What to buy when the American Dream fails?


Wei-fen Chen (HKUST)
Thursday 26 April 2018 at 4:00 - 5:00 pm (Hong Kong time, GMT +8)
IAS2042, 2/F, Lo Ka Chung Building, Lee Shau Kee Campus, HKUST

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Event Summary

Although socioeconomic status has been a fundamental concept marketing professionals employ to explain and predict consumer behaviors, we know relatively little about the shopping preferences of those who are moving from one socioeconomic status to another. In her academic seminar, Dr. Wei-Fen Chen (HKUST) discussed how consumers’ tastes are influenced by upwardly mobile and downwardly mobile experiences. Wei-Fen Chen’s study used data collected via interviews and experiments with upwardly and downwardly mobile, young consumers to examine the causal relationship between their social mobility mindsets and shopping preferences. The study addressed “what they buy” rather than “what they don’t buy”. For this reason, the same product was framed in different ways to address markets in different mobility trajectories.

Preliminary findings indicate that consumer perception of upward mobility versus downward mobility are asymmetric. As a result, downwardly mobile consumers show lower levels of purchase intention for products appealing to economic capital (e.g. fortune) than for those appealing to cultural (e.g. knowledge, cosmopolitanism). Downwardly mobile consumers dissociate themselves from products appealing to economic capital, which is a coping strategy of compensatory consumption (Mandel et al., 2017) While their upwardly mobile counterparts show equally high levels of purchase intention for products appealing to either economic capital or cultural capital.

Consumer behaviors are affected not only by the likelihood of economic mobility, but also by the trajectory of social mobility, and their mindset in social mobility. This study brings new insights into the traditional, static, income-based market segmentation and are useful to understand markets where individuals feel that they are “getting ahead” or “left behind” without clear stratification references, revealing that consumers with different social mobility experiences or expectations may shop differently even if they appear to be in the same economic bracket.

Presentation Slides

About the Speaker 

Wei-Fen Chen joined HKUST in 2016 as a Post-doctoral Fellow in the Institute for Emerging Market Studies, after receiving her Ph.D. in Communications and Media from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the consumption practices of individuals experiencing broadly-defined social mobility, as well as their impact on personal well-being and on a sustainable consumption-scape in global cities. She was a recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship, in additional to multiple fellowships in the U.S., Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Her research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Culture and Qualitative Inquiry. 

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