By John Easton
I consider myself extremely lucky that I first met Sidney Levy very early on in my time in the field, literally during my first week as a visiting scholar at the Kellogg School of Management in the fall of 2001.
The context was a special conference held at the University of Chicago, to which Rob Kozinets had invited me. The conference celebrated a legendary group of young researchers called Social Research, Incorporated (SRI), and how, together with his colleagues Harriet Moore, Lee Rainwater and others, Sidney revolutionized the field of marketing research in the 1950s - as a graduate student (!).
Sidney, John Sherry, Grant McCracken (whom I also met there for the first time that day) and many others gave powerful keynotes. And University of Chicago Magazine journalist John Easton presented an impressive historical overview piece on SRI and Sidney's role in it, which he has generously allowed me to republish here.
Young researchers who are interested in consumer culture and sociology often ask what our exact relationship is with the marketplace and with marketing in the organization and as a larger discipline, and so did I that day. There is not one answer to this question for sure. But what Sidney's time with SRI reminds us of is what amazing things can happen when we dialogue with practitioners and when we understand marketing as a big tent of people and ideas, as Sidney did.
Focus groups, brand image, and other staples of modern advertising all sprang from the work of a group of Chicago social scientists. These pioneering market researchers used tools from psychology, anthropology, and sociology to study a once-neglected topic: why people buy stuff.
BEER, ACCORDING TO EXPERTS, "is not a prestige item." There's nothing distinctive or exclusive about it. Cheap and widely available, it does not require stylish, single-task glassware, like Champagne flutes or brandy snifters, but can be consumed from plastic mugs, recycled jelly jars, even straight from the can or bottle.
Regular beer drinkers, social scientists agree, "do not fall all over themselves" to imitate high society. They rarely dress for the occasion. They may not even wear shirts. They drink beer to quench their thirst, to relax, to grease the wheels of social interaction and unleash spontaneity.
Beer "marks the absence of power relations, authority, or social striving," says the foremost study of the subject. Beer advertisements that cater to status seekers-depicting sophisticates in elegant settings and formal attire, sipping this chilled, golden beverage while basking in the good life-evoke only hostility among beer drinkers. "Oh, the Ritzy Bitches like beer" is a typical response, or "I'll bet one stinking glass of beer costs half a buck in a place like that."
As the price reveals, this is not a recent study. But what students of consumption now call the "use code" of beer hasn't changed much since a cluster of curious Chicago social scientists, assisted by a handful of graduate students and 350 hard-drinking Chicagoans, probed the beer-buying world in the early 1950s.
The researchers belonged to a small firm called Social Research, Incorporated-SRI for short-housed in the Hyde Park Bank building on 53rd Street. They veered off from the University in 1946 to form the company almost by accident, when a series of coincidences and opportunities made a venture into the commercial world seem like a very good idea indeed.
Over the next two decades SRI helped to revolutionize the field of market research, transforming its assumptions, methods, goals, and consequences in ways that quickly redirected the world of advertising and slowly, very slowly, made consumption-"the most studied single phenomenon in American life," according to Andrew Abbott, AM'75, PhD'82, chair of sociology at Chicago-a focus of purely academic inquiry.
The SRI team did it by applying social-science techniques to what was then a neglected topic: why people buy stuff. The researchers were among the first to adapt tools developed by anthropologists for the study of primitive societies and use them to investigate modern industrial communities. They borrowed personality tests invented by psychologists to probe the meaning of purchasing decisions. And they applied evolving notions of social status, mobility, and class aspirations to understand what buying, owning, and displaying consumer goods meant. In its short life SRI left a lasting impact on theworld of market research, influences still felt in everything from the absolute devotion to "brand image," to reliance on focus groups, to academic study of the meanings of consumption.
Market research, up until the end of World War II, consisted almost entirely of crunching census data to determine how much of a given product how many customers might buy. Shaped by the Depression, the field used simple demographics to gauge often-limited demand for specific products and to measure response to advertisements. As production capacity and buying power increased, researchers began to look for ways to stimulate new rather than measure existing demand. "Our problem," summarized a senator from Wisconsin, "is not too much cheese produced, but rather too little cheese consumed." One component of the post-war effort to peddle more cheddar was to shift research away from how much consumers could be expected to eat toward what made them hungry-and how to make them hungrier-a field that was dubbed motivation research.
"This is a completely different kind of research," noted the introduction to SRI's Study of Consumer Attitudes on Beer and Beer Advertising. "Instead of counting noses, this is diagnostic research. The analyst is trained to look for basic attitudes, just as a doctor looks for symptoms." As social scientists, SRI looked for the social meanings of beer. "The attitudes of different class levels toward beer," was its driving focus, along with "the impact of typical beer advertising on different classes."
The new approach-finding the unconscious, intuitive, emotional factors that drive consumption at each class level and grafting the most alluring of those factors onto the product-caught on. By the mid-1950s most major advertising agencies had hired motivation-research consultants or had recruited teams of "whiskers" from academia. "More and more advertising and marketing strategists are adapting their sales campaigns to the psychologists' findings," noted the Wall Street Journal in 1954. "Top-drawer advertising agencies," echoed the trade magazine Printer's Ink, "favor the increased use of social sciences."
The commercial success of motivation research soon provoked a backlash. In 1957, journalist Vance Packard sounded a very public alarm in The Hidden Persuaders, a book that plumbed the moral depths of depth analysis and mass marketing while selling more than 500,000 copies, enough to make it No. 1 on nonfiction best-seller lists for six weeks.
"The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multi-million dollar industry," Packard told his readers. "Large scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences." These "awesome" psychological tools and "ingenious" anthropological techniques have been designed by a "breed of persuaders known in the trade as the depth boys," he warned. "Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize."
Motivation research was selling us not just goods but also political candidates, social attitudes, career and personal goals, or states of mind. "We move into the chilling world of George Orwell and his Big Brother as we explore some of the extreme attempts at probing and manipulating now going on," Packard wrote, a world where the consumer, the citizen, and the voter "more and more is treated like Pavlov's conditioned dog."
A caricature of the depth boys even made it into the movies. Putney Swope, Robert Downey's 1969 dark comedy about the advertising business, opens with a presentation by Dr. Alvin Weasely, billed as "one of the most respected motivational researchers in the world." He has been called in to help a Madison Avenue advertising agency boost sales for an unpopular brew by explaining the unconscious motives of beer drinkers. "Beer," Weasely pronounces, "is for men who doubt their masculinity. That's why it's so popular at sporting events and poker games. On a superficial level," he continues, "a glass of beer is a cool, soothing beverage. But in reality, a glass of beer is pee-pee dickie."
Though filled with the unexpected, SRI's own in-depth consumer studies of everything from soap to soap operas, department stores to lumber yards, and alcohol, tobacco, and fast cars, were never that shocking or implausible. Its researchers were grounded by a commitment to serious social research, access to the latest tools of academic social science, and the bias of the founders toward social class, not psychological factors, as the basis for understanding consumer decisions.
The late-1940s and 1950s were an odd time to fixate on social class. "The prevailing post-war view," said Kim A. Weeden, assistant professor of sociology at Chicago, speaking at a campus conference last fall about SRI and the history of consumer research, "was that class divisions in America were gradually disappearing." Many social scientists believed that, with increasing affluence, the different classes were converging in their culture, lifestyle, values, and standard of living, but, said Weeden, "there were of course exceptions."
Perhaps the most noticeable of the exceptions was a social scientist named Lloyd Warner-SRI's founder and by all accounts its generative intellect. Warner, who joined the U of C as a sociology professor in 1935, had taught SRI's other two founders, Burleigh Gardner and William Henry, PhD'44. An anthropologist by training, he'd spent three years as a graduate student doing field work in Australia, scrutinizing the social structure of an aboriginal tribe. But he grew less interested in "primitives" and increasingly convinced that the tools of social anthropology might better be applied to modern American society-an idea that would not become popular until the 1970s.
"His platform," recalls SRI colleague Lee Rainwater, AM'51, PhD'54, "was that all human life partakes of the same basic species behavior." If so, then the tools used to understand sacred tribal rituals or daily routines should work just as well to understand the Fourth of July or breakfast cereal. When Warner returned to the U.S. in 1929 to take a position at Harvard, he decided not to finish his dissertation on kinship among aborigines thousands of miles away but to focus instead on the social systems of a nearby small town.
He quickly became involved in his "Yankee City" project. With 18 fieldworkers, mostly volunteers, Warner spent four years (1930-34) studying Newburyport, Massachusetts, using versions of the methods he had mastered while working with a primitive tribe: observation, close analysis of social networks, and unstructured interviews that allowed the subjects to wander wherever their interests led.
The result was five books, the Yankee City series. The first volume, The Social Life of a Modern Community (1941), emphasized the role of social class as the basic structuring principle of urban society, as powerful as kinship among Australian tribes. Unlike the Marxist view, Warner's definition of class was based less on how people got money and more on how they spent it. The means of production had given way to the meanings of consumption.
"In Yankee City," notes Michael Karesh, AM'95, whose well-researched sociology master's thesis on SRI has triggered a revival of interest in the group, "different social classes were distinguished not simply by income but by different goods, behaviors, values, and points of view. To achieve upward mobility an individual not only had to earn more money or buy better goods, but perceive, value, and use goods in a different way. The shiny new Cadillac of the upper-lower class was no substitute for the history-laden house and furniture of the upper-upper class. To Warner, these symbols marked the various social positions in a way that both sustained the social structure and, for some individuals, allowed mobility within it."
In his small-town studies and later in a study of Chicago financed by the Chicago Tribune, Warner split the population into six classes-from upper-upper to lower-lower-a rough formula followed by most sociologists. Although his work created only a "respectful stir in academic circles," wrote Packard, it churned merchandising circles to a frenzy and "came to be regarded as a milestone in the sociological approach to the consumer."
BY THE TIME the first Yankee City volume appeared, Warner had been lured away from Harvard by Chicago's greater enthusiasm for interdisciplinary work. He was followed by Burleigh Gardner, a country boy from Texas who had come to Harvard to study anthropology and wound up working on the Yankee City studies. Described by Packard as a "mop-haired, slow-speaking, amiable man," Gardner was ill at ease with scholarly pretensions and preferred life on the fringes of academe. But in 1942 he was enticed into teaching in Chicago's newly created Committee on Human Relations in Industry.
After reeling Gardner in, Warner stepped halfway out, to consult for a new company, the Office for the Study of Social Communication. Despite its scholarly name, the OSSC was started by a greeting-card magnate to learn more about his customers. Warner and another former graduate student, William Henry, adapted a series of the "projective" tests then in use as a way to ferret out the card consumers' unconscious motives, dividing buyers into 12 distinct personality profiles.
When those studies were finished, the OSSC dissolved, but in 1946-this time with backing from Sears, Roebuck-Warner and Gardner formed their own consulting group, SRI, to help companies investigate employee and customer attitudes. They brought in Henry, who had joined the Chicago faculty in 1944, to run the psychological testing. Gardner, who had quickly tired of academic politics and meetings, resigned from the University to become SRI's executive director.
It was the ideal arrangement, argues Karesh. Informally connected but formally separate from the University, SRI could "acquire the latest conceptual and methodological tools in the social sciences and apply them to commercial ends."
The company quickly made a name for itself in the emerging field of consumer motivation research, pulling together Gardner's interest in commercial applications of social science, Henry's expertise in psychoanalytic testing, and Warner's faith in the crucial importance of social class.
As "senior consultants," Warner and Henry spent most of their time on campus, and Gardner devoted himself to courting new clients and writing articles for advertising periodicals. The quotidian work was done by the firm's junior members, grad students from human development and sociology who needed the money at a time when there was little funding for graduate study in the social sciences.
One of the first students on board, Harriet Moore, became director of research, supervising staff training and study design and providing "much of the intellectual force in [SRI's] day-to-day operation," according to Sidney Levy, PhB'46, AM'48, PhD'56, another insolvent grad student who arrived at SRI in 1948. By the early 1950s, the core staff was in place. Moore, Levy, and Lee Rainwater, who came in 1950, formed a close trio. Key members Ira Glick, AM'51, PhD'57; Richard Coleman, PhD'59; and others soon followed. The professional staff never grew very large, however, topping out at 17 in 1957.
The period, said Levy, was "the most exciting and intensely absorbing in my life. We lived SRI from breakfast until bedtime, brooding over methods and data gathering and seeking penetrating insights."
"Much of the excitement," notes Karesh, "followed from the feeling on the part of those involved that they were part of a pioneering team composed of brilliant minds exploring new intellectual terrain." Because Gardner had a tendency to accept assignments without knowing whether SRI could perform them, its members had to be especially creative. "New concepts and methods were generated internally," says Karesh, "or borrowed from the University and then combined and applied in novel ways."
"We did the first qualitative study for the Coca-Cola company," Levy recalled, "on why people drink soft drinks; the first qualitative study for AT&T on the meaning of the telephone. For the Wrigley Company we studied what baseball meant to Cubs fans. A study for FTD, the flower delivery system, analyzed the poignancy of flowers as symbolic of the life cycle, representing and celebrating its beauty and fragility and the inevitability of death."
The basic approach, said Levy, began with the so-called depth interview, a free-style open-ended conversation. Sometimes SRI researchers also interviewed two of three people at a time, or even larger groups, a technique now known as focus groups. "Within this more or less non-directive approach we embedded various projective devices," he recalled, including variants on such clinical techniques as the TAT, the Rorschach, sentence completion, word association, draw a person, "and even the curious Szondi test," now discredited, in which an individual was shown eight photographic portraits and asked to choose the person he would most, and least, like to sit next to on a long trip. The twist was that each picture portrayed a person with a major psychiatric disorder. A subject's selection was thought to reveal something about the chooser's psychological needs.
The hallmark of SRI was its compulsion to assess the social status of every subject. "We took pictures of people's houses and living rooms," said Levy. "We sent interviewers to spend whole days observing. We classified all our respondents so we could examine the effects of social class on consumer behavior. And we taught our clients about social stratification and the structure of American society."
SRI WAS NOT THE NATION'S first motivation research firm. There was a rival New York academic group, the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Led by Paul Lazarsfeld, a psychiatrist and mathematician from Vienna, BASR was closely tied to Columbia University. Lazarsfeld, arguably the field's first scholar, began writing about the psychology of market research as early as 1934. But he got there "too early" for commercial success, suspects Karesh. The research tools and the market weren't ready. BASR survived into the 1960s but never developed SRI's commitment to clients or freedom from university bureaucracy. It didn't help that its best-known project was the Edsel.
One of Lazarsfeld's students had better timing. Ernest Dichter came to the U.S. from Vienna in 1938. In 1946, after a series of jobs, he started his own consumer research firm, the Institute for Motivation Research. By the early 1950s the firm's success could be seen in its glitzy headquarters, a 30-room, hilltop mansion just up the Hudson from Manhattan. By 1956 it had conducted more than 500 studies, and by 1964 more than 2,500. Dichter, "a jaunty, exuberant, balding man," who called himself Mr. Mass Motivation, was the prime player in Packard's book, bragging that he maintained a standby "psycho-panel" of several hundred families, "whose members have been carefully charted as to their emotional make up."
The Chicago version of Dichter was Louis Cheskin, director of the Color Research Institute of America. Cheskin claimed to have begun motivational research in 1935, when he backed into the field from the area of package design, where he emphasized the role of color. (We have him to thank for tinted toilet tissue.) His most famous contribution was the sex change he performed for Marlboro cigarettes. The brand was originally designed to appeal to women, with red paper to mask lipstick smears. But far more men smoked. So Cheskin designed a manly package and helped devise an ad campaign based on "man-sized flavor," featuring rugged men, mostly cowboys on horses. The men all had tattoos, to lend them a "virile and interesting-past look." The ads still run. And Cheskin Research, now headquartered in Redwood Shores, California, still exists.
While Dichter and Cheskin were all business, most staff at SRI, despite the income that came with commercial success, remained scholars at heart. "As social scientists," recalled Levy, "we were not content just to write proprietary research reports for our clients. We thought about the larger implications of our specific research projects," publishing regularly and presenting at scholarly conferences.
In combining commercial and academic pursuits, SRI managed to unite two formerly unconnected words into a phrase that ultimately defined consumer research, and has shaped marketing ever since. Levy officially coined the term "brand image" for an article he and Gardner wrote in 1955 at the request of the Harvard Business Review. They defined it as the "sets of ideas, feelings and attitudes that consumers have about brands." But the term also took in consumer impressions about who might be expected to buy the product and what buying it told the world about the owner.
"Each product or brand exists in people's minds as a symbolic entity," recalled Levy, "an integrated result of all their experiences with it in the marketplace." This meant that advertisements could no longer just be about the merits of a product or about price but had to enhance the product's aura. They were "an investment in the long-run reputation of the brand." Like a good Chicago student, Levy traced this notion back to three sources: Plato's concept of an idealized form, William James's musings on the social self as a consequence of recognition by others, and his own study of the pert and perky personality of Betty Crocker, a kitchen-bound homemaker who existed only as a picture on General Mills packaging.
The first SRI report to mention brand image was "Automobiles-What They Mean to Americans," a 1954 study commissioned by the Chicago Tribune and instantly scooped up by contemporary marketing journals. This was SRI's optimal subject. "The American prizes his car above every possession," proclaimed Pierre Martineau, director of research at the Tribune and a fervent advocate of motivation research. "No other consumer good at the time," argues Karesh, "was more heavily laden with symbolic qualities."
The report was the first study to delve into what a product revealed about those who bought it. "We fit people into slots by the kind of cars they drive," notes the report. "The automobile has come to be one of the most important ways we have of revealing characteristics and feelings and motives. The car tells what we want to be-or think we are."
The researchers found that a product's personality could be just as important as performance or price. In fact, very few consumers in the study, mostly lower-class men, had any real interest in the technical aspect of new cars. Rather, the buying process came down to "an interaction between the personality of the car and the personality of the individual."
The researchers presented personality profiles for 18 domestic cars, assessing the social status associated with each and combining that with personality factors tied to make, color, and accessories, rating cars for prestige and ability to attract attention-and how they did so. Was a car overtly ostentatious, fairly flashy, slightly stylish, or consciously inconspicuous?
Take the Cadillac, "America's dream car." Cadillac conferred the highest status, offered the most luxury, was seen as the best built of any U.S. automobile. On the down side, many people resented it as too snobbish or snooty. It was the car for new money, for those who needed the status boost, especially "people of deprived origins." The truly rich, SRI reported, the upper-upper class, wouldn't go near it; they drove beat-up old station wagons, displaying their indifference through deliberate downgrading.
Buicks were socially a notch below Cadillac but for those on the way up. They were seen as reliable, sturdy cars for substantial people. Fords were for the young, singles, hot rodders-fast, flexible and rugged, chic, modern, and a bit showy. Plymouths were sensible, inexpensive, small, with neutral styling. "Plymouth receives very little criticism," noted the report, "but neither does anybody get wildly excited about it." Shortly after the study came out, the Chrysler Corporation, Plymouth's maker, overhauled the image of all its cars.
Thanks to the press from studies like this and a flurry of customers inspired by The Hidden Persuaders, SRI was extraordinarily busy throughout the late 1950s. In 1960 the firm was able to return Packard's favor; it made one of his most ominous predictions come true.
"To get some publicity," recounted Lee Rainwater, "and to satisfy our own curiosity, and to overcome the prejudice against a Catholic in the White House," an SRI team analyzed the 1960 presidential candidates Nixon and Kennedy. They found that Kennedy had one serious weakness, the perception that he was too immature, too subordinate to his powerful family.
The key to changing this perception, they decided, was to build up JFK's stature as the head of his own independent family through the popular image of his spouse. The Democrats had to show that Jacqueline Kennedy was a capable, intelligent, accomplished wife and mother. Warner drew up a memo that sketched out ways to do this and took his proposal to friends in the Kennedy campaign. They went over it in detail with Mrs. Kennedy, then arranged for her to do a series of televised interviews. Kennedy, of course, won by a narrow margin. How much difference SRI made will never be known; there was no funding for a follow-up evaluation.
THROUGH THE YEARS, SRI's work largely remained outside the academic pale. Graduate students could not get credit for their SRI research, no matter how clever, or use SRI data for scholarly analysis. And interest in the cultural properties of consumer goods was still seen as "intellectual slumming" by serious scholars, said anthropologist and consumption scholar Grant McCracken, AM'76, PhD'81, author of Culture and Consumption (as well as a work with a less intimidating title, Big Hair). Studying what people buy was seen as applied rather than pure research, tainted by contact with the business world, an elitist bias that has "kept social scientists away from consumer research for decades."
For a while, SRI brought both sides together, but not for long. Several staffers, those who never finished their dissertations, were devoted to commercial work. A few left to start their own firms. Others, like Warner, retained a primary commitment to scholarship. Lee Rainwater and Richard Coleman managed to produce scholarship while at SRI but were increasingly frustrated by the confidential nature of most of their applied work.
Rainwater left in 1963 to teach sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, joining Harvard in 1969. Coleman quit SRI in 1969 for the Joint Center on Urban Studies at MIT and Harvard, moving on to teach marketing at Kansas State University. Originally captivated by commercial work, Levy migrated to the academic camp and joined Northwestern's marketing department in 1961, becoming its chair in 1980.
As social-sciences funding increased in the 1960s the firm's supply of student talent dwindled, and in the 1970s newer, computer-driven quantitative techniques triumphed over SRI's highly interpreted qualitative studies. By the mid-1970s the firm existed in name only and motivational research had lost the limelight. It had answered the questions that it could, then gave way to other forms of consumer research.
Corporate interest in consumer motives never wilted, however, and interest in consumption research slowly crept into favor in academe. The Association for Consumption Research, the first organization of academic researchers in the field of consumer behavior, was founded in 1971. Anthropologists began to take Warner's lead by studying their own societies, and the social sciences as a whole began to acknowledge consumption as a legitimate topic-although they maintained their distance from applied or marketing research, a stance that often forced them to reinvent established techniques.
Societal and academic interest in social class also began to rise in the 1970s, but it focused more on poverty and extreme wealth, people at the fringes rather than the middle majority, and thus had less impact on marketing. Richard Coleman humbly noted at the SRI conference that his 1983 article, "The Continuing Significance of Social Class to Marketing," was ironically the last article ever published by the Journal of Consumer Research to feature social class as a major variable.
Indeed, Warner's six-category system of class now seems somewhat simplistic. "Where," wondered Coleman, "would most Americans place the high-income nerds of Silicon Valley?" Today researchers stress the emergence of overlapping or competing hierarchies. Just as there are now several hundred television channels catering to very specific interests, instead of the former big three networks, there are multiple vertical as well as horizontal social clusters, each with its own internal rankings. "Class takes a back seat to racial identities, gender, ethnic heritage, or religious identities," said Weeder. "Labor is out, feminism is in."
Even the car market is "no longer that useful in studying social class," said Coleman. "Now, what people want has very little to do with class. It has to do with whether one wants to feel sybaritic or sexy or whatnot."
"As a practitioner," said Leo J. Shapiro, AB'42, PhD'56, founder of a market research firm that competed with SRI, "and I am about as pure a practitioner as you will find," he told the conference, "I can tell you that Lloyd Warner's concepts and techniques were adopted commercially and used by practitioners and academicians, but they are no longer relevant." That is not because they don't explain things about society or help us anticipate the future. "They are no longer relevant because they have been displaced by more economical techniques."
Social research by practitioners, he explained, is not about discovering profound insights. It is about finding some tiny new thing that gives the client a competitive edge, "a little bit of truth that will let him get his money back." Why use something as stunningly complex and costly as class if you can plug in a much simpler variable and get similar results?
A much simpler-and thus more efficient-variable is knowing who the people are who buy what you sell. This information is increasingly available, thanks to the spread of catalog shopping, electronic transactions, loyalty incentive cards in stores, and the Internet. "The ultimate unit for analysis is not the person," said Shapiro, "but the act."
And each act is being recorded. "There are data sets that include every single electronic act of consumption for the last several decades," noted Abbott. "Let me assure you," said Jonathan Frenzen, AB'78, MBA'82, PhD'88, clinical professor in the Graduate School of Business, "Big Brother is watching, and he is watching increasingly effectively." Once you purchase clothes via catalog, he emphasized, the vendor knows your address, your VISA number, exactly what you purchased, and your measurements.
Shopping on the Web reveals even more, he added. Marketers can track your click stream, "where you go and how long you pause on each page." Amazon.com, for example, uses a technique called collaborative filtering to chart your purchases and then suggests other books that are somehow related, items already purchased by people who look, at least to Amazon, a lot like you.
It works. Two weeks before a book on healthy eating by the University's Michael Roizen was published, Amazon e-mailed everyone who had bought the doctor's previous book on healthy aging, or any similar book. Without a single ad or book review, even before the book was released, it was a top-five seller for Amazon. "This kind of behavior," predicted Frenzen, "is soon going to follow you to the browser in your car."
In an odd way, such focused data gathering may lessen the hovering menace of Big Brother's constant attention. While SRI's researchers wanted to know everything about a few representative customers, current commercial consumer research concentrates on very specific, isolated acts of millions of essentially classless and faceless customers.
This might be one more reason that consumption has remained so long outside the academic universe. The consumer research industry collects staggering volumes of information, figures that may be extremely important if you're paid to sell a product but, details that, said Frenzen, "may be viewed as being simply too trivial for academics to worry about."
If social science has been slow to embrace commerce since the emergence of firms like SRI, commerce has fallen head over heels for social science. "Ten years ago I told Andy [Abbott] there was more social science done outside academia than within universities," said Eric Almquist, head of the customer management team for Mercer Management Consulting. Today market research is a $14 billion industry. By 2003 the total will reach $21 billion.
"Social science is central to business," argued Almquist, "and growing even more central. Winning and losing in market capitalization is increasingly determined by how well companies anticipate changes in the marketplace, a social science issue."
Almquist recently completed a study that looked at sudden drops in corporate share price. Over the last five years, 10 percent of the Fortune 1000 companies lost more than one-fourth of their shareholder value within a month. "These are what we call value collapse," Almquist said. "Customer research turns out to be the single biggest thing companies could have done better to avoid this catastrophe." Rubbermaid, for example, lost touch with one customer: Wal-mart. For Readers' Digestthe major problem is age. Their consumers are aging "faster than time," explained Almquist. "They have retired permanently."
His own firm uses modern economic techniques such as discrete-choice analysis to measure effects created by brand image as defined by Levy and Gardner in the mid-1950s. "We've been trying to push their insights further," Almquist said, "and to link brand image to demand curves." Researchers now can decipher exactly how much a brand's image is worth, how that image shifts demand toward or away from the brand. If the brand's appeal goes up, the company can raise the price, or sell more goods.
The best example is motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson, which, according to Almquist, has the world's strongest brand image. While a Harley costs $18,000, the Japanese equivalent runs about $6,000. Yet Harley, at three times the price, "does not have the quality," said Almquist. "Harleys have more problems. They require more service. You have to wait six months to get one." But if you're serious about the biker lifestyle, freedom, the open road, and bugs in your teeth, you do not buy the Japanese knock-off because it is not a Harley-Davidson. You don't see many people, he added, with Yamaha or Suzuki tattoos.
"The men and women of SRI were exploring uncharted terrain when they began their work," said Andreas Glaeser, assistant professor of sociology, at the November conference. Decades later, "academic cultural analysts have finally begun to take up some of their concerns": the use of commodities as cultural symbols, the global impact of brand names and logos (which have become more readily identifiable than most religious symbols), and the absolute requirement for multi-national companies to study culture and cultural differences.
All this should have been apparent 50 years ago, Glaeser concluded, in SRI's study of beer. "In the parlance of contemporary consumption research, SRI was investigating the practices of beer consumption while investigating the semiotics of drinking," Glaeser said. "SRI identified the major dimensions of the use code of beer...teasing out, for example, the social resonance of clinking beer glasses...and made concrete suggestions to their clients on how to construct brand codes in accordance with use codes, all this without using a language of identities, practices, and semiotics, long before the academic world picked up an interest in a related set of topics."
Not only that, he might have added, but SRI also said it in a way clients and consumers easily understood. "Beer," SRI pronounced, in the parlance of people who drink the stuff, "is not a prestige item."