Wharton marketing professor Cait Lamberton recalls a shopping experience where she felt especially well-treated by a brand: “A few years ago, Sephora allowed you to pick up one kind of basket to say ‘I want help.’ If you picked up another kind of basket, it meant ‘Leave me alone,’” she says. “I loved that, because I got to express what I wanted.”

It’s a small gesture, but many of the qualities that Lamberton studies for her work on a concept she calls “marketplace dignity” are encapsulated in the experience. “I had voice and agency. I controlled my own interactions,” says Lamberton, the Alberto I. Duran President’s Distinguished Professor whose book on the subject, Marketplace Dignity: Transforming How We Engage with Customers Across Their Journey, will be published in June. “That one thing did an enormous amount to affirm dignity.”

Dignity, in the way Lamberton studies it, is the inherent value of every person. Similarly, marketplace dignity is the idea that people want organizations to recognize and respect that value in every aspect of marketing, from their advertising to their in-person experience. Dignity is affirmed when experiences offer people three distinct things: They are represented and understood, have agency, and are treated equitably.

Although these concepts may seem like no-brainer business sense, walking the walk is often difficult. “The drive for dignity,” says Lamberton, “is activated in so many high-stakes situations.” For example, an emergency-room visit offers a typical example of dignity denial. First, patients don’t feel represented when they are left to sign in and wait. “In fact, we may begin to feel invisible,” Lamberton says. Adding insult to injury (quite literally), we can’t speed the visit along, thus removing our agency. And sometimes, patients who arrive later are prioritized, which suggests inequity. “It’s frustrating when you see people go ahead of you,” Lamberton says, even if you know the system is ordered by urgency.

Lamberton points to Pepsi’s 2017 TV ad starring Kendall Jenner — which used imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement — as a high-profile campaign that denied dignity by undermining representation. “It’s erasing, in a sense, the contributions of people who had done incredibly brave things in the interest of civil rights — replacing their courageous actions with a trivial exchange,” she explains.

Experiences of dignity affirmation or denial, according to Lamberton, play a large part in whether people develop allegiance to an organization. “Loyalty is contingent on the extent to which people think this is managed well,” she says.

Through case studies and her own research, Lamberton teaches marketplace dignity to students across the spectrum of business academia, from undergraduates to executives. “This concept,” she says, “gives people a new language to discuss things that matter deeply but are otherwise hard to express.”


Published as “At the Whiteboard With Cait Lamberton” in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Wharton Magazine.