Smith Brain Trust / March 14, 2018

Shield Your Brand From Customer Misbehavior

Shield Your Brand From Customer Misbehavior

Women Leading Research: Amna Kirmani

SMITH BRAIN TRUST – Last spring, a winery in Northern Virginia bought 2,000 pricey Riedel wine glasses to use in its wine tastings. By September, just 200 were left. 

Some had been broken, but far more had been stolen, the winery owners told The Washington Post. They described how some customers were caught stealing them, shoving the crystal glasses into handbags or concealing them under their shirts. One woman, the owners said, tipsy and “with a sweater full of glasses,” was seen stumbling outside, stemware falling and shattering on the pavement.

The Smith School’s Amna Kirmani recalls the newspaper story in vivid detail – how customers had moved on to stealing other things as well – cutting boards, ice buckets, an entire cornhole lawn game set. One thief reportedly told the winery owner that after spending so much money on the vineyard’s wine, he felt entitled to leave with other stuff as well. 

“This is the kind of behavior I’m interested in,” says Kirmani, the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “I’m interested in what motivates consumers to lie, cheat or steal from companies.”

Kirmani has spent much of her academic career studying consumer psychology, the way we identify closely with some brands and not others, and the “when” and “why” of consumer loyalty. These days her research focuses on where consumer behavior intersects with morality.

Consumers exhibit many kinds of “immoral” behavior, she says. Some will “wardrobe” clothes – in other words, buying them, wearing them to an event and then returning them to the store for a refund as if never worn. Some tell falsehoods – maybe lying about a child’s age at an amusement park to obtain a discount. It’s all basically cheating.

In her most recent research, Kirmani, who is also an editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, explores how a company’s corporate social responsibility activities might influence whether consumers will be more likely to try to cheat the company.

She has been traveling to universities to discuss her latest research, now in the early academic review stage, discussing CSR actions and how they might encourage or discourage consumers to lie, cheat and steal.

Working with Smith School PhD candidate In Hye Kang, Kirmani conducted experimental research that studied the effect on companies that choose to engage in certain types of CSR. The experiments were conducted in a lab with student volunteers or online with adult volunteers. 

The research builds upon Kirmani’s previous research, including “Look at Me! Look at Me! Conspicuous Brand Usage, Self-Brand Connection, and Dilution,” a 2013 paper with the Smith School’s Rosellina Ferraro and Oklahoma State University’s Ted Matherly.

Kirmani offers an example. Starbucks announced last year that it would hire 10,000 refugees for its stores around the world and immediately, she says, “there was a backlash.” While some consumers praised the effort to help Syrian refugees, others sharply criticized it, even suggesting a boycott. “There are some people who feel very strongly that hiring refugees is a good thing. They feel it is part of who they are. It is part of their self, part of their identity,” she says. “There are others for whom this is the opposite of their identity.”

Within days, the Seattle-based coffee chain, in a move that was widely seen as an effort to tamp down the controversy and to quash a boycott effort, announced it would also speed up its plan to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses. And that’s the paradox facing companies today as they look for causes to support.

Consumers are deciding whether brands understand who they are by whether the companies support the things they care about. Customers who applaud a company’s CSR will be more inclined to spend money with them than with a company who does no CSR. But if they disagree, they will be inclined to cheat them, by wardrobing, by lying to obtain discounts, by treating its staff poorly or by other methods.

“And they feel perfectly justified in cheating or deceiving the firm, because that cause they are standing up for – that CSR – is not them. It’s not who they are,” says Kirmani, author of “The Self and The Brand.”

“It’s about identity,” she says.

With consumers today sharply divided on all sorts of issues, this makes the the task of managing a corporate social responsibility portfolio a highly complicated one. “It’s a balancing act,” she says.

And it’s one that companies cannot afford to ignore. Kirmani, cites the recent 2017 CSR study from Cone Communications, which shows that people – millennials in particular – want companies to stand up for their values.

Early research on corporate social responsibility and marketing, dating back to the late 1990s, didn’t even consider an “opposed group” when they examined charitable giving. “Because in those days, they thought, well, no one is opposed to these social goals,” Kirmani says. 

“For example, if you thought that saving the environment was a noncontroversial cause, well, it’s not. There are people who don’t believe in climate change, and very strongly don’t believe in climate change," she says. “These days, everything has a pro and a con. This means that a company’s CSR activities are just as likely to impress people as to offend them.”

Amna Kirmani is a Professor of Marketing and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Consumer Psychology. 

Research Interests: Morality, persuasion knowledge, behavioral signaling and branding. In terms of morality, she is interested in examining how thinking and acting in the marketplace make us behave less morally.

Selected Accomplishments: Papers have won the Paul Green Award in the Journal of Marketing Research, the Maynard Award in the Journal of Marketing, the Best Paper Award in the Journal of Advertising and the International Journal of Advertising, and Article of the Year at AMA TechSIG.

About this series: The Smith School faculty is celebrating Women’s History Month 2018 in partnership with ADVANCE, an initiative to transform the University of Maryland by investing in a culture of inclusive excellence. Daily faculty spotlights support activities from the school’s Office of Diversity Initiatives, starting with the seventh annual Women Leading Women forum on March 1, 2018.

Other fearless ideas from:  Rajshree Agarwal  |  Ritu Agarwal  |  T. Leigh Anenson  |  Kathryn M. Bartol  |  Christine Beckman  |  Margrét Bjarnadóttir  |  M. Cecilia Bustamante  |  Jessica M. Clark  |  Rellie Derfler-Rozin  |  Waverly Ding  |  Wedad J. Elmaghraby  |  Rosellina Ferraro  |  Rebecca Hann  | Amna Kirmani  |  Hanna Lee  |  Hui Liao  |  Jennifer Carson Marr  |  Wendy W. Moe  |  Courtney Paulson  |  Louiqa Raschid  |  Rebecca Ratner  |  Debra L. Shapiro  |  M. Susan Taylor  |  Niratcha (Grace) Tungtisanont  |  Vijaya Venkataramani  |  Janet Wagner  |  Yajin Wang  |  Yajun Wang  |  Liu Yang  |  Jie Zhang  |  Lingling Zhang

Photo credit: weerapat1003



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