OXFORD – When Dr. Kurt Wakefield and his wife were dining in a restaurant in which they had not previously dined, the service was lousy and the food wasn’t that good. After asking around, he discovered that was always the case. Yet the restaurant was packed night after night.
“I was thinking, ‘this is lousy service and the food stinks but people are still here,’” he said.
The experience intrigued Wakefield, a marketing professor at the University of Mississippi, and he decided to find out why.
“It’s a no-brainer to figure out why people flock to winning teams and restaurants with the best service, but it’s more challenging to find out why people are drawn to losing teams, restaurants with slow service and bad food,” said Wakefield. “The bottom line: whatever we do, we do to enhance or reflect our self-concept. Whatever clothing you are wearing, or whatever sports you are interested in, you are doing to reflect your self-concept.”
People chose vehicles for the same reason, he said.
“You might drive a fancy car to look good, or to reflect your lifestyle,” said Wakefield, who drives an Infiniti. “Maybe you’re driving a rugged SUV because you think you’re rugged, or you’re enhancing it because you’re know you’re not. Older bald guys probably own all the Porsche 911s. I’m probably going to be one of those guys if I can afford one when I’m older,” he added, with a laugh.
But what about fans that have stuck with teams like the New Orleans Saints losing season after losing season? What does that say about them? Do they root for the Saints because they live close to New Orleans?
“If people identify with the New Orleans Saints, they will find a reason to identify with them,” he said.
“The number one reason? I just love football, or I just go to watch the game, or I follow a lot of teams. They deny the fact that the team is poor. Also, there are ways to build identification despite the performance of not-so-good teams, like the New Orleans Saints, or the Ain’ts, as some fans called them while wearing bags over their heads.”
On a trip to Wrigley Field in Chicago, Wakefield noticed the stands were packed even though the team wasn’t so good, he said.
“Then there’s the opposite,” he said. “The University of Southern Mississippi has had a pretty good football team over the years, but people didn’t much go to the games and the school had a real problem. That’s paradox to studying the outcome of why people are attracted to losing teams.”
Three years ago, USM invested in a huge marketing campaign, with participatory contests, to fill the stadium to a certain number and it worked, Wakefield said.
“They surpassed their goal by making home football games more like social gatherings – like Ole Miss has done with The Grove,” he said. “When people come to Ole Miss games, they flock to The Grove. Some people suggest there are more people tailgating than at the football game. People don’t come just for football, they come for the whole social gathering.”
People who identify with teams are more likely to go to the games and buy merchandise, he said.
“Look at the Dallas Cowboys,” Wakefield said. “Whether we believe it or not, they coined the phrase ‘America’s Team’ in the NFL and they sell more merchandise than any other team in the league.”
In sports, if people are highly identified with a team, they will say “we lost” or “we won,” he said.
“If people are not highly identified with a team, they’ll say, ‘they lost’ or ‘they won,’ Wakefield said.
Why do some people root consistently for the underdog, no matter who it is?
“People who root for the underdog are even more identified than those who are following the winners,” he said. “They’re basically saying, ‘I’m unique.’ It’s all positioning.”
Remember when Dr Pepper was marketed in the 1960s as “the most misunderstood soft drink” and in the 1970s as “the most original soft drink ever?”
“Dr Pepper was being marketed to say the same thing: you’re the underdog,” said Wakefield. “Ironically, Dr Pepper’s marketing campaign was successful and it is now a popular brand.”
But what about bad restaurants? Why are people attracted to them? Wakefield sent mystery shoppers to area restaurants to rate the quality of the food and the facility. The result? Most people flock to others like themselves.
“In general psychological terms, we all have people we want to identify with,” he said. “We all have a need to be affiliated. That’s how we tell others who we are. If you’ve found a restaurant that is where you go to spend time and money, you’ve established it as your kind of place. And you’re surrounded by people who think pretty much the same way you do – at least about that restaurant.”
When the tables were turned on Wakefield, he was a bit surprised. His favorite drink? Diet Dr Pepper, “not because of the brand, but because of taste.” He faithfully follows Ole Miss football, L.A. Lakers basketball and Cincinnati Reds baseball. He doesn’t identify with professional football teams because “football players seem to have lost their willingness to stick with one team.”
He and his wife have three children “who would prefer Tommy Hilfiger clothing, but we’ve taught them to be a little more frugal and buy at the off-price retailers. We’re not paying full mark-up. Perceptions, right?”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.