Flash Mobs in retail environment impact consumer experience, but not willingness to pay: Beedie study

Jul 27, 2011

by Jevta Lukic

As six professional opera singers erupted in a surprise performance at Vancouver’s Granville Island Market last June – a scene akin to the Flash Mob viral videos that are so popular on YouTube – researchers from the Beedie School of Business were quietly deconstructing the scene as part of a wider academic study. The field experiment was organized by Philip Grant, an operatic tenor and then-MBA student at SFU’s Beedie School of Business, to study the influence of an operatic Flash Mob on consumer behaviour and experience.

A year later, not only is the study now slated for publication in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour (JCB) – it is also the focus of a short film that will be featured at the Association for Consumer Research’s (ACR) annual film festival in St. Louis this fall.

Grant, who is currently a PhD candidate at Luleå University of Technology in Sweden, co-authored the study with Beedie School of Business PhD candidate Anjali Bal and professors Leyland Pitt and Michael Parent.

Their research found that the Flash Mob experience, which had caused the surprised audience to laugh, dance, and sing along with the performers, had “enhanced consumer arousal, connectedness and positive emotions, as well as consumer-to-consumer interaction.” All of that, however, did not translate into a surge of cash registers ringing – specifically an increased willingness to pay for the tested consumer goods of flowers, dinners, and deserts.

While music has long known to be an effective tool for marketing, Flash Mob performances – defined as semi-spontaneous temporary communities formed for the purpose of performance in a public space – are also increasingly being used by organizations to generate buzz around their brands. But until recently, research into the impacts of such marketing stunts was lacking.

Grant, whose operatic credits include over 300 performances across North America and Europe, had the idea to marry his passions of business and music when he saw the first Operatic Flash on YouTube performed by The Valencia Opera in Spain, which was used to promote their forthcoming performance.

“There has been a lot of academic research conducted on the impact of music that is played in the background,” said Grant. “But not a lot of research has been done that looks at the impact of foreground music, particularly the Flash Mob, on consumer behaviour.”

His marketing study compared the impact of three musical conditions on shopping behaviours: no music in the market, recorded background music, and live foreground music in the form of an operatic Flash Mob performance.

The results showed that consumers kept to themselves and did not engage extensively with individuals they did not know in the environments with no music or with only background music. The results, however, took a completely different shift when the consumers were exposed to the Flash Mob performance.

The public performance gave way to “highly involved consumers” who exhibited extreme excitement and strong emotional responses to the performance. Moreover, the higher level of consumer arousal had changed the consumers’ shopping experience as many began interacting with each other and experiencing a higher-charged emotional response together.

The researchers say the “high level of interaction between producers and consumers in a Flash Mob may help companies distinguish themselves from others. This has potential to create trust between the consumer and the company, which may result in “buzz” about the company, mall, event on various social media platforms.”

Grant suspects that the Flash Mob will help marketing managers gain market share, and has begun further research as a part of his PhD dissertation.

They note that in an era where social networks are prevalent in brand and consumer identity, Flash Mobs may serve as an organic way to build relationships and feelings of connectedness between consumers and brands.

“From a marketing perspective, the unorthodox nature of the Flash Mob may allow companies to stand apart from competition and capture significant mental real estate in the mind of consumers,” said Grant.

Presented as a short film, the study will be showcased at the film festival component of the Association for Consumer Research’s (ACR) annual North American conference in St. Louis Missouri from October 13-16, 2011.

View the trailer of the short film online at YouTube