StrategyPeer-Reviewed Research

High Hopes

Buildings and a dense fog
  • Most firms stoke strategic advantages with innovations based on research and development or by managing customers using marketing and advertisement.
  • Each of these approaches in turn affects stock market risk.
  • When such companies emphasize research and development, rather than marketing, they’re more exposed to risk when demand drops.

Consider for a moment the race to build the next super computer. Google, Alibaba and other U.S. and China companies are racing to build a machine — called quantum computing — far more powerful than anything the world has ever seen. In this race, China reportedly has the lead.

Given that this kind of technology can protect trillions of dollars in corporate and even national secrets, why do American companies lag behind?  If such research and development represents an unknown and is a potential business risk, should U.S. companies be interested in assuming such a task? Rice Business professors Vikas Mittal, Yan Anthea Zhang and a Rice Business Ph.D. student Kyuhong Han, may have answers.

They researched the various ways companies create strategic advantages for themselves. What is the relationship between these strategies and the risks involved? Companies create value through innovation-based activities such as research and development or else via branding and advertisement. As there’s no set formula for success, each company has its own approach — which could affect the risk associated with the company’s stock price (called idiosyncratic risk).

Typically, the two strategic pillars are examined separately, rather than jointly. But when they compared the two approaches, they found that one presented far more risk than the other.

To reach their conclusions, the Rice team looked at a data set of 13,880 firm-year observations that included 2,403 firms operating in 59 industries over 15 years (2000–2014). The data sets were from the firms’ annual operational and financial information from Standard & Poor’s Compustat, the University of Chicago’s Center for Research in Security Prices and from the Kenneth French Data Library. What the data revealed was the stock price of companies that placed a higher strategic emphasis on marketing and branding (called value appropriation) than companies that focused research and development (called value creation).

If it is less risky for a firm to emphasize branding and marketing over research and development it stands to reason that firms would want to exercise caution in big new research and development efforts. What’s the payoff for making a quantum computer or even Space X, after all, if the research and development risks associated with the endeavor are extraordinarily high? In some instances, it may be much safer to rebrand and market. Closer to home, many companies in the oil and gas industry bet big on innovative ventures — costly product features, digitization initiatives and so on that may only increase the risk to their stock price than meet customer needs.

The researchers found that firms that plunge big efforts into research and development have more to worry about than whether their innovations will work. They have to weather the fluctuations of industry demand. When industry demand is volatile, the downside of excessive research and development, at the cost of customer-relevant strategies is even worse.

For the Rice Business researchers, the lessons for managers are clear. The return on investment is intimately linked not only with optimizing potential profits but also minimizing potential risks. Research and development heavy endeavors like Space X and quantum computers may be flashy, but in the event of an unexpected drop in demand, they’re also more likely to plummet to earth, creating stock-price volatility.

Managers need to think about the elements that create risk — like demand instability. The more companies create a stable and predictable client base, the less risk that they have to face in the stock market. There is still a tendency among many firms to see advertising and research and development as preceding and guiding customer perceptions, preferences and behaviors. But perhaps the relationship is just the opposite.

Join Professor Vikas Mittal and other industry leaders for the Rice Customer Management Symposium and gain marketing insights to help win customer focus. Register today!


Vikas Mittal is the J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.  

Yan Anthea Zhang is a Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. 

Kyuhong Han is a marketing Ph.D. student at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. 

To learn more, please see: Han, K., Mittal, V., & Zhang, Y. A. (2017). Relative Strategic Emphasis and Firm-Idiosyncratic Risk: The Moderating Role of Relative Performance and Demand Instability. Journal of Marketing, 81(4), 25-44.