September 28, 2011

Emory Profile

Ryan Hamilton: Consumer behavior is no joke

Ryan Hamilton is assistant professor of marketing.
Ryan Hamilton is assistant professor of marketing.

By J. Michael Moore

Ryan Hamilton is a "consumer psychologist" who investigates how consumers act. The assistant professor of marketing joined the Goizueta Business School in 2008 and was recently named one of the best professors under the age of 40.

Hamilton – who has a background in stand-up comedy -- talks with Emory Report about marketing trends, the importance of social media, and what comedy has taught him about the classroom.

What is your research and teaching focus at Emory?

I teach the MBA marketing core and a PhD seminar in consumer behavior. My research investigates consumer behavior, especially consumer judgment and decision-making. I am a consumer psychologist, which means I study consumer behavior drawing on some of the same theories and controlled experimental techniques that psychologists use. My research covers branding, consumer mindsets, pricing and price image. I have previously investigated the role of the visual structure of information in decision-making and some of the factors that influence consumers’ choice among assortments. Some of my more recent research investigates how consumers decide whether a retailer or brand is, in general, high-priced or low-priced, and this price image influences choices.

How does your experience as a stand-up comedian help in the classroom?

I suppose I could spin a complex yarn about how stand-up helped me to be more sensitive to the response I'm getting from a classroom or something, but the reality is I think the two are only minimally related—teaching and stand-up are just two different things I like to do.

I try to use my sense of humor to keep my students engaged... so I can hold their attention long enough to teach them something. But that is very different from entertainment for entertainment's sake. Besides, I can't claim to always be successful. Last year I had a student tell me (politely) that he didn't think I was funny, but that he laughed along with all the other students because he felt like he had to. I pointed out that maybe no one really thought I was funny and everyone was laughing out of obligation. He laughed.

I guess if there is one thing stand-up has done, it has helped me overcome stage fright. After hearing your own echo in a silent comedy club a couple of times, there's nothing a room full of MBA students can do to scare you.

What is an interesting area of research you are working on now?

Some colleagues and I are investigating factors that have short-term influences on how consumers value brands. Much of the work on brand value has examined relatively stable influences, such as the groups to which you belong or the values you hold. We’ve found fleeting activities, such as posting a status on Facebook or listing off your favorite books and movies, can have a profound short-term effect on how consumers value a brand.

I try to use my sense of humor to keep my students engaged... so I can hold their attention long enough to teach them something.

For example, we took two groups of people and had them use computer software to design a custom T-shirt. One group was told to design a T-shirt for themselves and the other group was told to design a T-shirt for a parent. We then had them evaluate a set of brands by indicating how much they would be willing to pay for each branded item. We hypothesized that when people perform a self-expressive act, such as designing a T-shirt for themselves, they were satisfying the need to self-express and would subsequently value self-expressive brands less. In line with our predictions, people who designed a T-shirt for themselves indicated they would be willing to pay about a third less for branded items compared to people who had designed a T-shirt for a parent.

What is one trend in marketing you see impacting the business world?

All eyes now seem to be on the increasing importance of social media. Marketing has long been conceived of as more of a conversation than a monologue—successful marketers learn from their consumers rather than just push messages on them. But in creating a marketing message, the balance of power between marketers and consumers is definitely shifting toward consumers. The Internet has given every consumer a bullhorn for broadcasting kudos and complaints. This is a win for consumers as firms are forced to become more responsive to problems.

What is the best part of teaching at Goizueta?

I love our students. They are motivated and intelligent and collegial. They help each other and reach out to help others locally and around the world. I look forward to every class. I'd look forward to them even more if they didn't start at 8 a.m., but still...

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