Rob and Fishman "Is Bigger Better? Customer base expansion through word of mouth reputation" forthcoming in JPE

The paper develops a modeling framework in which a firm regards its reputation as a capital assets whose value is maintained through a process of active and continuous investment. Firms are required to investment for each period to produce high quality products. The quality of the product is only known to a consumer who buys it from the firm (experience good assumption), and she will tell this information to a new consumer with some probability. This information spread captures "word of mouth reputation".

Their main finding is that investment in quality is positively related to the size of customer base which is defined as the number of consumers who are aware of the firm's reputation. This is because reputation is costly to acquire and takes a long time to regain once it has been lost, and hence, a good reputation is more valuable to a firm the larger its customer base is. The model predicts that the larger is a firm, the more it invests in quality, and the higher is the average quality it delivers.

Interesting papers in references

Horner (2002) "Reputation and Competition" AER, 92
Mailath and Samuelson (2001) "Who wants a Good Reputation" RES, 68
Shapiro (1983) "Premiums for High Quality Products as Returns to Reputation" QJE, 98
Tadelis (2002) "The Market for Reputation as an Incentive Mechanism" JPE, 92

Their contribution in the literature is stated as follows.

What differentiates our approach from all these papers is that reputation in our model spreads in the market through word of mouth, or referrals - consumers tell other consumers about their experience, causing some firms to grow and other firms to decline. As a consequence, a firm starts out small, grows gradually, and changes its investment as its reputation is established. These interrelated processes of firm growth, reputation formation, and the links between age, size, and investment in quality represent our main contribution to the literature.