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Consumers may develop attachment to product objects based on things such as attributes, experiences, or values they share. The emotional attachment comes about due to a personal meaning the product has for the consumer that is unique and special in some way. The concept of product attachment is well known in marketing and consumer behaviour, but it has been a difficult challenge to plan for attachment and to implement during the product design process. The researchers Orth, Thurgood, and van den Hoven (2018) explored the prospects of creating products that are designed to connect with consumers based on their self-identities and life stories [1].

In thinking about self-identity, we can apply different means by which we perceive and define ourselves as persons (“who I am”). The process of construing one’s identity may start with his or her personality traits (i.e., self-image), but it can be expanded by adding beliefs, goals and values in life, an overall view of life and a look for the future (identity may also be expressed through salient group affiliations: social, professional etc.). When a good match of a product with any of those aspects is found, it may become the foundation for a consumer’s attachment with the product. However, there is another avenue for forming product attachment by means of connecting through episodes and elements in one’s life story or narrative — experiences and special moments (memories), people, places, and other objects (e.g., ties to existing possessions).  Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven follow this avenue to look for opportunities to create product objects that designated individuals would meaningfully connect with. They state their objective as “purposefully create meaning by evoking meaningful associations” from one’s life narrative or sense of self.

In a marketing context, brands rather than products per se would be the appropriate targets for attachment. Brands identify products. Yet furthermore, a brand, as an intangible entity, may hold associations beyond attributes linked directly to the physical product that the brand name is assigned to; the associations can extend to brand personality traits, values, heritage, and more. The quality of an attachment may be assessed by (a) the brand-self connection that is built (i.e., how well the brand’s associations agree with and corroborate an individual’s self-identity to the extent that the brand becomes part of one’s definition of his or her identity); and (b) the prominence of brand associations in memory (e.g., how significant they are, that is, they come instantly and automatically to mind) [2]. Orth and his colleagues, who focus on product design, do not step-up from the product- to the brand-level, although they do refer to aspects underlying attachment that extend beyond the materiality of the product.

The researchers applied a three-stage methodology: 

Inspiration is derived from the life stories of consumers through in-depth semi-structured interviews (with three participants) —  participants told the researchers about their life stories, including people and places that were involved, memorable experiences they have had, possessions they cherish, as well as their views on physical product properties such as colour, texture and materials.

Creation of artefacts (products), designed to capture associations linked to valued and meaningful experiences, people, places, etc. in the memories (life narrative) and sense of self of the consumers-participants. Two artefacts were especially designed and made for each participant. The objects stayed with participants for two weeks.

Evaluation of the meaning, value and emotional tie each consumer-respondent ascribes to those two artefacts, designed-to-fit associations from each one’s life experiences and self-identity (note that the participants were not told that the objects were ‘designed-to-fit’ personally for them). As a reference, each respondent was also asked about his or her perceptions of and emotional ties to an artefact designed for another participant and to possessions they own which they regard as significant to them.

The results obtained by Orth, Thurgood, and van den Hoven were mixed. With at least one product-artefact they successfully captured the expected match in associations for forming an attachment; for other artefacts they partially captured the associations that would predicate an attachment (e.g., an attachment was formed but based on associations different from those expected); and in the case of at least one artefact, the design was evidently inadequate in forming an attachment (i.e., practically being a miss). The results testify to the difficulty of identifying and anticipating associations that will serve as the meaningful bridge for forming an attachment, even when quite detailed  information about the consumers to draw from is available.

Louise was offered a transparent candle cover (‘Diramu’) with silhouette of native Australian trees; the candle had a scent of smoky campfire.  It was intended to be reminiscent of her childhood in an area surrounded by bushland in Australia, where she had played frequently, but there was concern it would bring up less pleasant, disturbing memories of the struggle to keep bushfires away from her family’s home. Nevertheless, the designed Diramu managed to capture a ‘soft spot’ in the memories of Louise for bushfires (i.e., the bushfire was pleasant, not scary, and the candle’s scent had a feeling of home).

A partial success was obtained in cases as these: (a) Alex liked a porcelain decanter (‘Kiruna’) designed for him due to its fine aesthetics (attractive, elegant) and delicacy that he appreciates and favours.  But the decanter reminded him of the colours of Greece (white and blue) rather than his winter activities and skiing vacations with his children as intended. (b) Karen received a pendant necklace (‘Crater’) with a shiny anthracite coal that would resemble a gemstone. She found it ‘quite nice’ and she ‘quite liked it’. However, she grew no attachment to the object in spite of her affectionate memories of her father as a coal miner in England. The cue of coal failed to transfer the emotional significance regarding her father to the Crater artefact. The researchers admitted that they missed the completely functional attitude and emotional indifference of Karen towards objects, as they discovered it only in the evaluation stage.

The special world clock device (‘Globe’) prepared for Alex in conjunction with his many travels did not meet the expectations. Alex started developing a passion for travels during childhood in Australia and extended it to travels overseas in adulthood through his work; he likes connecting with people in different countries and collecting souvenirs (e.g.,  refined art objects, books and paintings). The Globe was made to show the names of places around the world (e.g., cities) at the time each location, according to its time zone, enjoys a Happy Hour for evening drinks. However, the name title of places turned out to be too weak as a cue to link to specific experiences. Alex commented that while many of the cities mentioned reminded him of some wonderful memories from his being there, “that thing doesn’t reflect those”. The clock design apparently also did not appeal to Alex (e.g., too simplistic, not to his aesthetic standards, and even stopped functioning after a while), leaving a negative impression on him.

The names as cues were probably too general and vague to trigger meaningful associations from the respective places; perhaps photographic images would have helped, but they too should prove personally relevant to Alex. Neither the informational cues (names) nor the design of the Globe artefact corresponded meaningfully with memories and associations of Alex from his travels, and thus according to Orth et al., it can be argued that the artefact was lacking authenticity for Alex.

  • Fournier (1998) studied the life narratives of consumers through in-depth interviews, though in her research the aim was to trace anchors for developing relationships between consumers and brands. That is, she learned from the products-in-use in the lives of three research participants about the roles that the brands of those products played in their lives and how bonds could be created with the brands based on the rich meanings they received [3]. The contribution of Orth and his colleagues is special in their attempt to leverage the information obtained about the life narratives of consumers into actual product objects designed specifically for those same consumers.

Realistically, companies cannot gather so detailed and personal information from too many consumers to enable them to design a product that will fit particular aspects from the life narrative or self-identity of each consumer. Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven spoke to just three consumers and they had varied levels of success in anticipating the associations upon which attachment would be formed.

One direction they suggest, borrowing from previous research, is to create a set of optional product designs (versions) that would confer meaningfully to different target groups of consumers. In other words, each design could contain cues that any particular consumer may connect through to his or her idiosyncratic associations so as to develop an emotional attachment to the product object. This may suggest the importance that prevails in studying the lifestyles, values and psychographics of consumers (using surveys) in order to create the knowledge base necessary for designing personally meaningful product models. Nevertheless, this kind of information may never be as intricate and deep as the life stories studied by Orth and his colleagues. Finding personal meaning in products (and brands) could remain in the domain of the consumers based on what they know about themselves and their past experiences in life.

Another direction is to give consumers an active role in self-designing a product customised for each individual consumer who takes part in such a scheme. The consumer first has to choose what type of product is wanted; then he or she can choose features or properties (e.g., aesthetic-visual, functional) that may be perceived by each one as effective cues to trigger meaningful associations. The aim of self-designing a product in this context is self-expression and connecting to one’s experiences and self-identity, not strictly satisfying one’s utilitarian preferences. In typical schemes of mass customization consumers are constrained by the capabilities and willingness of companies to make the products of their designs. But in the age of 3D printing, consumers may gain greater authority, freedom and flexibility to design and create products to fit more closely the way they perceive and feel about themselves. Orth et al. put it this way: “Advancements in custom manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing provide growing opportunities for bespoke design practices such as those presented in this paper as an alternative to traditional mass production processes” (p. 101).

Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven set two conditions for designing objects (products) with meaningful associations: (1) Cueing Meaning —  the product object has to cue an aspect of identity of the consumer that is personally significant or meaningful (e.g., the Kiruna made of porcelain related to an aspect of identity, ‘ceramics man’, not significant enough to Alex whereas the Diramu representing bushfires connected to an aspect of experience of ‘a pleasant bushfire’ uniquely meaningful to Louise); (2) Authentic Embodiment —  the consumer has to perceive the way a product object cues an association as authentic for it to elicit its personal meaningfulness (i.e., the consumers “must perceive the object to successfully embody the associated source”, hence establishing an authentic linkage between the object and source) (e.g., the Globe failed in relating authentically to the travels of Alex).

Product designers, with the help of design researchers, can go quite a long distance towards consumers in designing products that will be more meaningful to them, but they have to know and respect their limits in approaching consumers close enough. The difficulty is mainly in anticipating the associations that will be perceived by an individual consumer as relevant and significant to be the basis for forming an attachment, and then capture it in an authentic way. As Orth, Thurgood and van den Hoven phrase it, designers should acknowledge that they are “limited to creating possibilities instead of certainties in any attempt to design for product attachment” (p. 100). The task of finding a meaning in a product neither has to be relegated fully to the consumer. It should be a shared endeavour in which the designers recommend products and provide sufficient informed cues to meaningful associations, whereon consumers can detect and choose which ones in a product design truly matter to their self-identity and life experiences; and if technology allows, the consumers may be given even a more active role in creating such design cues meaningful to them.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1] “Designing Objects with Meaningful Associations“; Daniel Orth, Clementine Thurgood, & Elise van den Hoven (2018); International Journal of Design, 12 (2), pp. 91-104. (Images of the artefacts can be seen in the article here).

[2] “Brand Attachment and Brand Attitude Strength: Conceptual and Empirical Differentiation of Two Critical Brand Equity Drivers”; C. Whan Park, Deborah J. MacInnis, Joseph Priester, Andreas B. Eisingerich, & Dawn Iacobucci (2010); Journal of Marketing, 74 (November), pp. 1-17

[3] “Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research”; Susan Fournier (1998); Journal of Consumer Research, 24 (4), pp. 343-373

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