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Helen Chun’s passion is to understand human behavior—the motivations and emotions of consumers—and strategies for marketing and consumer satisfaction.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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“Because you spent a lot of time elaborating on the future moments, you encode pleasant emotions, and those get retrieved when you’re actually going through your vacation or watching a movie.”
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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A dark side of consumer behavior is taking items from hotels as reminders of the experience; Chun’s research looks at types of promotional gifts companies can give consumers, based on consumer motivation.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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Chun also studies incentives and consumer satisfaction for hotel green programs, as well as how to entice consumers to make healthier choices, using eco-friendly food packaging, for example.
Jesse Winter
Jesse Winter

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“I want to try to put the knowledge, insights, and wisdom together to better consumer welfare and society as a whole, while helping companies strategize to enrich consumer experience.”
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter
Beatrice Jin; Jesse Winter

Consumer Behavior—Motivations, Emotions

by Caitlin Hayes

When we think of a good consumer experience, we’re apt to think of the experience itself—going to a movie, eating a good meal, or staying at a nice hotel. But the pleasure of that experience, says Helen Chun, School of Hotel Administration, extends beyond the boundaries of the event itself.

“I’m looking at what happens before the consumer arrives at your property, the pre-consumption stage, and then what happens after the visit, the post-consumption stage,” Chun says. “It’s a more holistic view of consumer experience that has provided many exciting research opportunities.”

Understanding the motivations and emotions of consumers is Chun’s passion, partly because consumer behavior is a way of understanding herself and the world. “At the end of the day, I’m a consumer,” she says. “Ideas often come up as I observe cues in my daily life. It could be at the grocery store or at a restaurant. My research is an exploration into motivations behind human behaviors.”

Anticipation, Savoring an Upcoming Experience

You will obviously enjoy your favorite dessert while eating it. “But you can also savor the thought of eating it before you do it,” Chun says. “We often savor an upcoming experience.”

Chun and colleagues Kristin Diehl and Deborah J. MacInnis (University of Southern California) have found that savoring a future experience actually increases the pleasure of the experience itself. From numerous experiments and surveys in varied contexts, Chun says that the data consistently points to this power of anticipation.

“Because you spent a lot of time elaborating on the future moments, you encode pleasant emotions, and those get retrieved when you’re actually going through your vacation or watching a movie,” Chun says. “And because of the more positive experience, when you come back from the trip, two months later you still find that experience to be more enjoyable.”

For companies, this pre-consumption period may therefore be a valuable and under-utilized area in which to impact consumer satisfaction. “So we think about strategies for how you can manage a consumer’s anticipation,” Chun says. She points to Viking River Cruises’ marketing as exemplar. Before the trip they send brochures, video clips, short phrases in foreign languages, based on the destinations. BMW, likewise, allows customers to track production at each phase, building anticipation for the car’s arrival.  

“Some companies are already doing interesting things,” Chun says. “But there was no evidence that using these strategies made the actual experience much more exciting. Now, there is.”

A Gift To Remind

The more pleasurable experience transforms into positive memories—memories that could be triggered with a keepsake or gift. In a related line of research, Chun looks at how the post-consumption phase might be impacted by material goods.

“Sometimes there’s a dark side of consumer behavior, like taking things away from the hotel. Managers report a lot of those incidents!” Chun says. She looked at this phenomenon with Robert Kwortnik, School of Hotel Administration. “One of the interesting underlying motivations we found is that the consumer wants something that will remind them of the nice time they had or of their honeymoon or some occasion,” Chun explains.

Given this consumer desire to remember their experiences, Chun, in another work, looks at what promotional gifts companies like hotels should give consumers. “Maybe it should be a tangible, material gift like a mug or a bathrobe. Maybe it should be more experiential, like free dinner or drinks,” Chun says.

To decide, companies must look closely at consumers’ motivations and goals. “If it’s the customer’s first time in that area, or they’re celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, really special moments, they have a motivation to remember the trip,” she explains. “So the value of material gifts will be heightened. But if it’s an ordinary trip, the majority of consumers prefer an experiential gift.”

By understanding motivations, companies can tailor their gifts and get the most customer satisfaction out of their investment—and consumers will be happier, too.

Go Green—Incentives and Satisfaction

Chun also has lines of research that find strategies to help companies incorporate social programming. These programs might ask patrons to donate to a charity or to sacrifice a service for the greater good. Take green programs promoted by hotels, where consumers can voluntarily forego cleaning services.

Many managers worry that the customer’s satisfaction will be compromised by the request. How do you get consumers to participate without diminishing their satisfaction? This question intrigued Chun and Michael Giebelhausen, School of Hotel Administration.

The answer isn’t simple, Chun says. “What we found is that those who voluntarily participate in green programs are in fact much more satisfied with a service experience because of the warm glow that they feel. For nonparticipating consumers—those who need their rooms cleaned—if they refuse the company’s request, their satisfaction decreases. So you have a dilemma. You’re making participants happier but nonparticipating consumers less happy. So how would you manage this?”

“My research does not have a single-sided benefit for the companies. It also benefits consumer welfare, helping consumers self-regulate themselves, knowing how your emotion changes before and after an indulgence.”

Providing incentives for participation could help, but this isn’t so easy, either. If they are self-benefiting incentives, such as a free drink or money, it decreases the warm glow of those who would have participated anyway. If the incentive benefits others, such as a donation to a homeless shelter, the nonparticipating consumers feel even worse.

“Our solution is to design an incentive that we called a mixed bundle—a mixture of incentive options. Either consumers can donate to an organization that benefits others or they can choose a self-benefiting incentive,” Chun says. “If you have this bundle, both participating and nonparticipating consumers can selectively interpret it in different ways that protect their positive self-image.” By providing companies with these psychological and managerial insights, Chun gives them the tools to help others and the environment and to build a socially responsible brand.

Consumer Research for the Greater Good

A number of Chun’s studies aim not just to increase a consumer’s pleasure, but to help them make better, healthier choices for themselves. Together with Giebelhausen and Brian Wansink, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, she looked at the impact of green packaging, finding that consumers unconsciously reduce the amount of unhealthy food they consume when using recycled or eco-friendly food packaging.

Chun and Manoj Thomas, Johnson Graduate School of Management, also studied pre- and post-consumption regret, discovering in many contexts that anticipated regret before an indulgence is more intense than post-indulgence regret. When trying to motivate people to care for themselves, for instance, to quit smoking or to eat healthy foods, Chun’s research indicates that it may not be helpful to ask them to reflect on a past transgression. Instead, asking people to anticipate their regret could be a more powerful deterrent to self-destructive behavior.

“Overall, my research does not have a single-sided benefit for the companies. It also benefits consumer welfare, helping consumers self-regulate themselves, knowing how your emotion changes before and after an indulgence,” Chun says. “The green packaging study has great implications for public policy, too—how to nudge consumers to make better choices by designing packaging. I want to try to put the knowledge, insights, and wisdom together to better consumer welfare and society as a whole, while helping companies strategize to enrich consumer experience.”

Research, Industry, and Education

Chun has found that Cornell is the perfect place to do this kind of applied research. “It’s just this great research fate that drew me to the school,” she says. “I can access relevant data and have frequent interactions with industry people, sparking a lot more ideas and enriching my research—all because of the place that I’m in.”

Being a professor also allows Chun to combine her interests in consumer behavior with her commitment to education. “Both of my parents were professors in Korea,” she says. “I grew up in this academic family, and that’s one of the biggest assets that I cherish. There was a very community-like environment between the students and teachers, so our house was often bustling with students. Their dedication to education and research motivated me to be like them.”