Wednesday, December 4, 2013

From: "Consumers and their brands"

"Developing relationship theory in consumer research."
By Susan Fournier


For a relationship to truly exist, interdependence between partners must be evident: that is, the partners must collectively affect, define, and redefine the relationship (Hinde 1979). The premise that consumer actions affect relationship form and dynamics is easily accepted. Comfort in thinking about the brand not as a passive object of marketing transactions but as an active, contributing member of the relationship dyad is a matter more deserving of note. 

One way to legitimize the brand-as-partner is to highlight ways in which brands are animated, humanized, or somehow personalized. The human activity of anthropomorphizing inanimate objects has been identified as a universal in virtually all societies (Brown 1991). Theories of animism (Gilmore 1919; McDougall 1911; Nida and Smalley 1959; Tylor 1874) suggest that there exists a felt need to anthropomorphize objects in order to facilitate interactions with the nonmaterial world. Consumers show no difficulty in consistently assigning personality qualifies to inanimate brand objects (Aaker 1997), in thinking about brands as if they were human characters (Levy 1985; Plummer 1985), or in assuming the perspective of the brand in order to articulate their own relationship views (Blackston 1993). Consumers' acceptance of advertisers' attempts to humanize brands and their tendencies to animate products of their own accord suggest a willingness to entertain brands as vital members of the relationship dyad. 

Theories of animism provide insight into the specific ways in which the vitality of the brand can be realized in the relationship. Three process mechanisms are implied in these earlier writings, each varying in the degree to which the human condition is approximated. The first animistic form involves instances in which the brand is somehow possessed by the spirit of a past or present other. The use of spokespeople in advertising (e.g., Bill Cosby for Jell-O) qualifies here as an example. Spokespersons may have personalities that so strongly fit those of the brands they advertise that the brand, in a sense, becomes the spokesperson with repeated association over time. McCracken's (1989) idea that spokespersons are effective because they deliver the spirit of the endorser through product usage reflects this theory. Brand-person associations of a more personal nature are also common. A brand of air freshener that grandmother kept in her bathroom, a floor cleaner that an ex-husband always used - these brands can become so strongly associated with the past-other that the person's spirit comes to dwell in the brand and is evoked reliably with each use. Brands originally received as gifts (McGrath and Sherry 1993) are likely infused with the spirit of the giver as well, with these person associations again serving to animate the brand as a vital entity in the consumer's mind.

Another form of animism involves complete anthropomorphization of the brand object itself, with transference of the human qualities of emotionality, thought, and volition. Anthropomorphized brand characters serve as examples. Charlie the Tuna and the Pillsbury Doughboy are identifiable characters endowed with the capacity to laugh, joke, scheme, and conspire. In a variation on this animistic form, limited human qualities are attributed to the brand, though the brand itself is not enlivened as a thinking, feeling entity. Research on person-object relations reveals that people assign selective human properties to a range of consumer goods (Belk 1988; Rook 1985, 1987), most notable among them tools, food, drink, clothing, weaponry (Gilmore 1919), and household technologies (Mick and Fournier 1998). 

For the brand to serve as legitimate relationship partner, it must surpass the personification qualification and actually behave as an active, contributing member of the dyad. Marketing actions conducted under the rubric of interactive and addressable communications qualify the brand as a reciprocating partner. Animated brand characters also satisfy the activity criterion through their performances. It is argued, however, that the brand need not engage these blatant strategies to qualify as active relationship partner. At a broad level of abstraction, the everyday execution of marketing plans and tactics can be construed as behaviors performed by the brand acting in its relationship role. Research on impression formation (Srull and Wyer 1989) suggests that all observed behaviors are translated into trait language and that these traits form the basis for the evaluative concept of the person. Olson and Allen (1995) applied this theory to explain how brand personality develops from the actions of brand characters in advertising. A logical extension of this thinking is to view all marketing actions as a set of behavioral incidents from which trait inferences about the brand are made and through which the brand's personality is actualized. This important conceptual point - that the everyday execution of marketing mix decisions constitutes a set of behaviors enacted on behalf of the brand - forms a cornerstone of the relationship argument. With a focus on brand behavior, one can articulate a theory of how the brand relationship role is constructed and begin to see ways in which the brand, acting as an enlivened partner in the relationship, contributes to the initiation, maintenance, and destruction of consumer-brand relationship bonds. 

Undoubtedly, there exists a lack of parallelism in applying the reciprocity criterion to an inanimate brand object. A brand may enjoy selected animistic properties, but it is not a vital entity. In fact, the brand has no objective existence at all: it is simply a collection of perceptions held in the mind of the consumer. The brand cannot act or think or feel - except through the activities of the manager that administers it. In accepting the behavioral significance of marketing actions, one accepts the legitimacy of the brand as contributing relationship partner. A weaker form of the argument draws comparisons between consumer-brand relationships and human relationships involving partners that lack tangible vitality or mortal status (see, e.g.; Caughey [1984] on relationships between fans and movie stars; Buber [1946] on relationships with God or mortal status; Hirschman [1994] on people's relationships with pets). These works lend credibility to the idea of extending the partnership analogue into the brand domain as well. 

Relationships: Providing Meanings in Psycho-Socio-Cultural Context 

At their core, relationships are purposive: they add and structure meanings in a person's life (Berscheid and Peplau 1983; Hinde 1995). The development of personality depends in large part on relationships forged with others (Kelley 1986). Meaningful relationships can change self-concept through expansion into new domains (Aron and Aron 1996) or reinforce self-concept through mechanisms of self-worth and self-esteem (Aron, Parris, and Aron 1995). This meaning-provision notion is accepted by consumer researchers who study possessions and their broad consequences for self-definition (Belk 1988; Holt 1995; Kleine et al. 1995; McCracken 1988; Richins 1994; Sirgy 1982; Wallendorf and Arnould 1988). 

Since the relationship is, in essence, what the relationship means, understanding a given relationship requires a mastery of the meanings the relationship provides to the person who engages it. Three important sources of meaning - the psychological, the sociocultural, and the relational - are identified, each serving as a context that shapes the significance of the relationship for the person involved. Relationships both affect, and are affected by, the contexts in which they are embedded. 

A fruitful way to map the psychological context of a given relationship is to specify the identity activity in which the relationship is grounded. Considering the work of Mick and Buhl (1992) and others (Cantor and Zirkel 1990), three central connection points in a goal-based personality framework can be specified. First, relationships may help resolve life themes - profound existential concerns or tensions that individuals address in daily life (Csikszentmihalyi and Beattie 1979). Though they may operate below the level of conscious awareness, life themes are deeply rooted in personal history and are thus highly central to one's core concept of self. A relationship may also deliver on important life projects or tasks (Cantor et al. 1987; Caspi 1987; Erikson 1950). 

Life projects involve the construction, maintenance, and dissolution of key life roles that significantly alter one's concept of self, as with role-changing events (e.g., college graduation), age-graded undertakings (e.g., retirement), or stage transitions (e.g., midlife crisis). Most concrete and temporally bounded are relationships rooted in current concerns, a series of discrete, interrelated activities directed toward completion of daily tasks (Klinger 1987; Little 1989). It is easy to conjecture how relationships can connect at different levels of the goal hierarchy: a parent-child relation may help resolve an existential life theme of marginality versus significance, for example, while a functional relationship with one's day-care provider may service a career project or current concern. It is important to note that relationships may add significant meanings to the lives of the persons who engage them at each level or depth of the operative goal connection. 

Prior research highlights five broad sociocultural contexts circumscribing relationship attitudes and behaviors: age/cohort, life cycle, gender, family/social network, and culture (Dion and Dion 1996; Gilligan, Lyons, and Hanmer 1990; Levinger 1995; Milardo and Wellman 1992; Stueve and Gerson 1977). These factors systematically influence the strength of relationship drives, the types of relationships desired, the nature and experience of emotional expression in relationships, styles of interacting within relationships, the ease with which relationships are. initiated and terminated and the degree to which enduring commitments are sought. The importance of sociocultural context is mirrored in consumer research concerning the socially embedded character of consumption meanings and preferences (Holbrook 1993; Holt 1997; Olsen 1995; Sherry 1991; Thompson 1996). 

In thinking about the significance of an individual relationship it is also important to consider the networked nature of the phenomenon. Relationships exist within the context of other relationships (Parks and Eggert 1991). The idea that the meaning of a given relationship is inextricably entwined with other relationships in the portfolio is echoed in consumer research concerning the complementarity of consumption constellations (McCracken 1988; Solomon and Assael 1988) and the cultural meaning of "brandscapes" in materialist society (Sherry 1987). 

Relationships as Multiplex Phenomena 

Relationship research must be acutely sensitive to variations in form (Berscheid and Peplau 1983). The distinctions between relationship classes in the interpersonal sphere are so profound that specialists dedicated to the study of specific relationship types have emerged (e.g., Hayes [1988] on friendship and Kelley et al. [1983] on close relationships). Some have found it useful to collapse across forms to study core relationship dimensions. Relationships are frequently distinguished by the nature of the benefits they furnish to their participants (Weiss 1974; Wright 1974). Socioemotional provisions include psychosocial identity functions (e.g., reassurance of self-worth, announcement of image, and social integration) as well as the rewards of stimulation, security, guidance, nurturance, assistance, and social support; instrumental provisions are functionally tied to the attainment of objective, short-term goals. Relationships are also distinguished by the types of bonds that join parties together. These may be substantively grounded (as with task, obligation, or investment bonds) or emotionally based, the latter ranging in intensity from superficial affect to simple liking, friendly affection, passionate love, and addictive obsession (Fehr and Russell 1991; Steinberg 1986). Other dominant relationship dimensions include kin (nonvoluntary) versus nonkin (voluntary), formal (role-related) versus informal, equal versus unequal, and friendly versus hostile (Wish, Deutsch, and Kaplan 1976). 


Relationships in Dynamic Perspective 

Temporality distinguishes the relationship from the isolated transaction (Berscheid and Peplau 1983). Relationships are constituted of a series of repeated exchanges between two parties known to each other; they evolve in response to these interactions and to fluctuations in the contextual environment. For purposes of study, researchers generally decompose the continuous process of relationship development into manageable growth segments. Most adopt a five-phased model of initiation, growth, maintenance, deterioration, and dissolution (Levinger 1983), wherein each stage is one interval in a sequence of changes in type (e.g., evolution from friends to lovers) or level of intensity (e.g., an increase or decrease in emotional involvement). Theories differ in the number of stages that are posited, the nature of the processes presumed critical for development at each stage (e.g., intimacy, love, commitment, trust, behavioral interdependence, self-other integration), and the mechanisms governing transitions between stages (e.g., novelty and arousal, comparison versus available alternatives, stress accumulation).

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