Based on Research By Anastasiya Zavyalova

Why Businesses Are Like TV Characters

  • The media tend to focus their storytelling on firms that have plenty of readily available information about their identities.
  • For some people, an organization’s identity dovetails with their personal identities. For others, the organization’s identity clashes with their own self-images. Because of this, an organization can experience both celebrity and infamy at the same time.
  • Celebrity is harder to sustain. Infamy is harder to shed.

Everybody wants to be famous. Big corporations are no exception, and with good reason. Like any starlet, a company that’s seen as a “celebrity” enjoys all kinds of perks. That’s because the link between the firm and its customers is emotional; when a firm is a celebrity, the relationship can feel a lot like love.

A recent study by Anastasiya Zavyalova of the business school, Michael D. Pfarrer of the University of Georgia and Rhonda K. Reger of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (formerly of the University of Missouri) reveals in new depth the advantages and limits of corporate fame.

Most importantly, the researchers write, celebrity has consequences. As soon as a firm finds itself bathed in public acclaim, it opens itself to infamy in the eyes of those who dislike the firm’s identity.

Consider 84 Lumber Company’s recent Super Bowl ad depicting a Latin American family’s struggle to make its way to the Unites States. Facing a wall at the border, they seem to have lost their dream. Then they find a wooden door and pass through it.

Viewers responded with intense approval–and equally intense hostility. “Almost lost a job for having 84 Lumber as my supplier,” wrote contractor Zack Mayberry on the company’s Facebook page. “Development told subs they could not use 84 Lumber. Spent almost 1 mil last year. Have to find a new supplier to support my needs.”

Whenever a company makes a choice, consumers are touched in a multitude of ways. Effectively, Zavyalova writes, these consumers are like political constituents. What the researchers define as corporate “celebrity” is a form of love based on the total of a company values. “Corporate infamy,” as the researchers define it, is a deeply personal rejection of a firm’s values.

It’s up to the constituents whether a firm enjoys celebrity, endures infamy–or both. A firm can pioneer a critical technical innovation, but that’s not enough to earn celebrity status: for that, it needs to take a stance on socially significant issues.

Major media create these narratives, connecting a firm’s actions with storylines that resonate for the public. By highlighting a firm’s non-conformist persona, for instance, media can present it as if it were an individual fighting for social change. Online retailer Etsy is one such company, attracting hundreds of stories about its corporate diversity ethic, from aggressively recruiting young females to insisting on a gender balanced senior team.

But the same firm that ignites fame with some consumers can stoke infamy with others. That’s because narratives with social import can fuel deeply personal, often contradictory, responses. Some consumers may feel personally attached to the firm; others will be alienated by a set of values that differs from their own. The more media attention the firm receives, the higher the likelihood that it will evoke intense feelings.

Take the example of fast-food restaurant Chick-fil-A, focus of heavy media attention for its corporate opposition to same-sex marriage and support of the “biblical definition of the family unit.” Same-sex marriage supporters responded with a wave of protests, including a nationwide boycott. As a result, supporters of traditional marriage defended the chain and its values, with nationwide gestures such as “eat at Chick-fil-A days.”

Like any media star, even the most adored celebrity firm can’t keep its sparkle without a little work. It needs to continually freshen material about its socially important innovations, just as a character in a TV series undergoes regular transformations in the course of a year. Even so, emotional traction gets harder and harder to sustain. Most television characters lose their social relevance over time; celebrity businesses do, too.

Corporate infamy, on the other hand, is the opposite: it’s hard to forget. Each new tidbit that makes people hate a brand makes it that much harder for the firm to shed a negative cast. Most firms one day shed their celebrity glow, whether they want to or not. Infamy, however, sticks like flop sweat.

Anastasiya Zavyalova is an assistant professor at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Zavyalova, A., Pfarrer, M., & Reger, R. (2016). Celebrity and infamy? The consequences of media narratives about organizational identity. Academy of Management Review, doi:10.5465/amr.2014.0037.