Image of Business Instructional Facility

Sep 10, 2021 2021-09 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Multicultural marketing and power of paradox brands

Even before its official release, reporters were anticipating the big news to come out of the latest US Census — that America is diversifying at an ever-accelerating rate. According to Newsweek, estimates from the 2020 US census suggest that less than half of residents currently under 18 are white, and that trend is only expected to grow, which means that multi-cultural shoppers who were once on the periphery of consumption in America are moving rapidly toward its core. And those who want their business need to understand how they think.

“Companies like McDonald’s have whole departments dedicated to figuring this out,” said new Gies assistant professor Maria Rodas, who knows because she’s worked for many of them. After completing a BA at Harvard and MBA at Columbia, Rodas spent more than a decade as a marketing manager, helping companies like General Mills, Wrigley, and Colgate-Palmolive navigate the complexities of cross-cultural marketing. She loved her work, but eventually realized that the higher she went up the corporate ladder, the farther she would be from the consumer research that was truly her passion. So, she decided to switch gears, pursuing a PhD at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, and a life in academia where she was free to pursue the questions that intrigued her.

One of her most recent projects examined the marketing preferences of bicultural consumers, which is a demographic she knows very well. Rodas, who was born in Guatemala, moved to New Mexico at a young age to attend an international high school, and she’s been in the States ever since, giving her a unique appreciation for two different cultures. According to her research, people who share this cultural duality develop a sense of cognitive flexibility that allows them to see the world from many different angles. And that flexibility draws them to brands that are a little more complex than their traditional counterparts.

“Because of this cognitive flexibility, we find that brands that have contradiction, or what we call ‘paradox brands,’ tend to be more appealing,” said Rodas, citing a well-known British automotive brand as a prime example. “Land Rover positions itself as a very rugged car. That’s its history, but now it’s super luxurious.” It’s a rugged vehicle, designed for the highly refined. Like Jeep owners, people who drive Land Rovers may go off road, but they do it on large private estates.

Rodas says that bicultural audiences — who already represent a third of the US population — are more engaged by these paradoxical brands, evaluating them more favorably and choosing them more often than traditional brands without contradictions. As demographics continue to shift, insights like these could prove very useful in marketing, which is why she’s excited to be joining the marketing department at Gies.

Rodas, who has spent the last two years teaching at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business, says that Gies is a top business school and has always been one of her top teaching choices for a couple of reasons. For one, she admires all the outstanding faculty in the Department of Business Administration, including Carlos Torelli, who served as her advisor at Minnesota. And for another, it aligns very closely with her research interests. “I’ve had several conversations with people in the department discussing the opportunity to further establish Gies marketing as the place for cross-cultural and multicultural consumer behavior research,” said Rodas. “And I’d love to be part of that.”

Rodas, who will be teaching a consumer behavior and a brand management course in the spring, says she looks forward to working with the Gies faculty who have already raised the bar in her field of study, such as Sharon Shavitt and Carlos Torelli. “They are some of the top experts in the field of cross-cultural consumer behavior,” said Rodas. And she can’t wait to join them, taking part in exciting research collaborations while sharing her passion for the subject with the next generation of marketers at Gies.