University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 58: Amy Watson Explains Her Research on the Impact of Symbiotic Consumption

February 12, 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Amy Watson is an Assistant Professor of Marketing and TED Talk Fellow at Oregon State University-Cascades. She received her Ph.D. in Marketing from the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Amy's teaching areas include Principles of Marketing, digital analytics, advertising/promotions, consumer behavior, and statistics.

Episode Transcript

00:08 Matt Waller: I'm Matt Waller Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be Epic, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. And what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today Amy Watson, who's an assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University-Cascades. She's also a TED Talk fellow and she received her PhD in Marketing from The Walton College, back in 2001, and she taught all kinds of things while she was here, from Business Statistics to Consumer Behavior to Integrated Marketing Communications. But someone sent me a TED Talk that she did. It was about this concept of symbiotic consumption, which I'd never heard of before and I thought it was so relevant to a number of things that I was exposed to. So Amy, thank you for taking time to visit with me today.

01:21 Amy Watson: Thank you so much for having me, I'm thrilled to be back at Walton. Thrilled to be back in Fayetteville.

01:27 Matt Waller: So, Amy, what led you to do this TED talk?

01:30 Amy Watson: Well, actually, the seed of the concept was started at my time here at the University of Arkansas, and my dissertation. This is out of the research that I did, I started collecting the data and formulating the idea all the way back in 2009, so it took a full 10 years before this idea really led to, what you refer to as a concept you've never heard of. And that's 'cause it took me 10 years to create it. [chuckle]

01:58 Matt Waller: Oh.

02:00 Amy Watson: Of symbiotic consumption. And it was really born out of... Honestly, my life journey and personal experiences, I grew up in a very rural, conservative, uneducated community. My family, personally, was uneducated and so I'm the first college graduate. And so just really going through the tensions of religious and political differences in communities that I was deeply involved in, still very deeply involved with my family and friends from back home but also looking at the academic community and the research enterprise and colleagues, much more liberal portions of the state, or have much more progressive ideas.

02:42 Amy Watson: And so, really figuring out how I personally was able to manage and learn from and grow from those differences, I really thought... I know I'm not the only person who's faced this, I know I'm not the only person who has experienced this. And so how can I turn this idea and this research that I've been working on for 10 years, into something that will hopefully give people some ideas and tools for how to manage difference, a little bit more productively?

03:13 Matt Waller: So you are a first-generation college student?

03:17 Amy Watson: I am.

03:18 Matt Waller: But you didn't just get a degree, you got a PhD. You got a undergrad, Masters and PhD, and now you're a professor, and you teach and you do research. So you went from one extreme to the other.

03:32 Amy Watson: I really did, and I can say it was because of the impact of one of my undergraduate professors, Dr. Steve Parker. And it is in no way that my parents didn't love me or want the best for me, they most certainly did, it simply wasn't in their field of experience to be able to help me navigate a wider array of opportunities or options than what they had personally experienced. So I was very fortunate that I received a scholarship, and that's the only reason I was able to go to my undergraduate program.

04:09 Amy Watson: And then once I got there, I had a professor who pulled me aside after class one day and asked me, "What are you planning on doing once you graduate?" And honestly, nobody had really asked me and forced me to give an answer as to what I was going to do. And so this professor, they didn't just ask me, they said, "You have potential. I'm willing to help you navigate the variety of options that are available to you." And I followed up on that, and they were true to their word, and they spent the entire rest of my undergraduate time mentoring me through the different career decisions and choices, and it was actually ultimately them who encouraged me to go and seek graduate degrees.

04:57 Amy Watson: Whenever I was in high school, I really wasn't even planning on going and getting my undergraduate degree. So, to then be applying to PhD programs, I was really naive and I had no idea really what I was doing, but it was the mentors in my life who really helped me with that process. And that led me then to the University of Arkansas, where then Dr. Jeff Murray became one of my life changing mentors as well and helped me through the PhD program. So yeah, being a first generation college student, there are obviously a lot of unknowns and a lot of times you feel like maybe you don't belong and it isn't the place for you, even though it most definitely is. And so now as a professor, I make it my life mission to be a Dr. Parker or Dr Murray to somebody else.

05:50 Matt Waller: Didn't you grew up in one of the poorest counties in Missouri?

05:56 Amy Watson: I did grow up in a very poor county. We had the highest percentage of free and reduced lunches. I myself was on free and reduced lunch programs. We also had the highest rate of teen pregnancies, at one point, my junior year, three of the four homecoming queen candidates were pregnant. [chuckle] Also, at that time, meth was just becoming part of the conversation and was really beginning to take a foothold. But again, my parents, to their credit, well, they personally hadn't gone through those, they knew what I was capable of, and so they always... They challenged me not to settle for the status quo of maybe what was around me. To be my best and not to base what my best was based on what was around me.

06:51 Matt Waller: What was your dissertation topic here?

06:56 Amy Watson: Yeah, so my dissertation was fashion and interaction, so that's what started this whole thing, looking at symbiotic consumption was "How do consumers use the things that are available in the marketplace to influence their interactions with one another?" So I was really interested in some of my experiences. How do... The type of home that we choose to buy and live in, and the part of town? 'cause that was one of the big things I remember, a decision early on after I had had a little bit of success and I had a little... I had more financial resources and I was faced with this decision of buying my first house and I wanted to fit in with my co-workers and my colleagues, but I didn't wanna live in a house or a place that would make my friends and family uncomfortable.

07:45 Amy Watson: So really kind of balancing that, how do I have something as large and as visible as a house that is welcoming to a wide variety of people that are in my life that I interact with? And that's really is where this whole notion of symbiotic consumption really came from.

08:03 Matt Waller: So what is a way you can explain symbiotic consumption for someone like me that doesn't understand it?

08:10 Amy Watson: Yeah, so symbiotic consumption is the purposeful display of items that seek to increase interactivity between people who maybe have a really wide variety of differences. So a really good example, coming from my dissertation work that was done here in Walton, was I had... Some of my students that I interviewed, I interviewed High School students, and they were really big into label-less products.

08:46 Amy Watson: They wanted label-less clothing, they wanted... They even tried label-less deodorant, which then they said they did not recommend. [chuckle] So if you get nothing else out of this podcast, supposedly, you don't go with a generic deodorant, it doesn't work as well. And I mean, these are 17-year-olds, telling me that used to, whenever they were in middle school, they were really into Elements clothing or Abercrombie & Fitch clothing, and then as they got into high school, they wanted to fit in with a wider variety of people. They didn't wanna just be known as the indie musician group, or they didn't wanna be known as the skaters and they didn't wanna be known as whatever. And so, in order to promote them being able to seamlessly move in and out of a wider variety of groups, they purposely chose clothing that didn't pigeonhole them, if you will, in a particular group. They didn't wanna look like the skaters, they wanted to be able to get along with the skaters but they also wanted to be able to get along with the speech and debate kids. So that is what symbiotic consumption is, it's purposely choosing products that allow you to move more seamlessly between a wider variety of groups of people.

10:08 Matt Waller: Interesting, so we have an increasingly polarized political environment in the United States right now. Does this kind of concept help think through how to get more civility and ways to overcome differences?

10:27 Amy Watson: Yes, that is my hope for this. Obviously, I don't want this concept just to be something that marketers exploit to sell more products to a wider variety of people. My ultimate goal is that we learn and take from examples in nature, so the example of the cleaner wrasse, and how that is a prey who has a symbiotic relationship with predators, much larger predators like moray eels and sharks, in order for them to both benefit in ways that are key to their survival. And I really think that that parallel exists between people with different ideologies in our culture today where we are so divided. We aren't going to be able to continue to progress economically and culturally as a society if we remain so divided. I think that we need to be discussing and debating the issues. We need to be debating guns, gun rights, abortion, immigration, you really need to focus on the issue, rather than the person that you're discussing the issue with.

11:39 Amy Watson: And so it requires more work on your part, to be symbiotic. You have to be better informed about the topics of which you're discussing, you have to go into those conversations, actually having done the research on the facts and the history of the topic that you're discussing rather than just letting it dissolve into, "Oh, well, who can throw out the biggest insult" and that be the nature of winning an argument.

12:08 Matt Waller: When you look at your future research, are you gonna continue to build on this and what are some things you're gonna be looking at?

12:17 Amy Watson: Absolutely going to be building on this. What I really want to dive into next is what is the driving force and the motivation behind people who do not want to be symbiotic? So the troll mentality, and those who, really, their goal is to incite and their goal is to create more division. I really wanna understand why that is. The research that I've done up to this point, most people don't like the way that that division feels, but we see that activity taking kind of the forefront. It's more sensational, so we see it covered in the news, and by the media, we obviously see that taking place in the larger national political field. And so I want to understand the behavior that isn't symbiotic so that I can do a better job of communicating how to remain symbiotic, even in those extremely difficult situations.

13:22 Matt Waller: So Amy, when you look at the kind of research you've done in marketing, it shows you how complex marketing topics really are. A lot of people wouldn't even know this was a marketing topic, but it clearly is.

13:38 Amy Watson: Right.

13:39 Matt Waller: I know your focus in this isn't necessarily how to sell more products, but how could the symbiotic consumption concept help a company from a marketing perspective?

13:54 Amy Watson: Right. Absolutely. Well, we have seen this with some symbols. So, Pepe the Frog was the symbol created by a political cartoonist and it wound up being adapted by basically white supremacist groups and then eventually being added to the hate symbol registry. So marketers have to understand the cultural narrative around their brands, and around their products. And doing so, for the majority of people who don't want to be labeled in one of the extreme camps, then it's really important that we understand as brands how the symbolism of our brand is being used by consumers and how it's being either adapted or even kind of juxtaposed or perverted even in the market place. Once something becomes such a ubiquitous part of the culture, and the culture feels like they own that brand, then the marketers kind of struggle to have control to maintain control over that. So I think that's kind of the biggest way.

15:11 Matt Waller: We know people pay influencers to use their products. There may be a particular product that a company pays someone to show that... Maybe not to say, "well I drink this product," but to show them drinking it.

15:25 Amy Watson: Right, absolutely. Yeah, the influencer marketing is huge and I think is a big part of this, because you have to be really careful whenever you're choosing those. Is that person accepted by our target audience? Is that person seen as an aspirant by our target audience? Or is it seen as somebody that we absolutely despise and don't wanna be like? The Kardashians are so polarizing. There are people who absolutely cannot stand the Kardashians and everything that they mean and stand for, yet you can't deny the financial and cultural power that they have been able to use.

16:13 Amy Watson: And so, understanding what it means to align your brand with something like a Kardashian or something like a Kanye West, and especially now, we're seeing this transformation in somebody like Kanye West, who's now holding Sunday services and has a last album that just dropped, and he has Jesus in the title and he's backed by a gospel choir. So that's the problem and the opportunity for brands, are oftentimes... I mean not oftentimes, every time you partner with an influencer, they are human and humans change.

16:49 Matt Waller: Well even if they aren't intending to, if a company has a particular brand of a drink and say, an extremist of some sort, a militant extremist of some sort, on all of their YouTube channels, drinks this product.

17:09 Amy Watson: Yup.

17:10 Matt Waller: It could be a matter of time before it's associated with this.

17:13 Amy Watson: Yeah, that is exactly right.

17:16 Matt Waller: And other militant extremists in that category might start consuming it, and then the brand can't really do much to combat that, can they?

17:25 Amy Watson: No, that's what you're saying, at a point, the brand kind of loses control, which is obviously really scary. And if you look at the weight of information sources, whenever consumers are in their decision-making process, brand-controlled information sources are the least impactful. Word-of-mouth is more impactful. Public sources which are gonna be things like YouTubers, or social media influencers, they have more weight than the elements of a brand that the brand can actually control. And so that becomes the tension, and that's why understanding a concept like symbiotic consumption and the interfacing between cultural values and branding, why that's so important for brands, for marketers to stay on top of those and to constantly be doing market analysis and research of those, so they have an understanding of how and where their brand is being adapted and by whom.

18:22 Matt Waller: Amy, this is such an important topic. Thank you so much for taking time to share with us, I really appreciate it.

18:22 Amy Watson: Of course.

18:22 Matt Waller: And we're proud to have you as an alum.

18:22 Amy Watson: Oh thank you. I wear my razorback gear very proudly.


18:22 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe, and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepic podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast, and now, be epic.


Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

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Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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