Every decision we make is driven by our values, whether we consciously consider them or not. This may not matter in the bread aisle, but what about in life’s big decisions, the ones that influence our futures—like decisions about schools and jobs?
Aziza Jones (BBA ’13), assistant professor of marketing and Jeffrey J. Diermeier Faculty Fellow, explores these questions to understand how social factors influence consumer behavior and how people use products to shape the way they are perceived by others. She also studies social influence, examining how racial identity impacts interpersonal decision-making.
Recently, Jones has expanded her research to explore how parents make school choices, how those choices might contribute to racial segregation in schools, and how schools can help mitigate it through strategic marketing approaches.
WSB: As a marketer, how did you come to study school segregation?
Aziza Jones: Parents now have considerable freedom to choose where they want to send their kids to school. So, my colleagues and I had this idea to look at the public school system as a marketplace. We asked, “What are the impacts of parents having more school choice than ever before? Could this be contributing to school racial segregation?”
WSB: There must be other research on school segregation. How is this different?
AJ: There’s a lot of literature on how structural issues and cognitive biases can keep Black families in Black schools, Hispanic families in Hispanic schools, etc. In marketing, we know that when people have certain product preferences, they tend to huddle around the same products. For example, Apple buyers tend to value sleek technology, while Microsoft buyers tend to value certain software and platform capabilities. Having those preferences automatically creates somewhat homogenous environments in terms of who’s selecting which products. We used that perspective within the school system, to ask, “Are Black and white parents making school decisions differently, just based on school attributes such as commute length or school performance?”
WSB: How did you conduct the study and what did you find?
AJ: We used a novel statistical approach to model what an environment would look like with data from Indianapolis school districts. After eliminating the factors of structural issues and cognitive bias, we found that there are huge differences in the way that parents are making decisions. In most districts, schools vary in performance, commute length, teacher quality, and demographics. Our work shows that Black parents, for example, are more willing to sacrifice the latter qualities in favor of superior school performance. So, if there is a community with two schools—one top performing but with a long commute and the other slightly lower performing but with a shorter commute—families end up self-segregating, not because they’re trying to avoid each other, but because of the different weights placed on these schools.
WSB: So, what does this mean for schools?
AJ: Marketers know that to pull someone toward a brand, you have to speak to the attributes they value. Current school marketing tends to be word of mouth. Our research is offering that, all else being equal, schools should use different marketing strategies with parents of different ethnicities to help reduce segregation. Consumer preferences are malleable.
WSB: Do your findings have implications outside of schools?
AJ: Yes. If you think about big decisions people make about careers or industries—really anywhere that groups have free choice—there is potential for self-segregating, whether consciously or not. I think this can have an impact on the way that we talk about different careers and education, including higher education, to attract a more diverse group. It’s not just about marketing a diverse group to attract a diverse group, it’s really honing in on the values that influence consumer decisions.
WSB: How does this study complement your research on social identity?
AJ: Social identities—the development of social meaning and narratives that people understand about themselves and others—are deeply associated with environment. If we can find ways for groups like schools and certain industries to have more integrated environments, especially by acknowledging and addressing the free choice taking place in these marketplaces, then social identities become more complex, less caricatured overall. I hope that my research will help us have a better understanding of the intersection of branding, community, and consumer behavior.