A lifelong passion

Assistant Professor Renee Richardson Gosline finds connections between social networks and consumer-brand relationships

Renée Richardson GoslineRenée Richardson Gosline

Renee Richardson Gosline says she has always been curious about the decisions people make with regards to the things they buy and what signals are sent through those choices. “I think that it really came out of the fact that I was raised by recent immigrants in an ethnic enclave,” she explains, “and I accompanied my parents in their discovery of the ways in which the things that people buy say something about them in American society.”

Before entering academia she spent years working as a marketing practitioner. She was a planner and account supervisor at Leo Burnett and a brand management associate at LVMH (Moët Hennessey - Louis Vuitton). Now, her research centers on the various ways social networks affect consumer-brand relationships, and how brands—particularly luxury brands—serve as signifiers of social status. The move to academia has been a rewarding one for her and has allowed her to expand her exploration of ideas that have fascinated her since her youth. “As a practitioner,” she explains, “you are focused on the particular brand that you are working on. What really was surprising to me when I moved into the academic realm is how universal certain kinds of non-rational decisions are, and how the broader social structure affects social behavior regardless of the category or the brand you are talking about.” “Marketing,” she says, “is something that I think is just a natural extension of sociological inquiry —it’s an applied inquiry into how social structure impacts individual behavior.”

Reconsidering the role of counterfeits

Much of professor Gosline’s recent research has focused on the complicated relationship luxury brands share with counterfeit products and “knock-off” imitations. Over the course of two and a half years, Gosline conducted research with buyers of authentic luxury products as well as buyers of imitations, uncovering the surprising fact that the presence of a counterfeit did not always damage a brand. In fact, oftentimes the availability of imitations would increase the salience of the actual products. “Strangely enough,” she says, “for people who buy imitation merchandise, the counterfeit serves almost as a kind of bizarre placebo, but a placebo where a relationship with the real brand develops nonetheless. This shows how powerful brands can be.”

According to her research, 40 percent of people who purchased fakes eventually went on to buy the real thing. And for those buyers who had been loyal to the brand from the beginning, counterfeits only seemed to make them more refined in their knowledge and expertise of the real. “What I found is that consumers judge the authenticity of the product by whether you, the consumer, behaves in a manner that is authentic to the brand. So the fact that people buy imitations doesn’t really bother them. They look at these people as ‘wannabees.’ So their willingness to pay is preserved.” This, she points out, explains why Louis Vuitton has experienced unprecedented growth simultaneous to an unprecedented rise in counterfeiting.

Bridging the gap between disciplines

“I am loving MIT Sloan,” says Gosline. “What first drew me here were all of the amazing people and the types of research they were doing. But what I also found to be very compelling was the fact that at MIT everybody seems to be doing something different, and that is actually something that is encouraged. There is a sense of research having validity and being important regardless of the area of inquiry. There really is a cross disciplinary emphasis and I like that. I have one foot in the marketing group and one foot in the economic sociology group, and I really enjoy playing that bridging function.”

“The research that I am doing may, at first blush, seem to be a little off the beaten path. So I really feel more confident in my ability to do my work in a place that values breaking new ground.”