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How Do You Feel? Marketing to the Stigmatized

How Do You Feel? Marketing to the Stigmatized

Michael W. Wu and Brandon Z. Holle

As the globe becomes increasingly interconnected, the manner in which consumers perceive both themselves and others has become even more important to marketers. Importantly, consumers’ self-perceptions as well as the perceptions of others can have consequences regarding purchase behavior and other marketing-related behaviors. A number of personal attributes, such as health conditions or financial stability, have the potential to create negative connotations or feelings for a consumer, particularly if they feel judged by others (i.e., an audience).

Colleen M. Harmeling, Martin Mende, Maura L. Scott, and Robert W. Palmatier investigate this phenomenon by studying how perceptions of consumer stigma can affect the consumer’s behavior and successive consumption decisions. Using a combination of field experiments and online surveys, the authors find evidence that consumers assess the degree of threat or judgment generated by their perceived stigmas using environmental cues. Consequently, they then evaluate their status relative to that of the social audience to either proceed with or abandon a consumption encounter. Moreover, the authors also find that consumers with stigmatized traits prioritize the attribute over other attributes related to similarity.

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These conclusions provide deep insights for business practitioners and policy makers. Possessing awareness of whether a product offering is associated with a stigma or not can give the business the opportunity to adjust environmental cues or to find ways to avoid negative connotations towards their offerings. Policy makers may also wish to focus on improving public knowledge on misconceptions between groups to avoid classifying people into stigmatized categories, thereby avoiding negative connotations or feelings derived from a stigma. 

We were able to ask the authors several questions, and they kindly provided some critical insights into this article.

Q: Is it more effective for marketers to address how consumers perceive themselves or to instead focus on improving environmental cues that induce purchase behavior?

A: As is often in life in general, we do not perceive this as an either-or question. We believe a combination of both approaches (consumer-focused and environment-focused) is preferable. That said, managers typically have more influence in changing/adapting the environmental cues (e.g., in stores, on websites, in market communication).

Note that your question talks about “purchase behavior.” Although there is no doubt that purchase intentions are an important outcome in marketing, one key point of our paper is that marketers can also look beyond selling things. For example, we propose that marketers should also have a genuine interest in making sure that all consumers feel welcome in the focal environment and are treated accordingly (e.g., with dignity and respect). We believe it is consistent with the broader idea of “Better Marketing for a Better World (see Journal of Marketing’s corresponding Special Issue 2021) to consider commercial and financial outcomes as well as human well-being (e.g., consumers, employee).

To achieve and improve comprehensive well-being and reduce stigmatization in consumption settings and the marketplace more broadly, firms should focus on both. Our paper shows how firms can influence how consumers perceive themselves, but other recent marketing research has also examined how to reduce tendencies to stigmatize others (e.g., see Meyer et al. 2020).

Q: As digital communication becomes more ingrained into everyday life (e.g., social media, instant messaging), should businesses refine their approaches to navigate consumer perceptions of stigmatism in this “new” domain? 

A: Sadly, it seems that social media has increasingly become a platform for stigmatization (e.g., trolling, cyber-bullying, hate speech). We believe it is critical for marketers to actively work against such tendencies to protect consumers, employees, and other stakeholders against stigmatization to promote social cohesion and to protect the social fabric of society and democracy. Clearly, more work in marketing on this and related areas is needed. For example, a recent paper examined how corporate sociopolitical activism (CSA) affects firm value (Bhagwat et al. 2020). The findings suggest that CSA can have a high potential to increase firm value over time, but it is important to consider whether a company’s activism aligns with the values of its customers, employees, and policy makers. Such research is an important step in demonstrating that fighting stigmatization is not only the right thing to do, but it can also be beneficial in terms of financial results.

Q: One suggestion made in the article is for businesses to reduce visibility of the product, if the product is associated with a stigma.  Do you see any potential for marketers to be able to meaningfully shift short-term (or long-term) perceptions of the stigma into a more positive perception to improve consumer attitudes towards the product?    

A: Oh yes, we do! There is important research on de-stigmatization and normalizing (e.g., Lavin and Barnes 2020). There have been multiple examples of how some traditional stigmas have been successfully decreased. Certainly, companies that produce condoms or female hygiene products have been working toward a normalization of their products, and they have seen considerable success with it. We are seeing a similar effort related to the increasingly emerging production, promotion, and consumption of cannabis. Another example are tattoos; although tattoos were long stigmatized in the United States, this perception has been changing. Case in point: Disney, the happiest place on earth, recently relaxed its restrictions on the appearance of its theme park employees to now include some visible tattoos and other features (e.g., gender-inclusive hairstyles). Disney’s goal is to promote inclusion and diversity at the company’s theme parks (Durkee 2021). So, you raise a great point that decreasing visibility may not always be the best path; indeed, increasing visibility and promoting inclusion and tolerance for traditionally stigmatized people, products, or forms of consumption might be potentially even more important to bolster positive societal change of tolerance and inclusion. That said, sometimes, it might also be fascinating to examine how to increase the stigmatization of certain behaviors or products (e.g., environmental pollution, product/brand piracy, food waste).

Q: What inspired you to pursue research on consumer stigmas?

A: Vulnerable and stigmatized populations have not been widely represented in our literature, and we saw this as an opportunity to provide a voice for this consumer segment. Increasing stigmatization of many people in the world (based on race, religion, sexual orientation, political beliefs, age, etc.) hinders societal progress, and marketing can and should play a role in promoting inclusivity. We propose that marketing scholars and practitioners should be (a) aware of stigmatization, (b) understand how it affects stakeholders, and (c) find ways to help fight stigmatization, particularly of vulnerable populations. Our research finds that consumers with potentially stigmatized health conditions are more willing to engage in health-related marketing programming when others in the group have a shared illness. This suggests that stigmatized consumers value a sense of connectedness and community, and firms can promote offers that support the health and well-being of these stigmatized consumer segments by connecting consumers with others experiencing a shared journey.

Q: In your study you look at health-related stigmas and services related to these stigmas. Do you think that consumers may have different perceptions when stigmas are associated with other non-health related issues? In addition, do you think consumers have different perceptions when shopping for durable goods, rather than for services?

A: We think there are certainly interesting nuances that marketers can further consider. For example, there is a lot of research that shows how the perceived controllability of a certain condition influences how people with that condition are perceived and subsequently treated by others. Therefore, consumers might indeed have different perceptions about, for example, gambling or alcohol addictions (which might be perceived to be more controllable) than a hereditary health condition (which is unlikely to be perceived as controllable). However, it is also very important to note that people can misjudge the controllability of conditions. Just consider the fact that many people falsely presume that obesity is a controllable condition, which is not always true (Puhl and Brownell 2003). We believe it would be interesting for marketing to further contribute to reducing stigmatization in the marketplace and consumption settings.

Your question about goods versus services also raises an interesting perspective. We know from service research that consumers (because of the intangibility of services) can focus on and weigh some aspects (e.g., service employees’ appearance) more heavily than in goods settings. Therefore, it is quite possible that stigmas become more salient in service settings and that stigmas then affect the service interaction more directly than in a goods setting. This is one example for interesting future research.

Q: What do you think the outcome would be if consumers without stigmas received marketing communications with cues that suggested the audience consisted primarily of stigmatized members?

A: This is an interesting question, and we can see this going two ways. On the one hand, it is possible that people would respond to this situation with an ingroup-outgroup related mechanism and therefore display a disassociation with the focal marketing campaign and the product it promotes. On the other hand, we might see a more positive response related to potential empathy, understanding, and learning. The important question is when and why consumers respond in one or the other manner and, importantly, which interventions might nudge consumers toward an empathy-driven response. This might also be an interesting research avenue to consider. That is, studying moderators that nudge people toward tolerance, empathy, and mutual understanding of stigmatized consumers would be an important next step. This is not only interesting for marketing scholars but also for managers because companies need to find the right balance for their strategic and tactical marketing.

Read the full article here:

Colleen M. Harmeling, Martin Mende, Maura L. Scott, and Robert W. Palmatier (2021), “Marketing, Through the Eyes of the Stigmatized,” Journal of Marketing Research, 58 (2), 223–45.

Michael W. Wu is a doctoral student at Broad College of Business, Michigan State University.

Brandon Z. Holle is a marketing doctoral student at Michigan State University.