Q&A with Americus Reed

Wharton professor Americus Reed is a man of many identities. He is a father, academic, and musician. A consultant, entrepreneur, and researcher. A free spirit, anti-authority, and a fitness enthusiast. A Panther, a Gator, and a Quaker.

Called Americus II after his father, who was named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, for whom the Americas are named, Reed was born in Hollis, Queens, N.Y., but raised down South in Atlanta.

Like his namesake, Reed spent years exploring, not for inhabited but unknown lands, but for himself. His own identity. Who he is and his place in this world.

These self-reflective questions first arose in high school, and continued reappearing during his undergraduate business studies at Georgia State University (GSU)—where his musician identity nearly derailed his academic pursuits—and throughout his master’s work at GSU.

In the process of earning two master’s degrees from Georgia State, one in organizational behavior and another in market research methods, Reed was introduced to concepts such as social psychology, which addresses the origins of an individual’s sense of self. He became enamored with the idea and more profound notions of identity, and went on to study social psychology and consumer behavior at the University of Florida’s Warrington College of Business, where he received his Ph.D. in 2000.

In searching for his identity, Reed has found a confident, energetic, multifaceted man with multiple personas: A husband, a father to a soon-to-be 5-year-old daughter, Zora, the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School, an “identity theorist,” a drummer in a band of professors, and the partner and co-founder of Persona Partners, a brand development firm he established in 2006 with Wharton alumnus Samuel Botts.

The Current sat down with Reed in Huntsman Hall to discuss marketing and branding, the work of an “identity theorist,” companies with the most powerful brands, his love of sports, and how his musician identity has come full circle.

Q: Where did your interest in business and marketing come from? Did you have an interest when you entered Georgia State?
A: No, I was absolutely going to be a musician. I had a band [SPEAR] at the time and I was not doing particularly well in undergrad, so me and my parents had a big heart-to-heart talk. They said, ‘Listen, we know you love music and all but you have to eat, too, so why don’t you try to apply yourself a little bit better?’ So I went back to school and had a really strong senior year, then went back for my master’s degree to kind of figure things out. I still wanted to do music, so I had this creative side I wanted to leverage. I was trying to figure out who I was. I went to a high school called Riverwood High School. I had two options going to high school; one was the high school in my neighborhood, which was not a very good high school. I remember the first day we went to visit, there was a knife fight in the lunchroom, so my parents were like, ‘You’re not going there.’ There was another more upscale private school called Woodward Academy. We went there and checked that out, and it had uniforms, the whole thing, so it was either a high school in the inner city or ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ [at Woodward Academy]. My parents shipped me and my sister to Riverwood further up north through the Minority to Majority Program. We were the first blacks to walk in the door. It was an interesting time in my life. That was when I started getting questions in my mind about identity; how do you form concepts about who you are, what you want to be, how you fit in in the world? Those initial things in high school, those initial self-reflective questions, were always in the back of my mind. They impacted the music that I wrote, the type of bands that I liked. Those questions about who are you, how do you figure out who you are, really seemed to permeate every aspect of what I was doing at the time. As I was going through my master’s degree, I was trying to figure out how I could learn more about this question of identity.

Q: Did you take any classes while pursuing your master’s degree that helped you find your way?
A: I took a course in social psychology when I was working on my second master’s with a guy named James Dabbs, a really famous testosterone researcher at Georgia State. I got super excited in social psychology because a big part of social psychology is answering the question, where does your sense of self come from? A big part of social psychology focuses on this question of identity. I started thinking about how I can marry my interests in identity with business because I had this business background. I took another course from one of my mentors, Karl Aquino. He kind of took me under his wing and showed me research. He is the kind of person who is really intellectually curious and showed me that I can be a researcher, I can be a professor. He said, ‘I’m going to show you this professorial life. We do much more than just teach. We do research and we do other things.’ I got super excited about it and figured I wanted to do a Ph.D. in marketing and consumer behavior so I could study identity. That’s how I found my way down south to Gainesville.

Q: What music were you listening to at the time?
A: We were all over the place. The favorite type of music in my band was basically progressive rock. We were all into Led Zeppelin, Yes, King Crimson, Frank Zappa, and all these crazy, obscure bands. And it was influencing our music, so we would write this crazy progressive rock music. But the thing about it was the music that we would write would try to have a sense of lyrical sensitivity. The music we would write would be reflective of questions that we would be asking in our lives. A lot of those questions had to do with, who are you? Why does the world work in certain ways? Through music, we would try to intellectually investigate and explore some of these broader questions. These were questions that I would later want to research after I got my Ph.D.

Q: While you were an undergrad, you co-founded Reed Communications, a telecommunications firm located in Atlanta. What were your motivations for starting your own business?
A: I have this entrepreneurial spirit. Here’s the thing about me: I absolutely despise authority. I guess that’s part of the musician identity; I guess I’m kind of a rebel in that sense. I cannot stand being told what to do. Part of the reason why I love academia is because basically you don’t really have a boss. You’re kind of this entrepreneur that is researching, and teaching, and learning about stuff that you’re interested in, and somebody pays you to do it. I have this entrepreneurial itch that I often try to scratch through my research, and also through the things that I’m interested in that are related to the consulting stuff that I do that is related to my research. My father is a serial entrepreneur. He’s been self-employed all his life and he’s had a big influence on me as well.

Q: So you were around 19 or 20 years old when you started your own business?
A: Yes, I was just trying to find my way. I wasn’t really interested in stuff. I loved music. School was boring. What’s interesting was I figured out that there was this connection between music and math. I’m a drummer, and drums and percussion are all about patterns and rhythms and numbers. Once I made that connection between math and music, I figured out I was actually pretty good at math because of this natural connection, but I never knew that the two things were interrelated. When I made that connection, I started excelling in these quantitative classes and got super interested in statistics and analysis, which plays into the methodological aspect of research because you have to have these tools to be able to answer these research questions. When I was studying for my master’s—although I was still floundering trying to figure out what I wanted to do—I was doing pretty well school-wise in those programs, so I was maturing slowly but surely.

Q: You are the Wharton Marketing Department’s only ‘identity theorist.’ What is an identity theorist?
A: I’m fascinated by when you’re going through your life, how do you take on certain labels that reflect who you are? Why am I a musician? Why am I an athlete? Why do I think I’m an athlete? When I became a father, how did I navigate being a dad? How am I a professor? How am I a black man as a professor? These are questions about self-reflection, navigating your sense of who you are, figuring out how to fit in, but also be unique. All these different things are really interesting to me. An identity theorist studies these sorts of questions, and is interested in understanding how all of these different moving parts come together to form the person, and how brands help you do that. Certain brands are really great brands because they talk to you not in terms of what they do; they talk to you in terms of what they represent.

Q: What brand would be an example?
A: Red Bull. When someone thinks about Red Bull, they may think it’s just some caffeine carbonated drink. But it’s not. It’s a lifestyle. If you understand the narrative of Red Bull, then you understand it’s about pushing boundaries, it’s about having no fear, it’s about being an adrenaline junkie who is not afraid to go out and explore and be this adventurous person trying new things to try to push the boundaries. Red Bull is trying to talk to you, trying to connect to you and others by getting you to resonate with that narrative: ‘If I’m this type of person, then Red Bull is my drink.’ That’s very powerful, so I want to understand that kind of what I call identity loyalty. If you’re a brand, product, or service, how do you create that connection with people so that they internalize your brand as part of who they are? Apple does this extremely well. Apple loyalists are not indifferent. They’re not just favorable either. They’re into it. They want to sit outside the store weeks in advance to try to get this new, shiny thing that’s coming out. You have to think about that from a psychological perspective. Why would anybody want to do that? It’s completely irrational, but it’s not irrational because Apple is connecting with them on a deeper level, on a level that has to do with something more than just, ‘We make really good products.’ That something more is this notion of identity and self-expression, and creating a symbol for people to take on to help them express who they are to other people.

Q: A lot of your work deals with brands. How did you become interested in brands?
A: I’m fascinated by the brands that are really good at creating a self-expressive connection. Never will you ever see Nike do a commercial that says, ‘Here are the shoes, they have this particular type of lace, here is what the sole is made of.’ They never talk about the features. What do they talk about? They talk about how sports transcend your life. They talk about sports as a mechanism whereby you can become greater than what you are. That is all aspirational. It’s identity, it’s self, it’s all this powerful sense. What they’re trying to do is every time you look at the Nike symbol, they want you to see, they want you to generate those thoughts: ‘Just do it.’ They want you to think about greatness, like Michael Jordan. They want you to have all of these associations in your mind. You put Nikes on and think, ‘Maybe I can be like him; maybe I can tap into some of that energy, that aspiration.’ That’s what these great brands are doing. I want to study that; I want to help companies build that into their DNA. I want to help brands—and people. People are brands. I want to help people build and protect their personal brand. How do you build that kind of identity connection into what you’re doing? That’s the question I ask from a consulting perspective, and all the research that I do helps to inform some of that.

Q: Is there a company out there that you think has the most powerful brand? You have previously written about your daughter and her love for Disney.
A: Disney is awesome. Disney is a great brand. I was in Burbank visiting Disney and they brought out their brand bible to me. It was like they blindfolded you and brought you into a room and then they bring it out [joking]. They put it on the table and said, ‘This is the brand.’ The brands that are phenomenal have that kind of ethos where they understand the power of the brand and they protect it fiercely. They make sure that it never gets sullied, that it never gets compromised. Apple is the same way. This is why Apple is so protective of what you can and can’t do with their devices. Part of that has to do with trying to control the brand, control the experience. Nike is another great one. Under Armour is a brand I love. Red Bull is a very interesting brand. They created an entire category called energy drinks and then created a lifestyle, an adventurous narrative. It’s a persona. What’s beautiful about the Red Bull brand is that this persona can cut across demographics, so the same story that talks about taking charge of your life and pushing the boundaries and exploring your world and seeking adventure can speak to an 18-year-old Korean skateboarder or a 50-year-old Australian skydiver. They can connect with the same story even though they’re widely different demographics. This identity thing stretches across common categories, or arbitrary categorizations or labels, to really make these deeper connections with people.

Q: You’ve also written that millennials think differently about brands than previous generations.
A: It’s the social media component. They’re part of the brand creation process now because of how they can use the newest tools to be able to talk to each other about brands. They’ve taken on a central role in the branding process from a feedback perspective, from an identity reinforcement perspective, and that’s fascinating. Plus, from an identity perspective, they are also seeking a sense of purpose, trying to figure out their legacy in this world. This is a question that wasn’t really coming up as much in earlier generations, wasn’t as center stage, but now it very much is. When I talk to my students, they’re all about, ‘How am I going to lead this world?’ I’m like, ‘You’re 20, just relax.’ But they have all these grand visions of identity that I think are a little bit different. I think some of it may be due to social media. They’re just so aware. The 24-hour news cycle is now a 15-minute news cycle. It’s real-time basically, so everything is changing. I think they have a greater sense of awareness of their impact on this world than previous generations because information is so immediate and so accelerated.

Q: You teach ‘Consumer Behavior’ and ‘Customer Analysis’ to undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and executive students. What type of students do your courses attract? Do they want to be businesspeople or go into marketing?
A: A little bit of both. Usually half of my students are from the College and half are from Wharton. Some of them have very clear business interests; some of them have very clear entrepreneurial interests; some of them are just interested in learning a bit more about consumer consumption, marketing, business, and psychology. That’s what my class is really about, the interface between psychology and business from a marketing perspective. It’s a pretty wide mix of different types of students with different backgrounds and different perspectives. They’re all super curious and super ambitious and super high-performing. It’s great to work with them. The students are phenomenal; you get immediate feedback. I’ll often invite some of these brands that I’m fascinated by into my classroom. Nike has been in the class two times doing projects with my students. It’s always fun to bring students into the real world and try to teach them these concepts and tools in my ‘Consumer Behavior’ class and let them apply it with a real company.

Q: What do the executives want out of your class?
A: They’re interested in taking their next step in their careers, so they’re applied. They want to know they can use this in their job tomorrow. I reorient the class concepts to speak to them. Basically, it’s target marketing. When I’m teaching undergrads, I leave myself more room to try not to give them an answer. I leave it up to them to think about. An MBA has less tolerance for that. An executive has even less tolerance for that. The executives are like, ‘I have a job right now. I want to go back to my boss and I need to do XYZed, how do I apply these concepts and tools?’ I focus on a very, very practical perspective for the executives, and they seem to like it.

Q: You are a part of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative. What sort of work do you do with athletes?
A: We do work with professional athletes in this space and help them make sure that they’re able to leverage their platforms to be able to build a brand that they can sustain and leverage throughout their careers. I’m super interested in sports. I fancy myself a weekend warrior, so I have a little bit of that athlete identity, gym rat identity in me. I just love sports. I could watch ESPN all day. I’d be happy if it was the only channel I had. I’m super interested in sports brands, athlete brands, athletes’ personal brands as brands, like Serena Williams, Tiger Woods, Steph Curry, and Ronda Rousey.

Q: What are your favorite sports teams?
A: I’m a big fan of the Falcons; obviously I’m a big Gator fan. I’ve come to like the Eagles quite a bit, but the Eagles fans are a different crew. You can’t take the kids to those games. I’m a big fan of the Golden State Warriors right now. I just love Steph Curry. That guy is just a student of his game; he’s like, ‘I’m going to master this and I’m going to take it to a different level.’ I love greatness; I love to study greatness. I love to watch people who master what they do. It could be sports, but it could be other fields. I have heroes in different categories, like Gordon Ramsay, who created the first chef brand before chefs were brands, or Oprah, or Richard Branson, or Warren Buffet, or Jay Z. These folks who take it to a different level. I want to understand how their minds work. I’m trying to understand greatness across different domains. Greatness, to some extent, is this desire for intellectual curiosity to master and become the best at what you do. I want to understand that process as part of this notion of identity and other aspects of self-reflection.

Q: What do you think of Tom Brady?
A: Whatever he’s taking, I want to take it. He’s 38 and getting better. This year he’s like, ‘After all this Deflategate stuff y’all put on me, I got something for y’all.’

Q: Do you think Deflategate damaged his brand at all?
A: Not in the eyes of those who were advocates already. It gave them a reason to rally. Those who hated on Tom just had another reason to hate, but they weren’t going to like Tom anyway. But it is going to be very interesting to see what will happen to his brand and just the whole persona around the Patriots.

Q: I hear you play in a band with other Wharton marketing professors called Brand Inequity.
A: Bob Meyer [a professor of marketing and the Frederick H. Ecker/MetLife Insurance Professor], David Bell [a professor of marketing and the Xinmei Zhang and Yongge Dai Professor], Keith Niedermeier [an adjunct associate professor of marketing and director of the Undergraduate Marketing Program], and I play three shows a year. We play an acoustic show, a battle of the bands, and we play for our colleagues as well. For our most recent performance, we got to play at the Chicago House of Blues in front of a thousand of our professorial colleagues at our major conference. That was phenomenal. I shared the same stage with B.B. King, and Carlos Santana, and Keith Richards. That was a big moment for me as a musician, kind of coming full circle. At the battle of the bands, the students have their bands and then we come on last as an encore while the judges are deciding who’s the best student band. It’s fun for the students. They are used to seeing us as professors standing behind the lectern and we get out there and rock out and they see you in a different way. We’re normal people. We’re professors, but we also have this other creative side to us as well.

Q: What music are you listening to these days?
A: When we play for the students, it’s market segmentation so we play the stuff that they really like. We do a lot of bar stuff: Green Day, Blink-182, that kind of stuff. The popular stuff that they’re listening to in the bars, that’s what we’re listening to as well so that we can play those songs.

Q: Do you enjoy the music that your students listen to?
A: I do. I enjoy watching them enjoy it. If it were up to me, I’d be doing the progressive rock stuff but nobody wants to hear that [laughs].

Americus Reed