun crumbs better off than a few minutes ago. Clearly, the café has done their promise gym. The employee knows what she is doing. Says and dos are aligned.

That is not always the case. On a daily basis, we as customers are targeted by a myriad of promises companies make. Brand promises, service promises, sustainability promises… The list is long. All these promises that more often than not fail to be kept. Unfortunately, research shows that this is the name of the contemporary marketing game. And of course, as marketers we know that marketing is, among other things, about making promises. But, also about keeping them, and in practice that is often the tough part.

Promises are often fuzzy and vague. Such as: “The best service in the field,“ innovative service solutions” or “better than our competitors”. What we as customers expect, based on these promises, varies but research shows that customers expect that companies live up to what they promise. Today companies overpromise heavily. I had a good Friday bun experience. I felt many bun crumbs better off afterwards. Even if my expectation at first was fuzzy, my experience became exact to the bun crumb point better off.  

Research shows that employees want to deliver service that is aligned with what the firm promises.  Imagine yourself in the role of an employee. What does the best service in the field really mean? How am I to keep a promise that feels unclear, confusing or fuzzy to myself? Promises of the fuzzy kind do seldom motivate employees to perform accordingly: In my case the employee clearly did know how to contribute to my experience.  Plus, she seemed motivated and happy. This made me feel many bun crumbs better off.

Research shows that employees want authentic, honest and keepable promises.

Research shows that employees want authentic, honest and keepable promises. Employees prefer promises that describe actual activities and atmospheres in customer interaction. Research also shows that employees want to participate in promise design. This does, in their view, ensure authentic promises that are aligned with service activities and vibes, such as being a bun crumb better off. At best, employee co-active participation in promise design will result in promises that have an authentic energy embedded. Promises that communicate the actual feelings and vibes companies want to expose to their customers.  

I have been chewing this “bun crumb better off” promise quite a bit and have come to the conclusion that it is a nice, small and indeed a rather precise promise.  In its fuzziness and smallness. A promise the employee seemed motivated to live up to.

If you are interested to know more about employees’ motivation to align with promises and value propositions, please read our article: Liewendahl, H.E.,  and Heinonen, K., “Frontline Employees’ Motivation to Align with Value Proposition” in Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, ISSN: 0885-8624, Publication date: 13 February 2020.

Helena Liewendahl
PhD, Service-strategy pedagogue

Photo: Unsplash

What’s up with all this data?

“The easier it is to quantify, the less it’s worth”  – Seth Godin

Can you spend a day without your phone, or would you be less smart without techy gadgets, maybe less capable? 

Our brain certainly has limits in holding information and in representing reality with restricted sensory inputs and processing capabilities. 

Information technology certainly extends our abilities and reflects important scientific advances when assisting us in better discerning cause and effect and in supporting optimal decision-making. 

A primary way it works is through the seamless generation, combination and processing of new information. But just as the brain is constrained by its capacity to sense and process information, our technological artefacts are similarly limited by the type of information generated as well as the processing logics they are programmed into.  

The following portrays some criticism of information technology, specifically focusing on the ‘datafication’ of our experiences and the algorithmic representation of phenomena. The idea is not to paint a sombre picture but to help maintain course in rapid socio-technical evolution.

Firstly, do the digital tentacles capture all corners of our society?

Smart technologies such as AI, IoT, machine learning, robotics and automated systems promise to deliver on efficiency and responsiveness, but it looks like they might be further exacerbating the “unequal distribution of digital benefits in their design and implementation” (Park & Humphry, 2019, p. 935). 

It’s not only that access to digital services is largely intertwined with socio-economic status, but service providers often lean towards relatively normative and simplified user responses when training their algorithms, with AI-learning often being skewed towards the majority (Park & Humphry, 2019).  

Should we then be comfortable with AI solutions doing things like screening applications for jobs, for bank loans or insurance?

To what extent can or does data depict an accurate representation of existing realities?

From a phenomenological perspective, no single view can ever be complete, as the perception of a referent is altered by its relationship to context and to juxtaposed voids. We can never enumerate all possible views, but we can’t design with a singular viewpoint in mind.

Monteiro & Parmiggiani (2019) demonstrate the limits of what they call ‘synthetic knowing’ with a longitudinal case study of digitally-rendered environmental monitoring by an oil and gas company operating in the politically contested Arctic. They reveal how knowing is politically charged, and how sensors and algorithms increasingly represent phenomenological reality, ‘configurable’ to the guise of profit-making stakeholders. 

With liquification into digital materiality, real-time knowing can become an algorithmic phenomenon, and the debate is ongoing on whether enough credibility is warranted to base consequential decisions on.

Skewed algorithmic representation of people and environments may constrain the intelligence of our services and decision-making, but there is a close corollary when it comes to how we personally construct our daily experiences, particularly when dealing with digital representations of our own selves.

An example of ‘datafication’ of the self is found in the context of self-tracking technologies such as fitness apps and smart wearables which abound in a growing ‘healthist’ culture, both in the private and organizational domains. 

Measurement of activities like running or leisure time, and measurement of internal states such as cardiovascular performance, sleep, caloric intake, stress, etc., is meant to support users in monitoring, managing, and achieving desired performance levels.

What are possible implications of having a ‘quantified self’ on the definition of self, and consequently, on one’s lived experience?

The bright side of the discourse reports feelings of empowerment and control, growing self-awareness, as well as initial spikes in interest and engagement.

However, Kristensen & Ruckenstein (2018) point out that initial intensification of experience, feelings of liberation, and developed inner sensitivity may later become limiting in terms of self-experience. Of the reasons proposed is the notion of amplification that the data may bring to certain aspects of the self at the expense of others.

An augmented or a reduced experience?

What are possible implications of having a ‘quantified self’ on the definition of self, and consequently, on one’s lived experience?

From a psychoanalytic perspective, Andrieu (2015) argues that the ontological discontinuity between the ‘living person’, the ‘living person as reflected by the data’ (i.e. the quantified self), and the ‘lived experience’, reflects a distinction between 3 levels of self-knowledge. 

Compared to transformation by ‘normal’ knowing of oneself, technology-mediated self-transformation doesn’t take place only through self-examination by one’s consciousness. It happens via a ‘confrontation’ between one’s lived self and the data reflected by tracking technology.

Andrieu indeed poses some pertinent questions on whether this is a new form of ‘bio-power’, or a mode of subjectivation (i.e. a redefinition of the self); is it the ‘living self’ that is reflected, or the ‘living self as transformed by the digital self’? 

To illustrate, well-being, which was once qualitative and in a way, non-communicable, becomes numeric and translatable under the illusion of correspondence between one’s lived physical condition and the digital self – is it then one’s felt well-being, or is it one’s wellbeing-as-mediated-by-the-data? 

Like the above-mentioned limitations of datafication in our services, ‘algorithms of the skin’ and a particular ‘bio-pedagogy’ further reinforce certain desirable profiles of health and physical education (Ardieu, 2015). Here, the consequences relate to how we perceive and manage our bodies and lifestyles, in addition to the recurring concern of people having access to the resources needed to perform up to measure. 

In a nutshell, technological dependence may compromise the self-governance of one’s own body.

This runs counter to the ethos of ‘embodied experience’ where we must learn to rediscover our experiences through a more holistic integration of mind, body and emotion.

In a world of constant distraction, we are easily alienated from ourselves. It is no surprise that we end up serving other people’s agendas, working tirelessly like a cog in a machine (Godin, 2010).

But ‘living by the numbers’ can be counterbalanced by ‘living with the numbers’ in what Pantzar & Ruckenstein (2017) optimistically describe as a milieu of open-endedness and reflexivity.

In concluding, it is advisable to be attuned, even wary, of the man-made things that mediate between the world and our consciousness.

Technology can be fascinating in augmenting our ability to internalize the world, and to externalize the mind. But we need to find that sweet spot in our quest for optimization, to make sure it doesn’t over-rationalize our institutions.

Fares Khalil
Doctoral Student

References

Godin, S. (2010). Linchpin: Are you indispensable?. New York: Portfolio.

Monteiro, E., and Parmiggiani, E. (2019). Synthetic knowing: The politics of the internet of things. MIS Quarterly: Management Information Systems, 43(1), pp. 167-184.

Ng, I.C.L. and Wakenshaw, S.Y.L. (2017). The Internet-of-Things: Review and research directions. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 34(1), pp. 3-21.

Pantzar, M., & Ruckenstein, M. (2017). Living the metrics: Self-tracking and situated objectivity. Digital Health.

Park, S. and Humphry, J. (2019). Exclusion by design: intersections of social, digital and data exclusion. Information, Communication & Society, 22(7), pp. 934-953

Photos: Unsplash

What is it like being a PhD student at Hanken?

The application round for PhD studies at Hanken is now open, and closes on February 5th. If you are thinking of applying, please first check out the official information at Hanken’s web site: https://www.hanken.fi/en/apply/phd-programme.

Since official information packages may get overwhelming at times, I would like to provide an insider perspective from the Department of Marketing regarding what it’s like to be a PhD student at Hanken.

I’m now in my fourth, and hopefully final year of writing my dissertation. Since I started the program directly after graduating with my MSc degree, many of my peers have gone on to work in other kinds of jobs in the industry. Naturally, they are sometimes curious about what my experience has been like as someone who stayed in academia. On that note, I want to share my answers to some of the most frequently asked questions I get. Hopefully, this will shed some light on PhD student life (spoiler alert – it is certainly different in comparison to MSc studies!). However, bear in mind that my perspective might be a little bit different compared to students from other departments.

What have been the best things about your work?
In general, being part of a community of marketing scholars has been very inspiring. This includes not only my colleagues at Hanken, but also members of the international community, as I have attended a few conferences within my research domain. Conference travel has been a great way to meet likeminded people, getting a glimpse of the latest research within the field and getting the opportunity to travel abroad a couple of times a year.

What has been the most challenging thing for you?
This may be an obvious answer, but research itself brings the biggest challenges in my opinion, since the review processes for scientific article manuscripts are surprisingly time consuming. Once a paper is submitted, or even accepted for review by a scientific journal, it is far from finished and being published. In the worst-case scenario, getting a paper published may take years. So far, I have experienced the thrill of having papers accepted for review but have also had to deal with papers not being selected, which does happen to most academics at some point.

Where do you work physically?
I don’t work in the main university building, since the Department of Marketing is in a separate building next to it called Arkadia. For me, this was a welcome change when I started three years ago, since I had spent most of my days in the main building during my BSc and MSc studies. We do have some meetings, seminars and courses in the main building, and there is also a student cafeteria offering an affordable lunch every day. Working from home is possible on occasion, which I find helpful when I want to concentrate on writing.

Is teaching included in your work?
At Hanken, up to 5% of the work may include teaching assistance, which I have enjoyed a lot as a contrast to research. In my case, the work has included guest lecturing about my thesis topic, supervising BSc and MSc students writing their theses, as well as grading exams and other coursework.

How are you paid for the work you do?
Hanken currently offers a 2-year employment contract for full-time PhD students – that is, half of the typical 4-year process. Since I am beyond that timeframe already, I have been granted financial support from external foundations (in my specific case, the Marcus Wallenberg Foundation and the Foundation of Economic Education – but there are multiple options depending on the research field in which one works). Hence, an important part of the PhD process here is to apply for funding for completing the thesis. Hanken has, thankfully, provided support for how to write funding applications, and from my experience, it was a lot less scary or difficult than what it seemed like at first. The greatest challenge for me was to learn how to write about research in a way that non-academics may resonate with.

I hope my perspective gives some new insight for those wishing to apply to Hanken’s PhD programme, or those who are curious about PhD studies in general. I would be happy to answer any additional questions from those who are curious.

Sonja Sarasvuo
Doctoral Student

sonja.sarasvuo@hanken.fi

To the moon and back – how collaboration drives breakthrough innovation

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” This quote supposedly coined by Henry Ford has never been truer than what it is today. The greater the challenge, the bigger the need for multi-disciplinary collaboration. President Kennedy famously initiated Project Apollo not only because of the American ideological and geopolitical race against the Soviets but also because he wanted to create a national project so big, that it could only be solved through seamless cooperation of a vast amount of organizations and brilliant minds from across society. Some years later, 1969, man landed on the Moon (and got back safely) and in the process of this human spaceflight program emerged a number of life-changing unintended innovations, such as water purification, breathing masks, polymer fabric, and cordless devices.

Today, ecosystems, platforms, collaboration, and network effects are some of the key words on the lips of researchers and practitioners alike globally. While the forms and stakeholders involved in business ecosystems are likely to be different, it is generally recognized that networking across disciplines and sectors is needed for innovation and future business resilience. Although they all have their own specific roles to play, the lines between businesses, public sector institutions, and third-sector organizations are blurring and all stakeholders including higher education are increasingly positioning themselves as part of society. 

Organizations are no longer only comparing themselves in relation to their respective competitive environments. Many argue that we are witnessing the dawn of a new era in the interaction between businesses and their stakeholders and societies. The list of examples is long and growing: the Financial Times initiative to redefine capitalism; the Business Roundtable stance on the roles of companies in relation to their stakeholders; the European Commission initiated University Business Cooperation programs to foster societal innovation and entrepreneurship; the Science Based Targets Initiative developed by the UN and citizen organisations to support companies in their emission reduction pledges.

It is generally recognized that networking across disciplines and sectors is needed for innovation and future business resilience.

New markets and business platforms emerge as a reaction to this new era and are powered by opportunities provided by digitalization and scalable technologies. This development is driving all organizations to rethink their strategies and visions through strategic partnerships. As a consequence, we are witnessing closer collaboration between business and academic stakeholders. Companies are turning to universities for crowdsourcing and innovation ventures together with multidisciplinary research teams. Similarly, researchers and scientists are looking for relevance in their research and access to in-depth market data.

A recent EU-funded project indicated that university-business collaboration initiatives foster the strategic mission of universities; provide a closer connection between education, research and innovation; respond to the evolving needs of the labour market; improve the quality of human resources, and facilitate the flow of knowledge transfer from universities to companies, regions and society at large. My own collaboration with large companies and research centres in Finland such as the KONE Corporate, Fiskars Group and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland support these findings. As Senator Fulbright – the initiator of the Fulbright program for international exchange – put it: “Of all the joint ventures in which we might engage, the most productive, in my view, is educational exchange”. Being a Fulbright alumnus myself from the University of Massachusetts, I can certainly concur with the importance of educational exchange between different, sometimes unplanned connections.

50 years after Apollo we are again confronted with a daunting task – combat the effects of climate change, and rethink and redesign the ways in which we go about our daily lives. This can only be done by mimicking the collaborative and concentrated efforts five decades ago. Successful innovators ask new kinds of questions, seek actively for new types of collaboration forms, and look broadly for new forms of impact. Curious and collaboration-seeking researchers and business leaders will play a pivotal role in the change ahead.

My best collaboration wishes for the New Year and many inspiring new ventures!

Kristina Heinonen
Professor, Director of CERS

Let less be more in 2020!

It’s that time of the year again – when we are about to take a break and spend a hopefully relaxing and energy-charging Christmas holiday with those closest and dearest to us. It’s also the time of the year when we can make sound choices with what we give to others, wish from others for ourselves, what we choose to do and where, what we eat, etc. Now it is truly the time to deliberate and make smart sustainable choices to prioritise quality, authentic, local, and personalised options.

At the core here is being aware of our habits – breaking those that are not sustainable and adopting those that are. Let me remind you of the classic R’s of sustainability that can help to identify what habits you could have more, in the new year. Reconsider if you really need the stuff you are considering to get, Reduce the stuff you have and believe you need, Reuse and Recycle to avoid single use items and sort, Replenish and Refill whenever possible, Rethink before you buy stuff for you and others, Replant, Restore and Recover to avoid causing damage to the world, Rot i.e. compost food waste, Reinvent to engage in divergent/out-of-the-box thinking and view your actions from different perspectives, and Respect the world and ecosystem around us and think about any effects your actions might have. I am sure that we all can do more at least of Reconsidering, Reducing, Restoring and Respecting, in the coming year.

What I am sure that we also in the new year could strive for is a healthy work-life balance.

What I am sure that we also in the new year could strive for is a healthy work-life balance. Wouldn’t it be nice to continue or finally achieve a sound balance between personal life, professional life, and family life? For many of us that would mean devoting more time in the new year to the things that in the end matter the most. It would basically mean living a simpler life with fewer belongings, having shorter work hours, stronger relationships and more social interactions, spending less and consciously, and choosing products that are practical, well made, and environmentally friendly.

Now there is an excellent opportunity to start doing some or all of the above in case you up until now mainly have been just thinking about them. Choose what you want to do, keep the good reasons in mind, be realistic and start with smaller steps, think about potential obstacles in advance and come up with solutions for how to deal with them, talk about your new habits with others, learn more, and if you experience a setback, then try again. Remember, you are not only sustainable and climate smart, but you will also introduce possibilities and time for new experiences and improve the quality of your life in 2020.

Wishing all CERS friends a Magical Holiday Season and a Wonderful New Year 2020!

If you want to read more and for information on what websites I used please see for example:

Maria Holmlund-Rytkönen
Professor