This edition of Faculty Spotlight features Dr. Michelle Barnhart, Associate Professor of Marketing in the College of Business at Oregon State University. Dr. Barnhart shares her research interests and some thoughts on how marketing can be an important component of a family business renewal effort.

Can you share a little about your background and experience?

When I was a growing up in Texas in the 70s and 80s, both of my parents owned businesses. My dad was a farmer and also managed an insurance agency that had been in his family for three generations, and my mother owned and operated a jewelry store. I worked in both the agency and the store throughout junior high and high school. Thinking back now, I’m grateful that neither of my parents put any pressure on me to work in the businesses when I grew up, because I was more interested in other pursuits.

I studied Biology in college and got my Bachelor’s degree from Stanford in ’94. Then I worked in a biomedical research lab for a couple of years, and then joined a start-up company in Colorado that sold emergency response services to seniors. Emergency response services are those buttons that older or disabled persons wear to call for help if they need it, like those commercials: “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” The founder of the start-up and I ran the business for a little over three years and then sold to the industry leader, Lifeline Systems. I stayed on with Lifeline for another 8 years in mostly a sales management capacity before returning to University to earn my Ph.D. in marketing from the University of Utah. I’ve been at Oregon State since I graduated in 2009.   

Can you tell us about your teaching interests and involvement in the College of Business?

Since joining the COB, I’ve taught mostly Sales, but I’ve also taught Principles of Marketing (the introductory marketing class that all business students must take), an MBA level qualitative data analysis class, and now Services Marketing. I’ve also served as the Marketing Club advisor, the Sales club advisor, and on the Graduate Program Committee, the Faculty Senate, and the committee that hired our current dean. In addition, as a tenured professor (tenured in 2015), much of my time is spent doing research.

What is your area of research?

I research consumer behavior, and more specifically, consumer culture. I attempt to understand the ways that consumers behave from the perspectives of sociology and cultural anthropology. I start with the assumption that consumers are embedded in social groups and that the structures and norms of these groups influences individual understanding and behavior, while at the same time, individual behavior also influences the structure and rules of the group. An overarching theme in my research has been consumer well-being. In the past, I’ve studied how elderly consumers and their families struggle with thinking of themselves or their family members and treating them as “old” when they begin to need help with everyday consumer activities like shopping or going to the doctor. Prior to the financial collapse of 2008, I studied how credit and debt had become normal in American culture and how having substantial debt put some consumers in a compromised position. More recently, I have been studying consumer issues related to guns, including how consumers who own guns for self-defense attempt to minimize the risks that owning and carrying a handgun presents, and how consumer groups and movements such as the “March for our Lives” movement attempt to change behavioral norms and regulation in ways that they believe will decrease gun violence.

“Renewing” the business means working to ensure the enterprise is viable and healthy for future generations of family members. Do you think marketing or branding can play a central role in business renewal?

I think marketing and branding is key to renewal in many ways. I’ll focus on one. It’s important to consider two different but intertwined concepts when thinking about family business renewal. First, many family businesses have a strong sense of identity because the family and the business are so connected: the business is “us,” and “we” constitute the business. Such a strong sense of identity can help to renew the business, but only if the definition of the “the business” is something that family members strongly value, believe, want to be a part of, and want to communicate to customers.

For instance, if “the business” is seen mostly as a constant struggle that we as the family must endure because it is our duty, then the identity would hinder renewal in that employees are unlikely to enthusiastically communicate and deliver value to customers (such an identity also may drive away family members). However, if the business is seen by family member employees as a means of accomplishing a mission that family members value and can rally behind, then the identity can contribute positively to renewal by attracting both customers and family members. In order for businesses to build this second kind of identity, management must actively engage in what is called “internal marketing” to employees, which in this case would include other family members. Internal marketing consists of regular communication about the value of the products/services that the business provides and the overall mission of the organization. It may be easy to neglect this kind of marketing in a family business in which it may be assumed that all (family) members of the organization understand the value of what the business does. However, internal marketing is akin to telling the people important to you that you love them – you may think they already know, but it’s still important to say it regularly. Family members who are employees of a family business must be continually reminded of the value of the business’s mission – not just so that they will be more likely to communicate this value to customers to create a thriving business—but also so that they will internalize it as part of a family identity that they will want to continue.  


Dr. Barnhart is Associate Professor of Marketing in the College of Business at Oregon State University. Dr. Barnhart received her Ph.D. in Business Administration from the University of Utah, David Eccles School of Business.

Professor Barnhart’s research focuses on cultural norms, social groups, identity, and consumer well-being as manifest in consumption activities. She has previously investigated these topics in the contexts of eldercare, Americans' use of credit/debt, and ethical (sustainable, humane, and/or socially responsible) consumption. Her current research investigates firearm consumption and policy. Her research has been published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Business Research, the Journal of Marketing Management, and the Journal of Macromarketing.

Prior to her academic career, Professor Barnhart spent eight years in sales, customer service, and operations management in the personal emergency response industry, and two years as a research scientist in a molecular neurobiology lab.