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business school research

Lineups to get the latest version of the iPhone are indicative of the loyalty many Apple customers have.Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg

The Globe's roundup of research from business schools.

Troubled U.S. discount retailer Target Corp. announced in January that it will pull up stakes in Canada less than two years after arriving here, another casualty of today's tough retail landscape.

To succeed in the future, retailers, as well as manufacturers, would do well to borrow a page from the playbook of companies such as Apple Inc., GoPro Inc. and Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Inc., says Fang Wan, marketing professor at the University of Manitoba's Asper School of Business in Winnipeg.

These companies rely extensively on what she calls "fan-based economics."

It's not so much about companies chasing after customers as it is about turning consumers into loyal followers or fans. These organizations aren't necessarily aiming for mass-market appeal but, rather, cultivating a niche-market following. "It's a new way of thinking," says Dr. Wan.

Apple is the master of this: Witness the long lineups for each new iPhone release. But more companies are starting to get the hang of it. Xiaomi has built its fan base by getting consumers involved in product development and testing; GoPro, the maker of small panoramic video cameras, caters to thrill-seeking sports enthusiasts and provides an online space for them to share their content, Dr. Wan notes. "The consumer is part of the creation process," she explains.

These companies are amassing more than just loyal clients. They are creating fans with an emotional investment in the company, according to Dr. Wan, whose observations are based on research she's doing for a book about branding.

It's difficult to cultivate this type of mythical image, she admits. That's why there is just one Apple. But for those who can manage it, the benefits are huge. For one thing, it allows companies to branch out into different market segments and industries even, assured their fans will follow.

Food, beverage companies veil the reason you're fat

The majority of adults in more than half of all industrialized nations are overweight or obese.

A new study co-authored by Brent McFerran, assistant professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, B.C., finds that the marketing tactics used by food and beverage companies play a major role in rising obesity rates. These marketing campaigns deflect attention away from the foods we eat (and that the companies produce) and emphasize the role of exercise in weight loss.

The study points out that while calorie intake, exercise and genetics all play a role in determining weight, the scientific literature points to overeating as the major culprit behind weight gain and obesity. The message, however, doesn't seem to have filtered through to many consumers.

In six surveys conducted in the United States, South Korea, France and Hong Kong, the authors found that about half of respondents believed that poor diet was the primary cause of obesity. The rest blamed it on lack of exercise and genetics. What's more, people's beliefs about the causes of weight gain were closely correlated to their body mass index. Those who believed that diet was to blame were slimmer, even when controlling for other factors such as socioeconomic status and health.

Why the confusion? The authors argue that the advertising, promotional, lobbying and philanthropic efforts of food and beverage companies are partly to blame. "Food is one of the most marketed product categories and it's one of the most astutely marketed product categories," says Dr. McFerran.

"Certainly a more co-ordinated effort is needed to reach the public because these misbeliefs seem to persist," he adds.

Dr. McFerran and his co-authors believe governments have a crucial role to play in correcting these perceptions and in making sure consumers are well educated about the link between diet and obesity. They suggest that governments regulate advertising of these products just as they do alcohol and tobacco.

They also call for a tax on products that are high in fat and sugar, arguing that the tax would reduce demand for these products while the revenues generated could be used to fund a public education campaign.

"We know that once that information is out there [it] drives behaviour," Dr. McFerran says.

The article was published in the Summer 2014 issue of the California Management Review.

Workers hired during financially stable times do better

These are undoubtedly unstable times in the labour market. Those lucky enough to land a job might well wonder how they will fare in the long run compared to colleagues who were hired when the purse strings weren't so tight.

A study by Andras Tilcsik, assistant professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, shows neither group may be ahead. Call it "the curse of the extremes."

Dr. Tilcsik measured the job performance of 131 employees at two European IT services firms over 15 years. Those hired both in prosperous times and in times of scarcity had lower performance ratings over time. By contrast, employees who were hired during periods of financial stability had higher ratings.

The study also found profound differences in how the timing of their initial training affected their skills and problem-solving strategies. Those who started work in prosperous times were more likely to execute tasks quickly whereas those hired in lean years took a slower approach and tended to focus on finding unique solutions to problems.

What really affects job performance in the long run, though, is how well the economic and fiscal conditions in the early years of employment match those an employee typically encounters subsequently, Dr. Tilcsik concludes. The study was published in the December of 2014 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly.

Rosanna Tamburri can reached at tamburrirosanna@gmail.com