Vulnerable Consumers Seminar Series

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Business School


The proposed programme of discussions connects with a series of important contemporary concerns that relate to broad issues of individual and societal well-being.

We focus on consumer vulnerability and characterise it as an undesirable state catalysed by a number of human conditions and contexts. Vulnerability is not necessarily experienced as a permanent state and can often be felt in times of transition - job loss, bereavement, ill health, natural disaster, ageing and the identity and lifestyle shift required in becoming a parent. These conditions and characteristics affect how individuals experience, interpret and respond to the marketplace and often how the marketplace responds to them.

For some time now consumer disadvantage and vulnerability has been explored by consumer researchers striving to highlight particular human conditions and positively affect individual well-being. Studies focussing on poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, immigration, illness, ageing, bereavement, and the vulnerability of children as consumers deepen our understanding of the difficulties individuals face in the marketplace. What began as a few notable studies has coalesced into a nascent yet viable research stream, often organised under the banner of Transformative Consumer Research. The impact of this work is considerable yet further research is needed to understand the contradictions and contingencies of consumer vulnerability, particularly with regard to the social consequences of consumption. For example, marketing practice is frequently indicted as a force which reduces consumer well-being and has a negative affect on society at large.

Such insight into individual human behaviour has the potential to enhance quality of life. A less ambitious but nevertheless important aim is to provide consumers with 'a voice.' This is a highly significant aspect of the study of vulnerability within marketing, a discipline which has historically had a managerial focus. Increasingly consumer research emphasises how consumption relates to the rest of human existence, creating legitimacy for macro and non-managerial marketing topics. However, interest in the societal consequences of marketing does not appear to extend the same degree of legitimacy to all consumer populations. Vulnerable consumer groups often remain under-represented in depictions of the marketplace.

A key objective of the series is to raise the profile of research with vulnerable populations of consumers within the marketing discipline by showcasing national and international research excellence. Further, we wish to create inter-disciplinary dialogue which can encourage both methodological best practice and increase research capacity through future collaborations. A third objective is to engage in mutual knowledge exchange with user-groups, practitioners and policy makers throughout the seminar series and beyond.

The originality of this series lies in the international and interdisciplinary nature of the sessions and in its focus on the role of marketing and marketers in both enhancing and ameliorating consumer vulnerability. The sessions provide space to critique the notion of consumer vulnerability and build a broader understanding of the lived experience of consumers. Demystification is an aim here, as is investigating and challenging common myths and stereotypes that persist about such groups - through, for example, exploring the techniques the vulnerable use to navigate the marketplace. Further, as the language and practices of business infiltrate the public sector and social service provision it would seem timely to highlight the contribution marketing and consumer researchers can make to the study of consumer vulnerability. If successful this seminar series, in bringing together a somewhat fragmented research stream, would represent the first of its kind in the UK. The commitment of our invited international speakers calls attention to the need for such a series.

Planned Impact

As highlighted in the ESRC/AHRC "Cultures of Consumption" programme, understanding consumption-related issues is important for informing business, public policy and consumer advocacy groups. Each seminar will involve non-academic user communities. As noted in the case for support, one key speaker at each seminar will represent a non-academic user group. Other users, including representatives from relevant charitable organisations, Government departments and policy makers, will be invited as audience or panel participants. The seminar series will move between 3 major UK cities (Edinburgh, Lancaster and Glasgow) thereby ensuring that impact is not restricted to a narrow geographical area. Equally, the website will broaden the impact of the seminar series as it provides an important platform for reaching an audience beyond those who are able to be immediately present at the events. Some examples of the diverse constituency for the seminar series are outlined below:

Seminar 1: Consumer groups (e.g. Consumer Focus, members of the Consumer Education Liaison Group), non-academic researchers from commercial or third sector organisations (e.g. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, The Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion).

Seminar 2: Charities (e.g. Age UK, The Prince's Trust and Save the Children), care service providers and social care professionals, Department of Health.

Seminar 3: NHS, GPs, nursing staff and other healthcare professionals, organisations focusing on tackling health inequalities (e.g. Glasgow Centre for Population Health), HealthWatch (currently due to be launched in October 2012) and The Health Foundation.

Seminar 4: Refugee and integration networks, member organisations of the Disability Alliance and Enable Scotland.

Seminar 5: Charities aimed at combatting poverty including those focused on children and single mother families (e.g. Child Poverty Action Group and Gingerbread), poverty networks (e.g. Poverty Alliance, Business in the Community), Consumer credit counselling service and other debt counselling firms.

Seminar 6: Research funders (e.g. non-academic supervisors on Collaborative Doctoral Award projects)

The seminar series has broad relevance because it provides an opportunity to move from an understanding of the lived experience of vulnerability to a critical assessment of consumerism and, by extension, the role of marketing in it. This would allow a shift in focus from vulnerable people as potentially frustrated consumers to people experiencing vulnerability as citizens. These discussions will inform policy (including marketing and consumer policy), and help consumer-focused and charitable organisations to provide services to their members.

Finally, we envisage the strengthening and development of practitioner-academic networks and relationships, which will enhance the development of fundable research collaborations that are targeted and have clear impact.


10 25 50
Description This ESRC seminar series on Consumer Vulnerability allowed attendees to connect with a series of important contemporary concerns that relate to broad issues of individual and societal well-being within the marketplace. The central aims of the seminar series were firstly to provide a space to critically engage with the notion of consumer vulnerability in order to promote dialogue and interchange between researchers, practitioners and policy makers; and secondly, to create a supportive forum through which to foster methodological good practice and encourage collaborative research projects. These aims were met and we have been successful in developing ongoing networks across institutions and disciplines. Feedback suggests attendees found the inter-disciplinary aspects particularly rewarding:
"the different interdisciplinary angles came together very nicely"
"good to meet colleagues beyond marketing"
"[seminar was] excellent, Meta themes and narratives explored in a fantastic way"
A major outcome from this series was the identification of barriers to knowledge exchange between and business academics and practitioners. In short, policy makers and those in the Third Sector do not traditionally look to business schools for this type of research. We found that the language and practices of business are not always welcome in social service provision and the public sector more widely. Indeed, we suggest that business researchers proceed with caution with the notion that individuals in vulnerable situations have access to the marketplace and can act as consumers. This is a crucial consideration for future research aimed at understanding and ameliorating experiences of vulnerability.
Nevertheless, our experiences throughout the seminar series demonstrate that engaging with relevant third sector and charitable organisations can support a better understanding of vulnerability and allow academic work to be applied to improving the lives of those in vulnerable positions. We had very good engagement with practitioners throughout the series, including organisations such as Oxfam, Scottish Refugee Council, Consumer Focus, (Citizens Advice), Age UK and Children North East. We also welcomed attendees from the NHS and various utility providers.
A second, important, contribution of this series is the development of a network of international scholars and practitioners who are engaged with consumer vulnerability. Our seminars provided a space for processes of sharing, collaboration and dialogue and the feedback received from participants indicated mutual benefit from exploring shared issues from diverse perspectives. The inclusion and participation of international experts in this field was important for this goal. From an academic perspective, the series has led to the identification of new research questions, informed by the experiences of those working with various vulnerability contexts on a daily basis. Equally from the third sector perspective, it also opened new lines of enquiry, for example one participant commented that those in third sector organisations are often "naive to the impact of consumerism on society" (policy and research advisor, global poverty charity). A network of core participants emerged, and their presence at most of the seminars was central to ongoing discussions and debate. This network was welcomed by researchers and extended to an online information group where collaboration and discussion continued.
A key concern was also capacity building and fostering networks for the next generation of academics in this field. Hence, PhDs and early career researchers were the focus of our final session. Each presenter received personal feedback on their project from a panel of international experts who shared insight on publishing work on vulnerability in business/management journals. Sessions also enriched future projects by focussing on best practice in data collection, ethics and researcher vulnerability.
Overall, we have delivered on our aims of enhancing dialogue between academics and practitioners in the area of consumer vulnerability, and in developing a network of scholars in this area. Ultimately this series has allowed us to develop - and share - a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of vulnerability and the role of the marketplace; one which will be drawn into future projects.
Exploitation Route The seminar series brought academics from the UK, Europe and the US together and opened up space for further research in the field by creating networks and mapping out the research domain and priorities. Particularly, we feel the seminar series and our related output has allowed a broadening out of contexts in which business research might take place. The critical nature of our engagement with the concept of vulnerability has produced fruitful dialogue around the notion of language, labelling and knowledge exchange which we will focus on in future projects.

The series provided a forum for consideration of the ways in which academics from different disciplinary backgrounds can join forces. Future areas for research include; what practices and processes can academics and representatives from third sector organisations engage in to work more effectively on issues of consumer vulnerability? How can we overcome barriers to collaboration? How can these relationships be sustained?
The value of the series was not simply academic; best practice in pedagogy was also a focus. Key speakers such as Stacey Baker and Carol Kaufman-Scarborough shared the innovative and inspiring ways in which they bring awareness of consumer vulnerability into the classroom. This was a valuable lesson, highlighting that this type of research has the power to impact the lives of students as well as consumers.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare

Description We have used the momentum and analytical space created by the seminar series to initiate a number of related projects. Firstly, we have completed an edited text for Routledge Studies in Critical Marketing entitled Vulnerable Consumers: Conditions, contexts and characteristics. This edited collection focuses on the substantive, ethical, social and methodological issues relevant to consumer vulnerability, aiming to develop new knowledge about the conditions, contexts and characteristics of consumer vulnerability in the 21st Century. This book is currently in press, due for publication in late 2015. Secondly, we are co-editing a special issue of the Journal of Marketing Management on Consumer Vulnerability which will bring together international research in this field, creating a cohesive research agenda. This special issue will be published in 2016. Findings and observations from the seminar series were presented in the Consumer Vulnerability track of the international Macromarketing Conference, Royal Holloway, London, July 2014. This provided the opportunity to discuss the barriers to vulnerable consumer research in business schools, focussing on issues of knowledge exchange and collaboration with the Third Sector; particularly the role and position of language in forging relationships. Other, future projects between Universities of Lancaster, Edinburgh and Strathclyde have been developed through the series. These include a new project focusing on knowledge exchange practices, another exploring barriers to breastfeeding in deprived areas of Scotland, and a collaborative project between Heriot-Watt University and Oxfam on sustainable economic development.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Consumer Research with Social Impact 
Organisation University of Manchester
Department Manchester Business School
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Co-chairs Susan Dunnett, Emma Banister, Maria Piacentini and Kathy Hamilton hosted a networking and capacity building event for consumer researchers working in the social sphere. The event was funded by University of Manchester.
Collaborator Contribution The vent aimed to create a network of researchers in the UK to foster research linkages and collaborations. It was attended by 20 researchers from various UK institutions. Links were also established with our French colleagues at University of Lille.
Impact We are seeking Special Interest Group Status within the Academy of Marketing and will hold an Academy of Marketing Workshop on Consumer Research and Societal Impact (co-chairs Emma Banister and Kathy Hamilton).
Start Year 2017