Poetic study on ‘atmospheres’ reveals how consumers respond differently to retail spaces and marketing tactics

Retailers must create ‘atmospheres’ that persuade consumers to spend time and money in their commercial spaces, but in doing so may make some customers feel welcome and others unwelcome – possibly even experiencing negative emotions such as shame, fear and disgust, a new study reveals.

Researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Edinburgh, and ESCP Business School, in London, theorize how individuals’ responses to ‘affective atmospheres’ depends on their personal circumstances, mood, time of visit and who they experience it with.

The experts visited highly atmospheric neo-Pentecostal services and Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies in Brazil and collected ethnographic data in the field. The researchers created three poems which could help marketers better understand how consumers react to marketing and retailing tactics, noting how responses can be negative despite marketers’ efforts.

Published in Marketing Theory, the study elaborates on how personal experiences interweave with cultural and socio-political factors to make consumers feel a certain way. The study uses poetry to apply personal experience to theories of how individuals register ‘affective atmospheres’ that envelop and yet do not belong to them. 

Study author, Dr Pilar Rojas-Gaviria, Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Birmingham, comments:

“In recent years, we have been immersed in complex and challenging affective atmospheres. For instance, Covid-19 presented us with many potent affective atmospheres which make us feel certain emotions: anxiety, fear, guilt, loneliness. However, while it is possible to talk of the atmosphere of a pandemic, it is clear that we do not all feel the same way and that we are all affected differently; it is not ‘the great leveller’ which some suggested.

“Creating powerful poetry helped us to understand the impact of affective atmospheres on consumers’ experiences. We must acknowledge that consumption involves a myriad of complex emotions that meld both pleasure and pain. These emotions hold meaning in our path to achieve more inclusive and fairer experiences in times of distress such as global pandemics or economic crisis.”

Study author Dr Chloe Preece, Associate Professor at ESCP Business School in London comments:

“This consideration of how we land in given atmospheres opens up new thinking about nebulous and unpleasant emotions. Consumer research tends to glorify extraordinary experiences, yet consumption is not only about purchase satisfaction and mood boosts. In fact, one could argue, most consumption, not least the weekly grocery shop, can be boring and unpleasant. And now facing the weight of inflation and the possibility of an economic recession, fear and distress are sadly an important part of these banal atmospheres.”  

Study author Dr Victoria Rodner, Marketing Lecturer at Edinburgh University comments: “We found that what can be pleasurable experiences for some, can be deeply unpleasant for others. This can help marketers understand how the atmospherics of retail and service spaces shape the consumer experience.”

Poetry in marketing has proven to be an effective research method to challenge conventional thinking and was the chosen method in this study.

The study shows that rather than enveloping consumers uniformly, consumers land in atmospheres in a much more nuanced way than current theories account for – due to people’s backgrounds, experiences and socio-economic status.

Marketers, therefore, need more flexible understandings of how consumers land in the atmospheres curated by retailers. Consumer research has tended to glorify extraordinary experiences, but the researchers argue there is also a need to consider more mundane experiences. Examining how consumers react to atmospheres can also demonstrate how certain products and services are created in the marketplace.

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