Upon first hearing it, it's easy to be confused by the term “consumer wisdom,” or even to dismiss it as an oxymoron. However, reimagining how we think about our own consumer lives, and choices within the market, could prove beneficial both for individual consumers, and for society at large. Michael Luchs, an Associate Professor at the College of William & Mary’s Mason School of Business, describes what “consumer wisdom” means, how we get there, and how this idea relates to his course “Consumer Insights for Innovation.”
Tell us a little bit about your research for The Enhancing Life Project — what, recently, have you been working on?
My project is about developing a theory of consumer wisdom, and then developing a scale so that it can be something that we measure, almost like a personality characteristic, but it's not so much a personality characteristic as it is a behavioral characteristic. Currently, I have a next-to-final draft of the first of the two parts, the synthesis of all the interviews that I've conducted. That will be under journal review within about a month, and right now I’m working on developing an initial list of scale items— questions that would appear in a survey, so that I can test them and develop a survey over the next phase of the project.
What is the public relevance of your research?
I think people appreciate that in terms of how we consume—the products, services and resources that we consume— there's a lot of room for improvement. But people don't really know what to do instead, so I think that having a tangible metric that's tied to specific behaviors and behavioral tendencies makes it much more real. People can self-assess and say, for example, hey, I'm doing great when it comes to being rational and reasoning and clear-headed and intentional, but when it comes to emotional control, and actually sticking with my plans, that's where I need to focus some work. I think people are open to self-improvement and development, and if it helps society and the environment at the same time, it's a no-brainer. But they need tangible ways to understand where they are today and what changes they can make.
Has your research revealed any specific implications for public policy?
Absolutely. You can have an intention to do something a certain way, or to want certain types of information, but if that information isn't available, or if the alternatives aren't really there, then it doesn't really matter, as a consumer, what you want. Simply put, consumers are very much bound by what's available in the market, and so we should encourage policy that makes better or alternative consumption easier to find, and policy that gives people more information and choice. For example, one of the major grocery chains in the Mid-Atlantic, Giant Food, is testing new labels on their products that identify which products are good, great, or exceptional with respect to a blended metric of social and environmental issues. Rather than people having to hunt for this information on their own, or dissect what's on the package (when we know that people spend seconds making a decision in a store), simply giving people better summary information is helpful. And that's where policy can really be important. Unfortunately, I've spoken with representatives at high levels in government who have said, we don't want to go there in terms of labeling, it's too difficult, we'll let industries figure it out. But I think actually getting involved there could really be helpful.
How, moving forward, do you envision the implementation of your theory? What difficulties do you anticipate?
I think the big hurdle for me right now, and one I'm about to confront in a very real way, is getting through the academic review process. I made a very conscious decision to pursue journal publication, which means I'm going through peer review, because it really encourages an approach and rigor that I think is important for doing this well in the long term. On the other hand, when you go through peer review, people are human. They are focused on what is available and known today, on the theories that are familiar to them. Consumer wisdom is way out there. It doesn't connect obviously to the mainstream theories and ideas, so getting this accepted within a premier academic journal is going to be a hurdle. So it's tempting for me to go straight to popular press, but I really want to try to go the academic route first.
Have you recently taught an Enhancing Life Studies course? What is the topic of your course?
Yes. The course, which I taught this past fall, is a course called "Customer Insights for Innovation." Essentially, it was a course about qualitative research methods—methods that would probably be more familiar to anthropologists or psychologists than to businesspeople. The goal was for the students to use qualitative research methods to understand people in a deep way, so that they can uncover needs and desires and motivations that people aren’t even necessarily aware of, and then to use those insights to inspire new product and service ideas that really add value to people’s lives. One of the ways this course relates to enhancing life is that when I talk about consumers, I talk about how people increasingly want to integrate the different sides of their lives: we don't want to see ourselves as consumers, and separately as citizens; we want to consume in ways that are consistent with our social and environmental values - so we talk about what that means, and the impediments to that. I also introduced the students to my research idea of consumer wisdom, with the thought that if we could illustrate how a consumer might think and operate at the highest level, then we could focus new product and service ideas on an aspirational vision of consumer behavior instead of on the lowest common denominator.
Who were your students, and what did you have them do?
They are undergraduate business school students. During the course, we formed groups, and each group worked on a semester-long project. The topic was of their own choosing, but had to somehow relate to the topic of well-being. So we spent some time developing the idea of well-being: what does well-being mean to the students, and how have other people defined it? After choosing a topic, whether it had to do with cultural, social, environmental, or financial well-being, they had to conduct qualitative research to really explore that topic. Then we used a methodology that's familiar now in business called "design thinking" to really synthesize the research and the insights, and finally we went through the process of generating concepts that would be viable products and services that promote well-being, but that are also viable in a commercial marketplace.
That sounds like a great course, and it also sounds somewhat different from the courses that undergraduates in the business program might usually take--are there any things that were particularly surprising to them about this course?
Yes, it's very different, and intentionally so. Superficially, it's taught in a room that looks like a studio, with portable furniture and craft materials: it doesn't at all look like a business classroom. I think what's really different about the class, though, is that it forces students to deal with an ambiguously defined problem or opportunity. I don't say, here's a business case, and here's some of the facts, and here's what's not known, use your formulas to come up with the one-point solution. Instead, I say, as is the case in most real-world problems, we have an intuition, we have a sense as to what we want, but we need to use tools to really define the problem well before we solve it. Students are used to having well-packaged problems presented to them, but in this case, they really had to define the problem to solve first. Towards the end of the semester, I think there's great relief in realizing, hey, I can use tools and processes to navigate what felt like a very amorphous project and come out with a very tangible result, and I think that’s a pretty important bridge for students going out into the real world, because real-world problems aren't neatly packaged the way a lot of problems are presented in college.
Is this your first time teaching the course, and when will you be teaching it again?
This is the first time I taught the course in a full-semester format. I taught it before in an abbreviated summer format, with no specific emphasis on well-being. I'm going to be teaching this course again this summer in Dublin, and I'm going to be teaching it again in the fall back here on campus. I've decided to make the theme of well-being the ongoing project orientation.
Since you'll be teaching this course several times in different settings, what will be the key elements of the course that remain constant? Are there any elements that will change in each iteration?
When I teach it in Dublin, I want to frame it in a way that takes advantage of the local context. These are going to be William & Mary students studying in Dublin, so I don't want to go there and teach a class that they could have taken on campus. We'll be doing fieldwork in Dublin, through which I will try to steer them towards issues that are relevant to citizens of the Irish Republic today, particularly within Dublin. I don't know what that is just yet—when I taught this class for the first time, I did it in Budapest, Hungary. At the time, Budapest was just launching a bike-share program, which people were really nervous about. They wanted to have something like that because it was available in other advanced European economies, but not in Hungary, and so we explored: what are the challenges to adopting a bike-share system when no one is already riding bikes in the city? In Dublin, we’ll try to find something that's specific to Dublin, that takes advantage of the opportunity to learn about that local context and culture.
Read Michael's blog post, "The Wisdom of Breaking Down Walls," here.