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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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Consumers like to talk about the brands in their lives. Brands may be connected to their personal history or to a narrative which describes their current lifestyle; people can tell others about a variety of brand experiences they have had, for better or worse. Consumers use likewise word-of-mouth information they receive from friends and relatives, but not only from them. They refer to product reviews, user-generated blogs, as well as stories, opinions and suggestions conveyed in forums of digital social networks from people they may not know so well but consider convincing or trustworthy. The proliferation of user-generated content through Web 2.0 and mobile applications did a great deal to facilitate the spread of word-of-mouth (WOM) and increase consumer reliance on this type of information. However, it does not preclude the still dominant transfer of brand-related WOM offline between people more closely connected in face-to-face meetings and phone conversations.

But brands do not exert WOM to the same extent. Some brands get more of such informal publicity than others. The question thence becomes: What characteristics of a brand make it more interesting, important or relevant to consumers to talk about with friends, family and others? In such discourse consumers could be mainly in the role of providers or receivers of information, and they may share personal experiences, viewpoints, and recommendations, or conversely warnings, regarding any brand.

Researchers Lovett, Peres, and Shachar (2013) took the challenge of investigating the relations of brand characteristics to stimulation of WOM shared among consumers, and they offer some interesting insights, especially on the differences between offline and online channels. At start, it should be clarified that drivers for engaging in WOM are originated in the consumers for satisfying their personal needs; the brand characteristics may be seen as operational instruments that link with the drivers that stimulate brand-related WOM. The researchers identify three main drivers in their guiding theoretical framework:

  • Social driver — Concerned with a need of consumers to express themselves to others, showing their uniqueness, for self-enhancement, and out of desire to socialize with others;
  • Emotional driver — Associated with excitement and pleasure of satisfaction (emotional sharing);
  • Functional driver — Related to the need to obtain information and the tendency to provide information to others, moderated by aspects such as complexity and knowledge.

The researchers collated information on over six hundred US national brands of products and services as well as corporate and retailer names (covering the period of 2008-2010). The brands spanned across 16 broad product categories (e.g., beverages, children’s’ products, clothing, department stores, cars, media and entertainment).

  • Data sources on brand characteristics included a consumer survey in the US (primary source) and several datasets of proprietary research programmes (secondary sources), the major of them is the Young and Rubicam Brand Asset Valuator (characteristics corresponding to brand equity “pillars”:  Differentiation, Relevance, Esteem, and Knowledge).
  • The level of WOM generated about a brand (operated as count of mentions of a brand) was modelled and analysed separately in offline conversations and online settings or forums. Data of brand mentions in face-to-face and in phone conversations were obtained from the TalkTrack project of Keller and Fay (a diary-based survey) whereas data on online WOM were adopted from the Nielsen McKinsey Incite tool (a search engine that can retrieve brand mentions in settings such as discussions groups, blogs and microblogs). [The count of brand mentions was modelled under the assumption that it follows a Negative-Binomial distribution.]

We will take here a quick look at results and insights from the research that I find the more revealing and interesting, with an emphasis on distinctions between offline and online channels:

The Social Driver — A brand that is better differentiated from competitors can make an easier and more effective vehicle for a consumer to express his or her own uniqueness to others. Greater brand differentiation contributes to more brand mentions offline and online. Yet, the positive effect on WOM online is stronger. There could be greater motivation for consumers to utilise brands for highlighting their uniqueness when communicating online because they can address much larger audiences than offline, and a reference to the relevant brand can efficiently deliver the message, particularly when cues of visual appearance or sound cannot be used. Brand differentiation is a newly studied characteristic in relation to WOM in this research project.

The volume of brand WOM also increases with higher perceived quality of the brand’s products, and is larger for more prestigious, premium brands. Associating with brands of higher quality products (represented by Esteem) can serve to demonstrate the consumer’s expertise in a category — it has a positive effect on WOM offline and online, but the effect online is twice as large.  A premium brand characterization, that reflects a higher social status, has a significant effect only in an online channel. Enhancing one’s self-image through expertise or social status, as with highlighting personal uniqueness, is possibly felt more needed by consumers in the less intimate interactions that take place online with people whom they are less familiar with than those they interact with face-to-face or on the phone. A consumer may have more to “prove” to or impress “friends” who are known primarily and even solely as members in his or her virtual social network.

The Emotional Driver — Being excited about a brand seems as a very plausible motive to arouse consumers to talk about it. Lovett and his colleagues indicate that excitement, a brand personality trait, has not been studied yet in the context of WOM.  As expected, brands that evoke more excitement lead consumers to engage more in WOM about the brand, both offline and online. While the effects of excitement are similar between the channels, there is a distinction between them, as addressed below, with respect to the emotional driver in general.

The researchers expected that a higher level of WOM would be generated when satisfaction with a brand is very high or very low. Their model results showed, however, that only very low satisfaction yields a peak in WOM, and that as satisfaction rises the level of WOM drops (i.e., a relationship described by a monotonic descending concave curve). The finding that very low satisfaction induces consumers to talk (critically) more about a brand is frequently supported in other studies.

  • The proposition about the effect of very high satisfaction may have not been supported, according to the researchers, because it has confounded with the effects of esteem and excitement included in their model and not in previous research. But one cannot ignore that the dataset included satisfaction scores for just a third of the brands analysed, as reported, and scores for the remaining 2/3 of brands with missing data were imputed based on the distribution of the available scores. Consequently, it is hard to conclude based on the evidence whether the effect of high satisfaction indeed exists.

The Functional Driver — This driver has two dimensions: obtaining information and providing information through WOM. Consumers often require assistance when learning complex product information (e.g., prior to purchase) or dealing with complex technical details and instructions (e.g., for correct product utilisation). Complexity matters primarily to those who wish to obtain information. This research reveals that greater complexity is related to more brand mentions only in offline conversations. That is, more immediate, direct and intimate interactions offline between consumers are adopted as more suitable for discussing together and clarifying information that is complex and more difficult to comprehend about products. It may be added that such conversations are also more likely to be held between consumers who know each other better, and that allows for a better flow of interaction. Less complex information can be obtained from online forums. Online conversations, as the authors argue, tend to be asynchronous, and entail longer delays in responding to questions that may hinder clarification of confusing matters and information exchange. Complexity is another characteristic included in this study yet not in previous research in the context of WOM.

Interestingly, consumers also engage more in WOM on younger (i.e., newer) brands when communicating offline but not online —  brands possibly perceived as innovative, intriguing, exciting or still ambiguous appear also to be more appropriate to talk about in person.

From the perspective of those who provide information, producing and disseminating WOM on brands would depend on how knowledgable consumers feel they are on the subject.  The results confirm that brands that are perceived to be more familiar to consumers and better known are more likely to be talked about, similarly offline and online.

The researchers further extracted and compared the relative importance of each main driver between the two settings of offline and online channels. The social driver is the most important stimulant of online WOM followed by the functional and lastly the emotional driver. In contrast, in offline conversations the emotional driver is the most important, followed by the functional driver, and relatively the least important driver is social. Notably, while the emotional driver has a positive effect in both types of channels, it is more prominent in driving brand mentions in conversations offline. These differences exemplify the difference in nature between offline and online interactions — offline interactions are more intimate and open between people, more accommodating to share excitement and satisfaction, whereas online interactions are less personal, tend to promote “broadcasting” information to many people and social signalling with verbal cues.

  • The different nature of offline and online channels may also be evident in an almost complete separation between lists of leading brands (top 1o) in number of their brand mentions between those two settings: Offline we find Coca-Cola, Verizon, Pepsi, Wal-Mart, Ford, AT&T, McDonald’s, Dell Computers, Sony, and Chevrolet. Online, on the other hand, arrived on top the brands of Google, Facebook, iPhone, YouTube, Ebay, Ford, Yahoo, Disney, and Audi. Only Ford is on both lists. The contrast between “new” and “old” or “physical” and “virtual” brands speaks for itself.

The models furthermore demonstrate the positive role of brand equity in encouraging consumers to talk more about a brand. Stronger brands — more encompassing in their areas of activity and influencing many more people — command more conversation (e.g., information exchange and sharing opinions). First, we may recognize an implicit effect of brand equity on WOM through factors represented in the models such as perceived quality, differentiation, knowledge, and visibility that contribute to enhancing the equity of a brand. Second, nonetheless, the researchers included in their two models a control variable of brand equity, represented as the inclusion of brands in the list of 100 top brands constructed by Interbrand. It is thereby confirmed that brands on this list enjoy higher WOM. One should keep in mind, however, that being more frequently the subject of conversation, offline or online, is evidence of greater importance and relevance of a brand, and in turn may increase its equity further, when WOM is positive, but may also decrease its equity when the WOM is negative.

The authors acknowledge some limits of their research. In particular: (1) The brands included are the most talked about in the US (i.e., covering reduced variation in level of WOM over brands); (2) The models refer to “offline” and “online” in wholesome as types of channels — more research is needed to investigate effects on WOM in separate online spaces like the blogosphere and social media networks; (3) Since the units of information are brands rather than individual consumers, the ability to describe and explain the processes in which consumers exchange, produce or obtain WOM information on  brands is impaired, inviting more research in this respect.

Marketing communication managers may use the results (effect estimates) and insights from these models of WOM to identify characteristics of brands in their responsibility that can be expected to yield more WOM and learn of gaps between actual and expected levels of WOM when planning where and how to invest their effort for evoking more WOM on their brands. However, it is most important for marketers, as Lovett, Peres, and Shachar stress in their article, to keep offline and online channels distinguished and plan their measures for each environment separately — what may work well in an online environment can prove ineffective offline, and vice versa. In each environment it is necessary to emphasise different aspects and goals and take appropriate measures.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference:

On Brands and Word-of-Mouth; Mitchell Lovett, Renana Peres, & Ron Shachar, 2013; Journal of Marketing Research, 50 (August), pp. 427-444.

The authors won a grand award for their research project in a joint-competition of the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative and the Marketing Science Institute.

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