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Freeman Wu Studies Aesthetics and Their Effects on Consumer Behavior

Oct 4, 2019
The assistant professor of marketing is researching debit card designs, sneaky celebrity-brand partnerships, and putting photos of people on desserts

By Kara Sherrer

Freeman Wu

Like many hopeful undergraduates, Freeman Wu once intended to pursue a career in medicine. He did eventually become a doctor — just not the kind who can operate on you. Wu is now an assistant professor of marketing at the Owen Graduate School of Management, where he teaches the Principles of Marketing class and researches aesthetics and consumer behavior.

Wu become interested in consumer behavior during his undergraduate education at the University of British Columbia – Vancouver when he took an introduction to social psychology class. “I was fascinated, though not so much what goes on inside the brain. I think that’s cool, too, but what goes on between people — that’s what I found the most fascinating,” he recalled.

At the time Wu was working at Starbucks, and he decided to pick up a second job. The marketing department was hiring research assistants, so Wu applied and got a position helping out in the lab. The job furthered his interest in marketing and cemented his desire to pursue a Ph.D.

After graduating college, he applied to Ph.D. programs and ultimately enrolled Arizona State University. While there, Wu narrowed his research interests to focus on how consumers navigate retail environments. “As a consumer researcher, oftentimes, I introspect a lot. I look at how I behave irrationally, to try to study that,” he explained.

In fact, Wu got the idea for his dissertation from personal experience. He’d taken a beautiful printed napkin from a friend’s Christmas party and left it sitting on his desk for months. During the spring, he ran out of tissues while suffering from allergies — but didn’t want to use the napkin because it looked so pretty.

That experience inspired him to start researching the aesthetics of both products and retail settings and how these appearances can impact consumer behavior. Ultimately, Wu and his colleagues turned the research into a paper that was published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

“My dissertation was all built around this notion that, yes, we know that consumers like to purchase and acquire beautiful things. But once they buy them, should we just assume that they’re going to use them?” he said.

Wu has several other studies in the works that examine aesthetics within different contexts. One project looks at the aesthetics of debit cards and other payment methods and how that enhances the purchase experience. Another investigates the practice of celebrity seeding — when brands send celebrities product samples in hopes that the star will be photographed with the item.

“When we see (a celebrity) out in the public consuming Smart Water, we think, ‘Oh, she must actually like this product,’” he said. “What we don’t realize is oftentimes they’re given these free gifts… which is a very sneaky way of marketers getting consumers to like the brand.”

In another project, Wu is looking at the recent trend of putting pictures of loved ones on cakes, M&Ms, and other desserts and how these pictures affect people’s desire to consume the sweet treats. “People love personalizing products, but it just kind of feels weird when you’re cutting into grandma’s face on a birthday cake,” he said.

Finally, Wu is working with Kelly Haws, Anne Marie and Thomas B. Walker, Jr. Professor of Marketing, on a study looking at messy satiation and its potential consequences. “If you mess up your food intentionally, that can actually be an intervention to increase your satiation,” he explained. “It looks disgusting, and you actually get tired of the food more quickly, which would be an effective intervention for curbing over-consumption.”

For all the research he does on food, Wu says he’s not that skilled of a cook, though he does enjoy eating at Nashville’s many delicious restaurants with his partner. “I’ve realized that there are things that I’m good at, like research. Then there are things that I’m not so good at, and cooking is one of them,” he laughed.

To learn more about Freeman Wu and his work, visit his bio.

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