Population Health

September 8, 2021

Spotlight: Nidhi Agrawal’s consumer psychology expertise helps improve population health

Image of Nidhi AgrawalNidhi Agrawal, the Michael G. Foster Endowed Professor of Marketing and International Business at the UW Foster School of Business, works actively to foster collaborations within her field of business and marketing to address critical population health-related issues.

Her passion for marketing began as an undergraduate student at Gujarat University in Ahmedabad, India, where she developed an interest in how advertising influences lifestyles and perceptions.

“A friend of mine was very interested in advertising and was reading a book by David Ogilvy,” Agrawal said. “I started reading it and realized how advertising changes and creates perceptions around products, lifestyles, and branding. That’s how I went from an accounting major to a marketing major.”

After completing her bachelor’s degree, Agrawal applied for a Masters program at the Mudra Institute of Communications in Ahmedabad, where she specialized in brand management.

“While I was there, I met a visiting faculty member who was a mass communications professor from the US, who recommended that I apply for a Ph.D. program,” Agrawal said.

Agrawal moved to Seattle and began enrolling in supplementary courses at the UW over the summer, learning about topics such as consumer behavior. These studies foreshadowed her future at the UW, where she now teaches in the Marketing and International Business departments at the UW Foster School of Business.

“I was very intrigued and applied to Ph.D. programs and got my Ph.D. in marketing at the New York University, then was hired as an assistant professor at the Kellogg School at Northwestern University,” Agrawal said.

Agrawal worked at Northwestern for seven years, rising to associate professor of marketing, until she returned to the Seattle area in 2012.

“There was a lot of interesting work being done here in Seattle, and I was particularly interested in work involving health, specifically using behavioral aspects of health to help people,” Agrawal said. “The behavioral aspects of health have a lot in common with marketing, which is why I’m here and really enjoying [these] applications of marketing.”

In 2018, Agrawal was selected to serve as a member of the Population Health Initiative Executive Council.

In that role, Agrawal was among various professors, students, and representatives of multiple departments comprising the 30-member executive council.

“It was the most interdisciplinary group that I have ever had the chance to interact with,” Agrawal said. “[The executive council] focused on how we can build a knowledge base, research infrastructure … to help address various facets of population health.”

As a member of the executive council, Agrawal offered strategic counsel to the initiative and input on advancing, implementing, and measuring progress toward improving population health locally and beyond.

“This experience was an opportunity to appreciate how many different bodies of knowledge it will take for us to integrate and make progress on population health-related issues and challenges,” Agrawal said. “The same issue can be seen through so many different lenses, and when combined, seeing them together creates value.”

This message was reiterated through an ongoing collaboration between the Population Health Initiative and the UW Undergraduate Research Program to develop an undergraduate course that highlights population health research and opportunities.

The course, Research Exposed! (General Studies 391), ran for the first time in the winter quarter of 2018. The 2021 course featured a series of UW faculty and researchers whose work falls under the purview of population health.

Agrawal was among the seven guest lecturers who spoke about how their field expertise pertained to population health. Her lecture focused on the messaging of health risks, emphasizing how marketing tools may be utilized to guide people towards positive health choices. She also highlighted how marketing can play a role in helping people make more sustainable choices, and the tools of market research used to understand various market segments can be applied to understand and address the needs of diverse populations.

“I also spent time sensitizing students to how broad population health is and how much overlap it has with marketing,” Agrawal said. “Marketing touches on this field in many ways. We can think about using health messages and making them more persuasive, [or] messages and designing products about sustainability [to] make people more sensitive to climate concerns.”

Agrawal extends these principles to her academic work as the Michael G. Foster Endowed Professor of Marketing and International Business.

“Consumption permeates all facets of human life — we are always consuming everything, from air to living spaces to ideas,” Agrawal said. “Students are often a really good place for me to learn new things and shift my thinking because they are the consumers of today and tomorrow.”

Among the lessons Agrawal strives to teach her students, she relates the importance and value of interdisciplinary collaborations.

“Marketing is fundamentally a very interdisciplinary field,” Agrawal said. “In my work, I have collaborated with individuals with expertise in psychology, medicine, and public health, to understand better how people make perceptions and health decisions. It helps me see from the angle of medical professionals to bring theories of consumer behavior to understand medical decisions. I think a lot of my research, as well as my teaching, ends up being interdisciplinary.”

Agrawal has also been actively engaged in research related to consumption, consumer psychology, and the marketing of public health campaigns.

Since 2013, she has researched how public health messages can best reach their intended audience, studying the outcomes of differing emotional appeals elicited by the messaging.

For her exemplary research contributions, she was awarded the Association for Consumer Research’s Early Career Research Award in 2014 and the American Marketing Association’s Erin Anderson Award for Emerging Marketing Scholar and Mentor in 2017. Most recently, she was selected as a 2020 Scholar of the Marketing Science Institute.

In recent months, Agrawal has extended her research on consumer psychology influencing marketing to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Agrawal and co-researchers examined the different ways that public health messaging evoking sentiments of shame or praise were received. Their findings were published in 2020, with Agrawal presenting highlights at a UW public lecture, “Coexisting with COVID-19: COVID-19 and Risk.”

“We looked at what kind of posts [regarding COVID-19 information] have motivated someone to get vaccinated or support health policies,” Agrawal said. “Our recommendation, through our research, is to praise good behaviors rather than solely shaming bad behaviors.”

Messaging that praised adherents to COVID-19 social distancing and vaccination policies was found to be more effective than messaging that shamed those who were not adhering. These findings hold implications for local businesses, as well as other sectors influenced by the ongoing pandemic.

“Helping businesses figure out what kind of messaging makes consumers feel welcome and comfortable and more likely to follow recommendations is valuable,” Agrawal said. “This is an interesting problem for businesses because they want patronage but also want to give messages about safe behavior that may seem to contradict increasing patronage.”

Although Agrawal has since concluded her three-year appointment at the Population Health Initiative, she remains deeply supportive of the mission of the Population Health Initiative. She carries its core values in her teaching and research roles.

“I am so excited that we as a university are investing in humanity and fostering such an inclusive environment for the improvement of population health,” Agrawal said. “I cannot wait for more students and researchers across the university to be exposed [to the initiative]. I’m hoping to continue to promote interdisciplinary research in my work, in a way that will allow us to understand how we can grow sustainable organizations and communities, help people live happier and healthier lives, and maintain a better environment and climate.”