Gosline helps brand managers think beyond the initial stages of innovation into the real issues that brands face when consumers adopt them and competitors try to imitate.
MIT’s Renee Richardson Gosline knows her brands – and she probably knows a lot about yours, too. Gosline, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the Sloan School, teaches MBA students the new realities about branding, focusing on empowered consumers and the impact of social context on consumers’ relationships with their brands. From a company perspective, Gosline’s research aims to help marketers understand how the meaning that their brands hold in consumers’ minds is dynamic, and how managers can effectively anticipate these changes. “There is a lot of emphasis on the early stages of a new brand,” explains Gosline. “But you have to be prepared for further down the road in the brand’s life cycle when other people take your idea and build from your innovation.”
Renee Richardson Gosline She urges her corporate clients – and her budding MBA marketing students – to prepare management strategies for different consumer segments within the brand portfolio. “You need to understand the variety of meanings associated with your brand, and take a co-managerial approach alongside consumers,” she says.
Gosline most recently applied her academic efforts to understanding the relationship between the luxury brand market and counterfeit imitations. “I saw increasing coverage in the trade press about the proliferation of fake luxury products and how companies felt this was going to kill their bottom line,” she explains. “At the same time I was seeing unprecedented growth among consumers in terms of the popularity of real luxury brand items.” Gosline sought to determine why.
Seizing on an unexpected invitation to a “purse party” – an in-home hostess party of friends, neighbors, co-workers featuring luxury brand imitations, Gosline began a 2.5-year study of these consumers. “It was intriguing because I thought it strange that people would be buying counterfeits surrounded by people they knew in this socially embedded context,” she says. Gosline theorizes that an interesting tension developed over time with these counterfeit consumers. They did not want to be perceived as inauthentic in other areas of their lives. Yet, they enjoyed the compliments received on their imitation products.
Consumers of knock-off products experienced a tension between their social identities and their counterfeit consumer behavior. Gosline found that over time this led to increased interest in the legitimate brand. “Nearly 50% of them adopted the fake but went on to purchase the real thing during the time of my research even though they initially derided those who bought the real thing as frivolous,” she says. Through the real-fake comparison, they learned the fakes are truly inferior to the genuine. Gosline found this tension was not present when the purchasing decision was made alone such as with anonymous street vendors.
Gosline also studied consumers of the legitimate brands, and their reactions to the ubiquity of fakes. She found that these “real” consumers were overwhelmingly correct when assessing real versus fake products, when shown pictures of people using both. This preserved these consumers’ confidence in their ability to discern the real from the fake, as well as their willingness to pay for the real brand. The overall look of the consumer – the usage style—and the social context were the visual cues. “This explains to me why people know there are copious amounts of fakes, yet consumers continue to buy the real – why brands escape dilution,” she explains. “These ‘real’ consumers feel they use the brand in a way that is authentic; in a way that people who use fakes – the ‘wannabees’—do not. They then could co-exist with their imitators and even feel flattered.”
Gosline has specific recommendations for marketers and brand managers to help their consumers improve their ability to determine real versus imitation. This includes cultivating expertise among high-value consumers. “The brand is more than a simple logo; it involves a relationship and a usage culture that is partly defined by the consumers themselves,” says Gosline.
Social Networks and Branding
Because of the influence of social networks – including online social media use – Gosline explains that corporate marketers have to consider them when building and maintaining a brand. “As a marketer, you have to deal with the reality that your consumer will have a relationship with the brand and imbue it with meaning that may not necessarily be the meaning you defined,” she says.
Gosline adds that any company interested in innovation has to be aware of the issues involved with post-launch competitive imitation. How are they prepared to receive feedback from consumers or react to the feedback consumers receive during the purchasing decision? “All of these influence the relationships consumers have with brands,” she explains. Companies must be interested, vigilant, and proactive in understanding the reality of today’s social networks and how consumers’ relationships with one another affect their relationships with their brands.