Talkin’ with teachers: Medill’s Ashlee Humphreys

She’s a professor of marketing who studies “how industries become socially accepted.”
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Ashlee Humphreys

· 4 min read

What do casino gambling and cannabis have in common?

Medill School of Journalism Professor Ashlee Humphreys has the answer: She has been studying how industries become socially accepted for some time now. Or, in fancy academic speak, she studies “the role legal and cultural institutions play in creating markets and the influence of language on consumer judgments of legitimacy, and the process of consumer cocreation.”

Marketing Brew sat down with Humphreys, a sociologist who specializes in marketing strategy and consumer behavior, to learn about her experience and hear her thoughts on the trends du jour in the industry.

How’d you end up becoming a professor of marketing?

I didn’t know that you could get a PhD in marketing. That was something that was new to me when I was an undergraduate. I was a philosophy student and I was an economics student, and I wanted to go to graduate school, so I applied and got into a philosophy PhD program, and then I applied and got into one marketing PhD program after writing my honors theses on brand value. That program was Kellogg, and I decided to go there. It seemed to have the most options I was most interested in.

Could you give a high-level overview of the research you’ve done?

I study how industries become socially accepted, particularly new or formerly illegal industries. So some of my first work was on casino gambling, and I followed that work up with looking at industries like cannabis, for example. So that’s a good part of my work. I also study social media and have a book on social media. I also look at other industries where the companies lead rather than the consumers. So I’ve done work in wine, for example, where it’s important for companies to kind of develop new products that they think are interesting, irrespective of consumers.

What do you enjoy about teaching marketing? What’s fun about it?

I enjoy teaching when new things happen. I’ve taught social media since 2012, 2013. It’s always exciting to come in and teach it every year because things change—sometimes drastically, sometimes just in small ways.

What are the challenges of teaching this industry?

One challenge, at least in teaching students, is that marketing is a mix of analytical and creative skills. And students have different talents. So sometimes the students are really heterogeneous, where they’re maybe really good at analytics, but not so good at some other stuff, and then other students are really great at the creative and strategic part, but maybe not great at analytics. So in teaching marketing, it is sometimes harder to teach both of those skill sets at the same time.

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Are there any brands you think do marketing particularly well?

For me, it’s always a question of not just the marketing, but also the core business and the products. They both have to be there. So if you look at a brand like Quince, for example, it seems like they have really good, quality products, and their marketing tactics and marketing strategy have been on point to reach the target audience where they resonate. Then again, a lot of their success, I think, has also been through word-of-mouth and other informal channels, because it’s been driven by the underlying product quality and positioning.

What technology in the marketing industry are you excited about, and why?

I don’t know, because I think there are two sides of it. There’s the technology piece, which is what we can do with reaching customers, for example. But then there’s the other piece of the real strategy and the human piece. I’m not sure that the human piece always keeps up with the technology. For instance, if you look at retargeting, where, if I shop for a pair of shoes on Monday, I’m going to see that pair of shoes Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday when I go check my email or whatever. That’s technologically possible, and that might seem great. But the human strategic side of it might say, “Wait, no, maybe don’t do that.” There are good reasons to hold off. While I see some great technological advances, I don’t see them match equally often with good, smart strategy. And so I’m a little more ambivalent about the technology.

I assume you might have similar beliefs about ChatGPT?

I really don’t know what to make of it, to be honest. I’ve written a book about social media, I do write about technology, and my take is usually that it’s probably not going to be as big of a deal as everybody thinks it’s going to be. It may not change everything, and it may have some surprising outcomes that we wouldn’t expect, but I see the changes that it introduces as really more of a continuum of what’s already happening, rather than some kind of radical break.

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Marketing Brew informs marketing pros of the latest on brand strategy, social media, and ad tech via our weekday newsletter, virtual events, marketing conferences, and digital guides.