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Staying Connected: Technology Can Help Save Family Traditions

by Amber Epp Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Away from family over the Thanksgiving holiday? You are not alone. Today’s dynamic, global environment has contributed to the dispersion of families across long distances. It is becoming more common for both extended and nuclear families to live far apart as a result of economic circumstances, military deployments, or basic changes in family structure such as divorce or “empty nest syndrome.” And yet, the desire to stay connected to family has not diminished, especially around the holiday season. 

In response to the growing number of individuals separated from families, some companies have added product features that enable family members to share traditions and joint activities across distances. Technology is often a central part of these new features, affording family members the chance to make joint consumption decisions even during a separation. For example, spouses who live apart may cook and eat dinner together via Skype. Or a father may record himself reading his daughter’s favorite bedtime story so that she can listen to it while he is away. But do these family traditions survive during prolonged separation? And what are the implications for brand use and brand loyalties? 

My co-authors and I studied the implications of using technologies to facilitate family interactions at a distance (our research was published in a 2011 working paper by Marketing Science Institute). Paradoxically, we found that many “sacred” face-to-face family activities (the family dinner, game night, holiday traditions), and the brands associated with them, are often abandoned when people are separated. Meanwhile, joint activities that may be considered “mundane” in a face-to-face context (two sisters shopping for clothes, or a couple watching a weekly TV show) are often preserved using various technologies. In essence, our study suggests that truly sacred family practices lose too much in technological translation and thus may be discarded or delayed until the family is reunited. Simpler shared joys, on the other hand, are managed more easily across distances and therefore family members may be more likely to maintain these. 

What do these findings mean for brand managers? How can companies help families transition cherished traditions from face-to-face to technology-mediated spaces? One of the underlying reasons families lose these connections is that they lack guidelines for how to maintain them. Companies that create templates for enacting shared activities across distances will gain an advantage over their rivals. For example, Xbox Live offers a chat feature whereas its main competitor does not. In other cases, a small effort by a firm (such as a minor improvement in technology or an ad that prompts “sharing your day”) allows families to see how simple practices could become technology-mediated and adapted to being apart. Nike, for instance, developed a technology that allows participants to share daily running results with distant family members. 

Another promising opportunity for brand managers is to find ways to transfer “pieces of sacred” across distances. By deconstructing an elaborate family tradition into its various components, identifying those that capture the most meaningful part of the tradition, and translating them into forms that can be shared via technology, companies can give distant family members the chance to maintain their special connections. For example, a mother whose daughter will spend her first Thanksgiving away from home might use a mobile phone application to upload a family holiday recipe and share it with her daughter via Facebook. 

What family traditions would you share? Which new activities could you and your family enjoy together?