Helping Consumers Help Themselves

Associate professor Lauren Grewal’s research and teaching exist at the intersection of consumer behavior, social media, and well-being.

Tuck associate professor Lauren Grewal wouldn’t say she was destined to become an academic, yet her odds of following that career path were better than fifty-fifty. Both of her parents have been marketing professors, and Grewal has fond memories of being in their classrooms as a kid and thinking the college students were so cool.

When she herself became a college student, at Brandeis, the influence of the family business presented itself in her decision to double major in psychology and anthropology. Both of these academic disciplines are concerned with human behavior, but they approach it from different angles. The study of marketing draws from each to better understand why people think what they think, why they do what they do, and how to influence consumers to take certain actions. 

As Grewal pursued her Ph.D. in marketing at the University of Pittsburgh, she homed in on the power of marketing as a force for good: how it could help consumers not only make healthy decisions, but also give consumers the agency to know what’s best for them and seek it out in their own way.

Today, as the Daniel R. Revers T’89 Faculty Fellow at Tuck, Grewal’s research and teaching align closely with that ethos. Her research examines identity-based consumption, how consumers use and process digital and social media, and consumer well-being; and she has taught courses for undergraduates, MBA students, and executive education participants.

How do you describe your research?

A lot of what I try to do is understand implications of current behavior and what ways marketers and businesses can nudge better behavior or help consumers make better decisions for themselves or others.

An example of my research is one project that looked at the role of God-salience on self-improvement intentions. Essentially, we found that when people who believe in God think about the unconditional love and acceptance God offers, their intent to purchase self-improvement products decreases.

There are pros and cons to this as feeling unconditionally loved is a positive thing for consumers to feel better about themselves which is important for mental and emotional health, but there may be less motivation to work towards other types of self-improvement goals (e.g., physical health, financial).

Our findings also have implications for marketers who are encouraging self-improvement through their offerings. Specifically, we propose that marketers may not want to focus their efforts on selling these products and services in contexts that highlight religion or God.

How does the study of accessibility fit in to your research agenda?

There are tons of examples of the marketplace not being built for everyone. The plastic straw ban, for instance, has created difficulties for people who can’t use paper or metal straws, or whose hands are too shaky to have an open cup. I’m working on a project now where we examine the various micro- and macro-level tradeoffs that consumers and businesses may consider when organizations make products and services more accessible.

For example, on a micro level, consumers may need to pay more for an organization to offer greater accommodations or accessibility (e.g., higher product prices or taxes), while at a macro level, accessibility may be seen as less sustainable because it is thought to create more waste (e.g., increased offerings of pre-chopped, pre-wrapped produce).

These different tradeoffs may keep businesses from offering more accessibility. Thus, we’re looking at how businesses can better frame these offerings, because when customers understand the widespread benefits of inclusive design, they feel better about it. Ultimately, I want to help brands hone their strategy so that greater marketplace accessibility is treated as a given and can be seen as a positive by all consumers.

“The bottom line is that consumers are taking cues from the digital environment, sometimes subconsciously, and it’s affecting their attitudes and decision-making.”
— Lauren Grewal, Associate Professor

Tell us about your work on digital and social media.

A lot of my work in these areas has to do with language, cues, and heuristics that consumers pick up on in various types of social platforms. For example, there’s a temporal proximity cue people use to determine if negative information is valuable when considering online reviews.

In the social media space, I’m looking at how brands can make political or sociopolitical statements that will help consumers learn about the issues and make a change themselves. It turns out that where these messages are posted—i.e., in an Instagram story versus a grid—can affect how impactful the message is for people for whom the issue is not as relevant.

In another project, with my Tuck marketing colleague Prasad Vana, we’re studying brand safety and what happens to consumers’ perceptions of a brand when an advertisement has been put adjacent to unsafe content, such as hate speech on social media platforms. We examine this both for people who see this adjacency and for those who hear about it, and show convergent negative results. The bottom line is that consumers are taking cues from the digital environment, sometimes subconsciously, and it’s affecting their attitudes and decision-making.

What do you enjoy about teaching both undergraduates and MBA students?

Teaching them all is a sincere pleasure, and genuinely fun. At the undergraduate level, the students are so excited and interested, and my course is often one of their first experiences with the business world. I love their energy and enthusiasm.

With the MBAs, they know so much, and have varying background experiences in marketing, digital marketing, etc. I love getting to learn from them in addition to getting to teach them about aspects of digital and social media marketing that they will be able to use in their internships and post-Tuck jobs. I love how intelligent, kind, and motivated they are.

This story originally appeared in print in the summer 2023 issue of Tuck Today magazine.